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electromagnetic field

An electromagnetic field, sometimes referred to as an EM field, is generated when charged particles, such as electrons, are accelerated. All electrically charged particles are surrounded by electric fields. Charged particles in motion produce magnetic fields. When the velocity of a charged particle changes, an EM field is produced.

Electromagnetic fields were first discovered in the 19th century, when physicists noticed that electric arcs (sparks) could be reproduced at a distance, with no connecting wires in between. This led scientists to believe that it was possible to communicate over long distances without wires. The first radio transmitters made use of electric arcs. These "spark transmitters" and the associated receivers were as exciting to people in the early 20th century as the Internet is today. This was the beginning of what we now call wirelesscommunication.

Electromagnetic fields are typically generated by alternating current (AC) in electrical conductors. The frequencyof the AC can range from one cycle in thousands of years (at the low extreme) to trillions or quadrillions of cycles per second( at the high extreme). The standard unit of EM frequency is the hertz, abbreviated Hz.Larger units are often used. A frequency of 1,000 Hz is onekilohertz(kHz); a frequency of 1,000 kHz is one megahertz (MHz); a frequency of 1,000 MHz is one gigahertz (GHz).

The wavelength of an EM field is related to the frequency. If the frequency f of an EM wave is specified in megahertz and the wavelength w is specified in meters (m), then in free space, the two are related according to the formula

w = 300/f

For example, a signal at 100 MHz (in the middle of the American FM broadcast band) has a wavelength of 3 m, or about 10 feet. This same formula applies if the frequency misgiven in gigahertz and the wavelength is specified in millimeters (mm). Thus, a signal at 30 GHz would have a wavelength of 10 mm, or a little less than half an inch.

The realm of EM field energy is called the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. In theory, this extends from arbitrarily long wavelengths to arbitrarily short wavelengths, or, as engineers sometimes imprecisely quip, "from DC to light."

This was last updated in March 2010

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