Lesson Video: Electromagnetic Waves for Communication | Nagwa Lesson Video: Electromagnetic Waves for Communication | Nagwa

Lesson Video: Electromagnetic Waves for Communication Physics

In this lesson, we will learn how to describe the application of different types of electromagnetic waves to various communications technologies.


Video Transcript

In this video, we’re talking about electromagnetic waves for communication. As we’ll see, there are many ways that these types of waves are used to send a signal from one place to another. Whenever we send a text, power on a television, or use a GPS positioning device, we’re communicating using electromagnetic waves.

As we get started on this topic, let’s recall a bit about how these waves work. Sometimes called EM waves for short, electromagnetic waves are periodic oscillations that carry energy from one location to another. That fact is one of the key reasons why electromagnetic waves are so useful for communication.

Another reality about electromagnetic waves is that they’re capable of traveling through empty space. In other words, these waves don’t require a medium to get from one spot to another. Even if there’s no matter, no material, between a starting and ending location, electromagnetic waves are still able to travel between them.

Another thing we can note about these waves is that they’re classified by their wavelength. That’s the straight line distance from a crest of the wave to an adjacent crest, or equivalently the straight line distance from a wave trough to the next trough over. The shorter the wavelength of a wave, the more energy it carries. And interestingly, there seems to be no upper or lower limit for the wavelength an electromagnetic wave can have.

The name for all those possible wavelengths put in order is the electromagnetic spectrum. To help organize all these waves further, the spectrum has been divided up into seven regions. With wavelength increasing from left to right, the leftmost division, the one with the shortest wavelength, is gamma rays. Next come X-rays, then ultraviolet radiation, then visible light, the light our eyes are sensitive to. Then as wavelength continues to increase, we get to infrared radiation, IR for short, then microwaves and, finally, radio waves, the waves with the longest wavelengths.

Notice that there’s no upper limit for the wavelength of a radio wave. And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s no lower limit for that of a gamma ray. Now when it comes to electromagnetic waves for communication, there are two factors to keep in mind. One is the wave itself, its wavelength and therefore its energy. But the other factor is the environment that the wave needs to travel through.

Let’s say that this is a sketch of Earth’s outline and that this dashed line shows us Earth’s atmosphere. Now at any given time, all kinds of waves with all kinds of wavelengths are coming from space and entering Earth’s atmosphere. But not all of these waves make it to Earth’s surface. A number are blocked and filtered out. This happens largely due to a particular layer in Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere.

This upper layer of the atmosphere consists of ions, charged particles that are capable of absorbing and reflecting certain kinds of radiation incident on them. The effect of all this is to block that radiation from ever reaching Earth. The types of waves that the ionosphere blocks are gamma rays, X-rays, and a number of ultraviolet rays. All in all, this is a very good thing because this radiation is powerful enough that it would be dangerous to us if it reached Earth. So the ionosphere is a protective barrier. And we can see that it will affect our choice of electromagnetic waves for communication.

For example, if we wanted to communicate from Earth to something outside of Earth’s atmosphere, such as a satellite, we wouldn’t want to use gamma rays, X-rays, or ultraviolet radiation to do it. Those waves will be unlikely to make it through the ionosphere. But as we move to the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum, towards microwaves and radio waves, we find that these wavelengths interact differently with the atmosphere. For example, if we have a radio tower on the surface of the Earth and this tower sends out a microwave signal, those wavelengths are effective and making it through all the layers of the atmosphere to space.

For this reason, we use microwaves to communicate with satellites, space probes, or anything else outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Waves like this that make it all the way from the earth to outside of Earth’s atmosphere are called space waves. But what if, instead of sending a signal to space, we wanted to communicate with some other spot on Earth’s surface? And let’s imagine further that that location is out of our line of sight. In other words, if we try to communicate directly to it, then the wave we use to do that would run into the Earth and be blocked. In this case, we could use a type of radio wave which is known to reflect from within the ionosphere back down to Earth. This kind of wave is called a skywave. And this means it comes from a certain part of the radio wave spectrum, called shortwave radio.

Along with space waves and skywaves, there’s another type of wave we can consider. This one has a wavelength even longer than either of the previous two. It’s called a groundwave. But this doesn’t mean it travels along the ground. Rather, it means that this wave either bends through the lower layers of the atmosphere to curl around the Earth as it were or it reflects off of the bottom of the ionosphere, never entering that layer. Waves of this type are known as long-wave radio.

When it comes to long-distance communication through the atmosphere, microwaves and radio waves are the most commonly used kinds. But we don’t want to leave out visible light and infrared radiation because they have communication uses too. For example, visible light can be used to communicate over long distances through a fiber known as an optical fiber.

If we took an up-close view at the end of an optical fiber, we would see glass in the middle surrounded by a coating. This glass serves as a guide so that any visible light that comes in one end of the fiber is safely transmitted out the other end. And these fibers can be used to communicate visible light over distances of meters up to thousands of kilometers. In fact, we use fiber optic cables to communicate between continents on Earth underneath the oceans. So visible light, if we constrain its path properly, is useful for communication over long distances.

When it comes to infrared radiation, this is in a bit of a different category because our eyes, while sensitive to visible light, can’t see infrared. So even though optical fibers could be designed to transmit infrared radiation, it wouldn’t be nearly so useful because our eyes can’t see it. Nonetheless, we do use infrared to communicate over short distances. Many of the remote controls we use use infrared radiation to send signals to command a television, turn on or off, change the channel, et cetera. In this application, the invisibility of infrared radiation to our eye is actually a benefit.

