Science Vault - Year 11 HSC Physics

8.2 - The World Communicates

8.2.3 & 5- Electromagnetic Waves

electromagnetic waves / electromagnetic spectrum / inverse square law / communicating with em waves

Electromagnetic Waves

When an electric charge oscillates, it will produce both electric and magnetic fields that vary sinusoidally with time. The two fields couple with each, such that the two fields are perpendicular to each other, and travel as an electromagnetic wave. This is shown below.

All electromagnetic waves are transverse waves that travel at the speed of light (3.0 x 108 ms-1) in a vacuum.

back to top

Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic (EM) spectrum is the range of all possible electromagnetic radiation. The electromagnetic spectrum, shown in the chart, extends from just below the frequencies used for modern radio (at the long-wavelength end) to gamma radiation (at the short-wavelength end), covering wavelengths from thousands of kilometres down to fractions of the size of an atom. It is commonly said that EM waves beyond these limits are uncommon, although this is not actually true. The short wavelength limit is likely to be the Planck length, and the long wavelength limit is the size of the universe itself, though in principle the spectrum is infinite.

Electromagnetic energy at a particular wavelength λ (in vacuum) has an associated frequency f and photon energy E. Thus, the electromagnetic spectrum may be expressed equally well in terms of any of these three quantities. They are related according to the equation:

wave speed (c) = frequency x wavelength

where v (or sometimes indicated as c) is 3.0 x 108 ms-1 in a vacuum or air.

The table below summarises the different regions of the electromagnetic region.


Frequency Range (f) / Hz

Wavelength Range (l) / m



Radio waves

< 109

> 10-1

Sparks or alternating current cause a radio antennae to oscillate the atoms within it to the correct frequency

Radio, television, mobile phones,  magnetic resonance imaging


1011 – 109

10-3 – 10-1

Atoms or molecules are oscillated within klystron and magnetron tubes

Cooking, long distance communication, radar, terrain mapping


1014 – 1011

10-7 – 10-3

Oscillation of atoms or molecules due to the absorption of heat energy

Heating and drying, night vision cameras, remote controls,  satellite remote sensing


7.5 x 1014
– 4.3 x 1014

4 x 10-7
–  7 x 10-7

Oscillation due to heat energy or electron transitions within an atom

What the typical eye and film can see


1016 – 1014

– 7 x 10-7

Electron transitions within an atom

Photochemicals, photoelectric effects, hardening casts in medicine


1019 – 1016

– 10-8

Electron transitions or braking

Medicine, crystallography, astrophysics, remote sensing

Gamma Rays

> 1019

< 10-11

Nuclear transitions

Nuclear research, geophysics, mineral exploration.


back to top

Inverse Square Law

Another problem with long distance communications is the attenuation of the transmitted signal - it decreases in strength as distance from the transmitter increases. You notice this as the radio station you are listening to on a long drive begins to lose reception as your distance from home increases. This problem can be remedied by transmitting at a very high power, or by amplifying the signal at the reception point. Amplification is essential if the transmission uses repeater stations or when the signal goes via a satellite.

The mathematical relationship between the intensity of the energy falling on a given area and the distance of that area from the source of the energy is known as the inverse square law, summarised by the expression (right).

Where I = intensity of energy per unit area, and d = distance from source (m).

back to top

Communicating With Electromagnetic Waves


Waves carry energy from one place to another. If the amount of energy they carry varies constantly, they can also carry information. The energy variations act as a type of "code". Light, radio and microwaves can be encoded in this way.

Information can be added to a carrier wave by either superimposing signals of varying frequency (or wavelength, since these are dependent on each other), or signals of varying amplitude. Adding information in this way is known as modulation. If the information is added by superimposing a wave with varying frequency, we have frequency modulation or FM. If it is added by superimposing a wave with varying amplitude we have amplitude modulation or AM.

Amplitude modulation (AM)

Frequency modulation (FM)

Modulation of radio waves

The information transmitted by the many radio and TV stations is very similar. They all need to broadcast information with the same frequencies (20 Hz to 20 000 Hz - the range of human hearing) and amplitudes. If they did so, then we would not hear any of them clearly. All the different signals from the different stations would interfere with each other and we would receive a jumbled mess.

