Radiant Energy

Radiant energy is the energy of electromagnetic waves. The quantity of radiant energy may be calculated by integrating radiant flux (or power) with respect to time and, like all forms of energy, its SI unit is the joule. The term is used particularly when radiation is emitted by a source into the surrounding environment. Radiant energy may be visible or invisible to the human eye.

Open systems

Radiant energy is one of the mechanisms by which energy can enter or leave an open system. Such a system can be man-made, such as a solar energy collector, or natural, such as the Earth's atmosphere. In geophysics, most atmospheric gases, including the greenhouse gases, allow the Sun's short-wavelength radiant energy to pass through to the Earth's surface, heating the ground and oceans. The absorbed solar energy is partly re-emitted as longer wavelength radiation (chiefly infrared radiation), some of which is absorbed by the atmospheric greenhouse gases. Radiant energy is produced in the sun as a result of nuclear fusion.


Radiant energy comes from a glowing heat source and radiates in all directions. Radiant energy is used to dry clothes, disinfect our beddings, or diagnose diseases.

Radiant energy, as well as convective energy and conductive energy, is used for radiant heating. It can be generated electrically by infrared lamps, or can be absorbed from sunlight and used to heat water. The heat energy is emitted from a warm element (floor, wall, overhead panel) and warms people and other objects in rooms rather than directly heating the air. The internal air temperature for radiant heated buildings may be lower than for a conventionally heated building to achieve the same level of body comfort (the perceived temperature is actually the same).

Various other applications of radiant energy have been devised. These include:

  • Treatment and inspection
  • Separating and sorting
  • Medium of control
  • Medium of communication

Many of these applications involve a source of radiant energy and a detector that responds to that radiation and provides a signal representing some characteristic of the radiation. Radiant energy detectors produce responses to incident radiant energy either as an increase or decrease in electric potential or current flow or some other perceivable change, such as exposure of photographic film.


One of the earliest wireless telephones to be based on radiant energy was invented by Nikola Tesla. The device used transmitters and receivers whose resonances were tuned to the same frequency, allowing communication between them. In 1916, he recounted an experiment he had done in 1896. He recalled that "Whenever I received the effects of a transmitter, one of the simplest ways [to detect the wireless transmissions] was to apply a magnetic field to currents generated in a conductor, and when I did so, the low frequency gave audible notes."



Terminology use and history

The term "radiant energy" is most commonly used in the fields of radiometry, solar energy, heating and lighting, but is also sometimes used in other fields (such as telecommunications). In modern applications involving transmission of power from one location to another, "radiant energy" is sometimes used to refer to the electromagnetic waves ''themselves'', rather than their ''energy'' (a property of the waves). In the past, the term "electro-radiant energy" has also been used.

Historically, the propagation of electromagnetic radiation was presumed to rely on a medium filling all space, known as the aether. Electromagnetic waves were presumed to propagate through this medium by inducing transverse electric and magnetic stresses and strains, analogous to those induced by shear waves propagating through a physical medium. In modern times, the propagation of electromagnetic waves is not modeled using a physical medium.


Because electromagnetic (EM) radiation can be conceptualized as a stream of photons, radiant energy can be viewed as the energy carried by these photons. Alternatively, EM radiation can be viewed as an electromagnetic wave, which carries energy in its oscillating electric and magnetic fields. These two views are completely equivalent and are reconciled to one another in quantum field theory (see wave-particle duality).

EM radiation can have various frequencies. The bands of frequency present in a given EM signal may be sharply defined, as is seen in atomic spectra, or may be broad, as in blackbody radiation. In the photon picture, the energy carried by each photon is proportional to its frequency. In the wave picture, the energy of a monochromatic wave is proportional to its iintensity. This implies that if two EM waves have the same intensity, but different frequencies, the one with the higher frequency "contains" fewer photons, since each photon is more energetic.

When EM waves are absorbed by an object, the energy of the waves is converted to heat (or converted to electricity in case of a photoelectric material). This is a very familiar effect, since sunlight warms surfaces that it irradiates. Often this phenomenon is associated particularly with infrared radiation, but any kind of electromagnetic radiation will warm an object that absorbs it. EM waves can also be reflected or scattered, in which case their energy is redirected or redistributed as well.

Further reading

  • ''Radiant energy''". Federal standard 1037C
  • patent US 1317883. "Method of generating radiant energy and projecting same through free air for producing heat"
  • patent US 1005338 "Transmitting apparatus"
  • patent US 1018555 "Signaling by electroradiant energy"
  • patent US 1597901 "Radio apparatus"
  • Anderson, Leland I. (editor), ''Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony and Transmission of Power'', 2002, ISBN 1-893817-01-6.
  • Moran, M.J. and Shapiro, H.N., ''Fundamentals of Engineering, Thermodynamics'', Chapter 4. "Mass Conservation for an Open System", 5th Edition, John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0471274712.
  • Robert W. Christopherson, ''Elemental Geosystems'', Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall, 2003. Pages 608. ISBN 0131015532
  • James Grier Miller and Jessie L. Miller, ''The Earth as a System''.
  • Class 250, Radiant Energy, USPTO. March 2006.
  • ''Energy transformation''. assets.cambridge.org. (excerpt)
  • Louis Bell, Electric Power Transmission; a Practical Treatise for Practical Men. Electrical World and Engineer 1901 pg 10 http://books.google.com/?id=hSYKAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA3-PA110&lpg=RA3-PA110
  • Thomas Preston, "''The Theory of Light''". Macmillan, 1901. Page 542.
  • George Frederick Barker, Physics: Advanced Course. Henry Holt and Company. 1893. http://books.google.com/?id=bKEAAAAAMAAJ
  • George Frederick Barker, ''Physics: Advanced Course'', page 367
  • Hardis, Jonathan E., "Visibility of Radiant Energy". PDF.
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