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How does Infrared Radiation work? Discovery, Detection, Properties and Facts about Infrared

Updated on April 21, 2013
Solar Energy
Solar Energy | Source

In this hub, I have discussed in detail about Infrared (IR) radiation, discovery of Infrared radiation, how IR radiation works, its detection and some interesting facts about IR radiation.

Before going into the working of infrared radiation, let us briefly look at what infrared radiation is and how it is produced.

If you like to read about the many uses and applications of infrared radiation and the hazards of infrared radiation, please follow the link below.

Uses, Applications and Hazards of Infrared Radiation

The electromagnetic spectrum consists of visible light, radio waves, x-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, infrared rays and ultraviolet rays. The differences between these radiations are their wavelengths or frequencies. The infrared radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum and lies above the visible red region of the spectrum and it is invisible radiation. Its wavelength is between (longer than visible red) the visible red light and the (shorter than microwaves) microwaves of the electromagnetic spectrum, that is 0.74 micrometers (µm) to 1 millimeter (mm).

Electromagnetic Spectrum
Electromagnetic Spectrum | Source

Sir William Herschel: infrared radiation and its applications

Set up to detect infrared radiation
Set up to detect infrared radiation | Source

Discovery of Infrared Radiation:

Infrared radiation was discovered in 1800 by an English Astronomer called William Herschel. While Herschel was measuring the temperature of Sunlight that was split into a spectrum, he found that higher temperatures were felt beyond the visible red region of the spectrum, which he measured using a thermometer. So he confirmed that some invisible radiation existed beyond the red region of the spectrum that was responsible for this heat and he named it initially as “Calorific Rays.” Calorific means “Heat generating.” These were called infrared (infra means below) rays in the late 19th century. Even though the wavelength of infrared radiation is higher than the visible red light, the frequency is lower than red, hence the name infrared.

The formula below will explain this clearly.

Speed (velocity) of light = Wavelength x Frequency

Speed of Light is a constant which is 299792.458 km per second in vacuum. In order for the speed of light to remain a constant, when wavelength increases, the frequency has to decrease and vice versa.

Relation between velocity, wavelength and frequency of light
Relation between velocity, wavelength and frequency of light | Source

So cross multiplying the above equation, we get

Speed of light (C) = Frequency (f) x Wavelength (λ)

C = fλ

Electromagnetic spectrum
Electromagnetic spectrum | Source

Where is infrared radiation found?

Infrared red waves are emitted by all warm objects. They also heat up the objects on which they fall. When they fall on any substances, the molecules in the substances absorb this energy and get excited and as a result of this, the substance gets heated. A very good example is the earth. Earth gets heated up, due to the infrared radiation falling on it from the Sun.


How does Infrared radiation work?

Infrared radiation is heat radiated by an object. When an object gets heated, it gains energy as a result of which the atoms and molecules move or vibrate and radiate infrared which is heat. Objects that are not hot enough to radiate visible light will radiate infrared. When infrared waves touch a surface or fall on any substances / objects, heat energy is released. This heat energy is not dependant on the temperature of the surroundings.

Examples of infrared radiation are, heat from the Sun, heat from fire, heat from radiator, etc.

In order to explain how infrared radiation works, the best example is the heating and cooling of the earth. During the day time when the Sun shines, the earth gets warm due to infrared radiation falling on it. In the night, after the Sun has gone down, the earth emits infrared radiation

Wonders of Physics: Infrared Radiation

For example, on an extremely cold but sunny day, skiers, mountain climbers and people involved in similar activities or winter sports do not feel the cold because, they are heated up by the infrared radiation from the Sun and the infrared radiation reflected by the stones and other material in the environment. Heat energy is also emitted or released regardless of the surrounding temperature, when infrared rays fall on any surfaces or objects.

So feeling warm or cold has got nothing to do with the temperature of the surrounding air, but it is to do with absorption of infrared radiation (warming up) or emission / releasing of infrared radiation (cooling down when temperature around us is colder than our body temperature).

Infrared rays travel through air and vacuum and they do not need a medium to travel through. They heat up any objects on which they fall and produce heat. For example surface of the earth, walls of the house, human body, etc.

The energy from the Sun that reaches the earth has a higher percentage of infrared radiation.

Different regions of the infrared:

The infrared radiation is spread across a band (spectrum) of wavelengths (0.75 micrometer to 1000 micrometers) and hence it is divided into smaller sections. Sensors are very sensitive and do not detect all of these wavelengths and they will be built to sense a particular / small band of wavelengths. So infrared radiation of each region has different use or application. The different divisions of the infrared region are as follows and this is the most common subdivision scheme.