To avoid this problem, each station is assigned a particular broadcast frequency (the carrier wave) onto which they superimpose the data they wish to transmit using the frequencies in a narrow band either side of the carrier frequency. This range of frequencies is known as the band width of that radio station, while the carrier wave frequency is the tuning frequency - the one we turn our dial to receive that station. Circuitry in the receivers decode the information and process it into the appropriate sound wave frequencies.

Receivers can be tuned to pick up the carrier wave, and because no two radio stations have the same carrier wave, they should not interfere with each other. In fact, they still do a little some times because there are so many stations using a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum, that the carrier waves of different stations are not very different to the carrier waves of other stations.

Circuitry in the receiver subtracts the carrier wave from the combined signal, interprets the frequency or amplitude variations in the signal wave and produces the sounds we hear from our radios or TV. This process is known as demodulation.

Advantages and Disadvantages of AM and FM radio transmission

AM uses a much narrower range of frequencies than FM, so many more AM stations fit into the limited radio bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, it is much easier for circuitry in receivers to filter out variations in amplitude in an incoming FM signal than it is to filter out frequency variations in an incoming AM signal, so FM reception is usually much clearer than AM reception. For this reason, it is the preferred way to broadcast music - hence TV music concerts with "simulcast FM radio sound".

Microwave modulation

Microwaves are also modulated to carry information. Because the available band width for microwas is greater, and because there are not as many users, microwaves are used to transmit mobile phone and Internet cable data. This also means that many more signals can be added to the same carrier wave. Up to 20 000 independent signals can be transmitted simultaneously on a single carrier wave. In addition, because their wavelength is smaller, the carrier waves do not spread out as much as radio waves, so more data and more reliable data reach receivers.

Visible light modulation

Visible light is also used to transmit data. High energy laser light with a fixed but small frequency range is amplitude modulated to carry data. Because the frequency range within a laser beam is very narrow, FM is not efficient so amplitude modulation is used. In addition, the narrow frequency range of a laser means it suffers more from interference than the alternate, broader band communications by radio or microwave. Their use in open air communications is therefore very limited - reliable only to about 200 m distance. Laser transfer of data requires fibre optic cable if the data is to be transmitted more than 200 m to eliminate external interference.

back to top

download activity 8.6 - inverse square law

download activity 8.7 - em waves

Syllabus and Textbook References

Syllabus References

These references relate to the content covered on this page and can be found in Section 8.2.3 & 5 of the syllabus.

3. Recent technological developments allowed greater use of the electromagnetic spectrum.

5. Electromagnetic waves have potential for future communication technologies and data storage.


  • Describe electromagnetic waves in terms of their speed in space and their lack of requirement of a medium for propagation.

  • Identify the electromagnetic wavebands filtered out by the atmosphere, especially UV, X-rays and gamma rays.

  • Identify methods for the detection of various wavebands in the electromagnetic spectrum.

  • Explain that the relationship between the intensity of electromagnetic radiation and distance from a source is an example of the inverse square law:

  • Outline how the modulation of amplitude or frequency of visible light, microwaves and/or radio waves can be used to transmit information.

  • Discuss problems produced by the limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum available for communication purposes.

  • Identify types of communication data that are stored or transmitted in digital form.

Students learn to:

  • Plan, choose equipment or resources for and perform a first-hand investigation and gather information to model the inverse square law for light intensity and distance from the source.

  • Analyse information to identify the waves involved in the transfer of energy that occurs during the use of one of the following:

    –   mobile phone
    –   television
    –   radar

  • Analyse information to identify the electromagnetic spectrum range utilised in modern communication technologies.

  • Identify data sources, gather, process and present information from secondary sources to identify areas of current research and use the available evidence to discuss some of the underlying physical principles used in one application of physics related to waves, such as:

    –   Global Positioning System
    –   CD technology
    –   the internet (digital process)
    –  DVD technology

Textbook References

Taken from:

Heffernan, D., Parker, A., Pinniger, G. & Harding, J. (2002) Physics Contexts 1, Pearson Education, Melbourne

  • Sections 4.1 - 4.9 on pp. 161 - 210