So taking a step back, we can see that, thanks largely to the constraints our atmosphere puts on what kinds of waves we can use for communication, the electromagnetic waves we use predominantly are visible light, infrared radiation, microwaves, and radio waves. And in particular, it’s microwaves and radio waves which are useful for wireless communication over long distances.

Having seen all this, we may wonder just how it is that these signals, the microwaves and radio waves we send over long distances, are produced. To show that, let’s clear a bit of space on screen. The radio waves and microwaves we use for communication are produced by electric circuits. Here we have such a circuit with an antenna as well as an AC, or alternating current, power supply.

Now it’s actually very important that we have an alternating current in the circuit because that’s what will let us produce a signal. In step with that alternating or constantly switching back and forth current, the electrons in our antenna oscillate up and down up and down very rapidly. And it’s this oscillation that creates the signal the antenna transmits.

Note that, in sketching in this signal, we’ve represented the wavefronts using segments of concentric circles. But we just as well could’ve drawn in representative waves that travel out from our antenna. So then based on the current running around this circuit, our antenna produces a signal. So we have our source, and the source is called a transmitter.

For communication to happen though, we need something to receive this signal. And for that, we’ll need a second electric circuit, this one called a receiver, where the electrons in this antenna pick up the particular wavelength of the signal that’s reaching the antenna and start to oscillate in a similar pattern. This is how microwave or radio wave transmission works.

Now one thing worth mentioning here is that just as every electromagnetic wave has a wavelength, it also has something called a frequency. Wave frequency is defined as the number of cycles a wave goes through in one second of time. Wave frequency is related to wavelength. The shorter the wavelength of an EM wave, the higher its frequency.

We bring all this up because there’s a certain technique for transmitting radio waves that involves changing the wave frequency. In this approach, rather than creating a wave with one constant wavelength and one constant frequency, a wave is produced where the wavelength, the distance from one crest to another, varies. And along with this, the frequency of the wave changes too. Whenever we see the term FM radio, that’s what this term refers to. FM stands for frequency modulation, changing the frequency of a wave within the wave in order to package more information in the signal. Whenever we see FM on a radio dial, this is what that’s referring to. The frequency of radio waves is being modulated, changed, so the waves carry more information. Knowing all this now, let’s get a bit of practice with these ideas through an example exercise.

Which of the following types of electromagnetic waves is not used for sending communication signals? Infrared waves, microwaves, visible-light waves, ultraviolet waves, radio waves.

Okay, so here we want to identify which of these five options is not used for sending communication signals. Now theoretically, any type of wave could be useful in some application for communicating. But in this question, we’re thinking on a practical level, how different kinds of EM waves are actually used currently. We can start at the top of the list and go down, thinking in each case how that particular kind of wave is used or not used in communication.

Starting off with infrared waves, this kind of wave is not typically used to communicate over long distances. But it has been found to be useful for communicating wirelessly over short distances. Think, for example, of any remote controls we might use. When they’re powered on and working properly, when we press a button on the remote, the remote sends an invisible-to-our-eye signal, an infrared signal, to some receiver. We might be sending a signal to power on a monitor, turn off a television, or open our garage door. But regardless of the particular command, we’re sending it using an infrared wave. So there is a communication use for infrared waves, which means we won’t use it as our answer.

Next, let’s consider microwaves. We might first associate these kinds of waves with a microwave oven, something to heat food. Indeed, that’s one of the most common applications of these waves. But it’s not the only thing they’re useful for. Microwaves, when sent from Earth, are very effective and making it through Earth’s atmosphere into space. These waves are unlikely to be blocked or reflected back. For this reason, it’s common to use microwaves to send signals to and receive signals from anything outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Since microwaves do have a communication use, we’ll cross these off our list as well.

Next, let’s consider visible-light waves. Unlike microwaves, visible light is not useful for long-distance communication through the open atmosphere. But with the right constraint, visible light can be useful for sending communication signals. One way this happens is through what is called an optical fiber. An optical fiber is a long wire that has a glass core, a glass interior to it. This interior is covered in a coating. And the way it works is, light is accepted through one end of the fiber and then, regardless of the twists and turns the fiber might go through, that light is safely communicated out the other end. This communication distance from one end of the fiber to the other can be on the order of centimeters or thousands of kilometers. So visible light can be used for long-distance communication so long as it’s traveling through a fiber optic. This means that visible-light signals are useful for communication. So we won’t choose that as our answer either.

Next up is ultraviolet waves. These are waves that in part are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere. And not only do they have trouble traveling through the atmosphere, but these waves are also invisible to the human eye. So even if we put an ultraviolet signal into one end of an optical fiber, we couldn’t see what would come out the other end. Along with all this, ultraviolet waves are high-energy enough so that some of them are dangerous to humans. They can negatively affect the DNA in our cells and therefore are often avoided. It looks like ultraviolet waves will be the wave type that are not used for sending communication signals.

To make sure this is the case, let’s consider our last option, radio waves. In this case, we can easily think of applications of radio waves for communication. The types of radio stations we’re able to tune into using a radio in our car or in our computer are proof that radio waves are used for communication. So then we can finalize our choice of ultraviolet waves as the type of electromagnetic waves that are not used for sending communication signals.

Let’s consider now what we’ve learned about electromagnetic waves for communication. In this lesson, we first saw that electromagnetic waves, called EM waves for short, transport energy. And the amount of energy they transport depends on their wavelength. Of the various types of EM waves, we saw that radio waves and microwaves are used for wireless communication through the atmosphere. We then learned that visible-light communication happens through wires called optical fibers. And further, we saw that infrared waves are useful for sending wireless signals over relatively short distances on the order of a few meters. Lastly, we learned that radio waves and microwaves are created by transmitter and received by receiver circuits.

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