Different regions of the Infrared
Different regions of the Infrared | Source
  • Near-infrared (NIR , IR-A) – This is the region near to the visible red region. This is used in fibre optic communication and night vision devices. It is also used in remote controls, astronomy, remote monitoring, material science, medical field and agriculture. The wavelength range is from 0.75 to 1.4 micrometers.
  • Short wavelength infrared (SWIR, IR-B) – This is used for long distance telecommunications and the wavelength range is from 1.4 to 3 micrometers. It is also used in SWIR cameras, night vision goggles that play a major role for military purposes
  • Mid wavelength infrared (MWIR, IR-C) – This is used in guided missile technology, infrared spectroscopy, communication, chemical industry, and the wavelength range is 3 to 8 micrometers. It also finds application in astronomy.
  • Long wavelength infrared (LWIR, IR-C) – This is the thermal infrared region and is used to detect thermal emissions that require no illumination from other sources (thermal imaging). This finds extensive application in astronomical telescopes and optical fibre communication. The wavelength range of this division is 8 to 15 micrometers
  • Far infrared (FIR) – These are used in infrared lasers, astronomy, infrared saunas and extensively used in the medical field and the wavelength range is 15 to 1000 micrometers. It also strengthens the immune system.


The other schemes are:


Detection of Infrared radiation:

Infrared radiation can be detected by infrared detectors that react to infrared radiation. One can feel infrared radiation by its property of heating up the skin and other objects. Infrared imaging cameras are a good example for recording infrared images. There are some electronic devices that can detect infrared radiation and they have to be maintained at a lower temperature in order to avoid heat from the device interfering with the detection of infrared.

Some devices that are used to detect infrared radiation are:

  • Thermocouple detectors, Bolometers - Heat sensitive devices that react to the presence of IR radiation
  • Photovoltaic cells, photoconductors - made of semicinductor materials. The electrical conductivity of these materials increase when exposed to infrared radiation thereby helping with the detection of IR radiation

Infrared: More Than Your Eyes Can See

Properties of Infrared radiation:

  • Infrared radiation can travel in vacuum at the speed of light.
  • Infrared radiation can travel through thick fog, thick smoke, dust and some other materials through which visible light cannot travel.
  • Infrared radiation heats up objects on which they fall
  • Infrared rays can be absorbed or reflected depending on the nature of the substance they fall on.
  • Infrared has wavelength longer than visible light and shorter than microwaves

Facts about infrared radiation:

  • Infrared radiation does not involve particles.
  • Infrared radiation is emitted by all objects above zero degrees Kelvin (zero degrees kelvin is absolute zero which is -273.15 degrees Celsius or -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit and is the temperature below which all atomic and molecular motion stops). So even ice that we consider as a cold object emits infrared radiation.
  • The higher the temperature of any object, the more infrared radiation it will emit.
  • Infrared radiation cannot be seen but can be felt as heat.
  • The infrared region close to visible light (near infrared region) is not warm and this is used in remote controls and for data transmission between a computer's peripheral devices.
  • Human body naturally produces infrared within the tissues which help with healing and cell repair

To read more about the uses, applications and hazards of infrared, please follow the link below.

Uses, Applications and Hazards of Infrared Radiation

I hope this hub has been useful and interesting. Please feel free to share your thoughts, experiences and ideas on this subject. I would like to hear from you.

If there are any errors, please feel free to feedback. I will rectify them.

Thank you for reading.



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    • QuadraPlus profile image


      16 months ago from Dubai

      The most common application of infrared radiation I can think of is a television remote, which communicates with a television by encoding information in an infrared wave. Very nicely explained. Thanks for the sharing. I am a Skill Development Trainer.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      The information is a well understandable. Did you ever teach students? Until now the only thing I knew about infrared radiations was that it is literally a warm.

      For technical tasks I sometimes used the help, now I want to read your blog more often

    • LeesaJohnson profile image

      Leesa Johnson 

      3 years ago from London

      This knowledge is very useful. Because we used infrared light in our daily life. These waves are used in T.V. remote and the circuits like F.M. radio. In the remote of air condition therefore having the knowledge about these waves will be very useful for the human beings.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hello jiya, you're welcome. I am glad that this helped.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      it cleared all my doubts thanxx

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Sara, I am glad that you found this informative. All the best.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      hi livingsta,

      this was very informative.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Indian Chef, thank you for reading. I am glad that you found this useful. Thank you for the votes. Have a good day!

    • Indian Chef profile image

      Indian Chef 

      6 years ago from New Delhi India

      This is a very well written hub. We did study infra red rays in 12th class but the book didn't explain it this good. Voting up and useful.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you so much My cook book. I am pleased you found this interesting and useful. Thank you for the votes too. Have a great day!

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 

      6 years ago from India

      Informative and great knowledge hub. I like this, it was well written. Thanks for the interesting read! Voted it UP, useful and interesting.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Melpor, thank you for reading and sharing your experience and knowledge. I am pleased that you found this hub informative. Have a great day!

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 

      6 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Livingsta, great hub and very informative. I spent many years working with instruments that measured infrared signatures of various chemicals. All chemicals have a unique infrared fingerprint because every atom in the universe are constantly vibrating unless they are at the absolute temperature of minus 273 degrees Celsius. At that point thermal energy cease to exist.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Rajan, thank you for reading. I am glad you found this interesting and useful. Have a great day!

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      6 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Great job of explaining various facets of infra red radiation, livingsta. This is interesting and useful. Thanks.

    • livingsta profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Bill, thank you again. Great to hear this from you my friend. I am pleased.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Because I have taught science classes in the past, I know a little something about this subject. Nevertheless, you did an excellent job of explaining it.


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