Question

What is the Photoelectric Effect?

Asked by: Kevin Mcgill

Answer

The photoelectric effect refers to the emission, or ejection, of electrons from the surface of, generally, a metal in response to incident light.

Energy contained within the incident light is absorbed by electrons within the metal, giving the electrons sufficient energy to be 'knocked' out of, that is, emitted from, the surface of the metal.

Using the classical Maxwell wave theory of light, the more intense the incident light the greater the energy with which the electrons should be ejected from the metal. That is, the average energy carried by an ejected (photoelectric) electron should increase with the intensity of the incident light.

In fact, Lénard found that this was not so. Rather, he found the energies of the emitted electrons to be independent of the intensity of the incident radiation.

Einstein (1905) successfully resolved this paradox by proposing that the incident light consisted of individual quanta, called photons, that interacted with the electrons in the metal like discrete particles, rather than as continuous waves. For a given frequency, or 'color,' of the incident radiation, each photon carried the energy E = hf, where h is Planck's constant and f is the frequency. Increasing the intensity of the light corresponded, in Einstein's model, to increasing the number of incident photons per unit time (flux), while the energy of each photon remained the same (as long as the frequency of the radiation was held constant).

Clearly, in Einstein's model, increasing the intensity of the incident radiation would cause greater numbers of electrons to be ejected, but each electron would carry the same average energy because each incident photon carried the same energy. [This assumes that the dominant process consists of individual photons being absorbed by and resulting in the ejection of a single electron.] Likewise, in Einstein's model, increasing the frequency f, rather than the intensity, of the incident radiation would increase the average energy of the emitted electrons.

Both of these predictions were confirmed experimentally. Moreover, the rate of increase of the energy of the ejected electrons with increasing frequency, which can be measured, enables one to determine the value of Planck's constant h.

The photoelectric effect is perhaps the most direct and convincing evidence of the existence of photons and the 'corpuscular' nature of light and electromagnetic radiation. That is, it provides undeniable evidence of the quantization of the electromagnetic field and the limitations of the classical field equations of Maxwell.

Albert Einstein received the Nobel prize in physics in 1921 for explaining the photoelectric effect and for his contributions to theoretical physics.

Answered by: Warren Davis, Ph.D., President, Davis Associates, Inc., Newton, MA USA

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