Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. Radio waves have frequencies as high as 300 gigahertz (GHz) to as low as 30 hertz (Hz). At 300 GHz, the corresponding wavelength is 1 mm, and at 30 Hz is 10,000 km. Like all other electromagnetic waves, radio waves travel at the speed of light. They are generated by electric charges undergoing acceleration, such as time varying electric currents. Naturally occurring radio waves are emitted by lightning and astronomical objects.
Radio waves are generated artificially by transmitters and received by radio receivers, using antennas. Radio waves are very widely used in modern technology for fixed and mobile radio communication, broadcasting, radar and other navigation systems, communications satellites, wireless computer networks and many other applications. Different frequencies of radio waves have different propagation characteristics in the Earth's atmosphere; long waves can diffract around obstacles like mountains and follow the contour of the earth (ground waves), shorter waves can reflect off the ionosphere and return to earth beyond the horizon (skywaves), while much shorter wavelengths bend or diffract very little and travel on a line of sight, so their propagation distances are limited to the visual horizon.
To prevent interference between different users, the artificial generation and use of radio waves is strictly regulated by law, coordinated by an international body called the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which defines radio waves as "electromagnetic waves of frequencies arbitrarily lower than 3 000 GHz, propagated in space without artificial guide". The radio spectrum is divided into a number of radio bands on the basis of frequency, allocated to different uses.
Radio waves were first predicted by mathematical work done in 1867 by Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell noticed wavelike properties of light and similarities in electrical and magnetic observations. His mathematical theory, now called Maxwell's equations, described light waves and radio waves as waves of electromagnetism that travel in space, radiated by a charged particle as it undergoes acceleration. In 1887, Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the reality of Maxwell's electromagnetic waves by experimentally generating radio waves in his laboratory, showing that they exhibited the same wave properties as light: standing waves, refraction, diffraction, and polarization. Radio waves, originally called "Hertzian waves", were first used for communication in the mid 1890s by Guglielmo Marconi, who developed the first practical radio transmitters and receivers. The modern term "radio wave" replaced the original name "Hertzian wave" around 1912.
Radio waves in vacuum travel at the speed of light. When passing through a material medium, they are slowed according to that object's permeability and permittivity. Air is thin enough that in the Earth's atmosphere radio waves travel very close to the speed of light.
The wavelength is the distance from one peak of the wave's electric field (wave's peak/crest) to the next, and is inversely proportional to the frequency of the wave. The distance a radio wave travels in one second, in a vacuum, is 299,792,458 meters (983,571,056 ft) which is the wavelength of a 1 hertz radio signal. A 1 megahertz radio signal has a wavelength of 299.8 meters (984 ft).
The study of radio propagation, how radio waves move in free space and over the surface of the Earth, is vitally important in the design of practical radio systems. Radio waves passing through different environments experience reflection, refraction, polarization, diffraction, and absorption. Different frequencies experience different combinations of these phenomena in the Earth's atmosphere, making certain radio bands more useful for specific purposes than others. Practical radio systems mainly use three different techniques of radio propagation to communicate:
In radio communication systems, information is carried across space using radio waves. At the sending end, the information to be sent, in the form of a time-varying electrical signal, is applied to a radio transmitter. The information signal can be an audio signal representing sound from a microphone, a video signal representing moving images from a video camera, or a digital signal representing data from a computer. In the transmitter, an electronic oscillator generates an alternating current oscillating at a radio frequency, called the carrier because it serves to "carry" the information through the air. The information signal is used to modulate the carrier, altering some aspect of it, "piggybacking" the information on the carrier. The modulated carrier is amplified and applied to an antenna. The oscillating current pushes the electrons in the antenna back and forth, creating oscillating electric and magnetic fields, which radiate the energy away from the antenna as radio waves. The radio waves carry the information to the receiver location.
At the receiver, the oscillating electric and magnetic fields of the incoming radio wave push the electrons in the receiving antenna back and forth, creating a tiny oscillating voltage which is a weaker replica of the current in the transmitting antenna. This voltage is applied to the radio receiver, which extracts the information signal. The receiver first uses a bandpass filter to separate the desired radio station's radio signal from all the other radio signals picked up by the antenna, then amplifies the signal so it is stronger, then finally extracts the information-bearing modulation signal in a demodulator. The recovered signal is sent to a loudspeaker or earphone to produce sound, or a television display screen to produce a visible image, or other devices. A digital data signal is applied to a computer or microprocessor, which interacts with a human user.
The radio waves from many transmitters pass through the air simultaneously without interfering with each other. They can be separated in the receiver because each transmitter's radio waves oscillate at a different rate, in other words each transmitter has a different frequency, measured in kilohertz (kHz), megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). The bandpass filter in the receiver consists of a tuned circuit which acts like a resonator, similarly to a tuning fork. It has a natural resonant frequency at which it oscillates. The resonant frequency is set equal to the frequency of the desired radio station. The oscillating radio signal from the desired station causes the tuned circuit to oscillate in sympathy, and it passes the signal on to the rest of the receiver. Radio signals at other frequencies are blocked by the tuned circuit and not passed on.
Radio waves are nonionizing radiation, which means they do not have enough energy to separate electrons from atoms or molecules, ionizing them, or break chemical bonds, causing chemical reactions or DNA damage. The main effect of absorption of radio waves by materials is to heat them, similarly to the infrared waves radiated by sources of heat such as a space heater or wood fire. The oscillating electric field of the wave causes polar molecules to vibrate back and forth, increasing the temperature; this is how a microwave oven cooks food. However, unlike infrared waves, which are mainly absorbed at the surface of objects and cause surface heating, radio waves are able to penetrate the surface and deposit their energy inside materials and biological tissues. The depth to which radio waves penetrate decreases with their frequency, and also depends on the material's resistivity and permittivity; it is given by a parameter called the skin depth of the material, which is the depth within which 63% of the energy is deposited. For example, the 2.45 GHz radio waves (microwaves) in a microwave oven penetrate most foods approximately 2.5 to 3.8 cm (1 to 1.5 inches). Radio waves have been applied to the body for 100 years in the medical therapy of diathermy for deep heating of body tissue, to promote increased blood flow and healing. More recently they have been used to create higher temperatures in hyperthermia treatment, to kill cancer cells. Looking into a source of radio waves at close range, such as the waveguide of a working radio transmitter, can cause damage to the lens of the eye by heating. A strong enough beam of radio waves can penetrate the eye and heat the lens enough to cause cataracts.
Since the heating effect is in principle no different from other sources of heat, most research into possible health hazards of exposure to radio waves has focused on "nonthermal" effects; whether radio waves have any effect on tissues besides that caused by heating. Electromagnetic radiation has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as "Possibly carcinogenic to humans".
Radio waves can be shielded against by a conductive metal sheet or screen, an enclosure of sheet or screen is called a Faraday cage. A metal screen shields against radio waves as well as a solid sheet as long as the holes in the screen are smaller than about 1/20 of wavelength of the waves.
Since radio frequency radiation has both an electric and a magnetic component, it is often convenient to express intensity of radiation field in terms of units specific to each component. The unit volts per meter (V/m) is used for the electric component, and the unit amperes per meter (A/m) is used for the magnetic component. One can speak of an electromagnetic field, and these units are used to provide information about the levels of electric and magnetic field strength at a measurement location.
Another commonly used unit for characterizing an RF electromagnetic field is power density. Power density is most accurately used when the point of measurement is far enough away from the RF emitter to be located in what is referred to as the far field zone of the radiation pattern. In closer proximity to the transmitter, i.e., in the "near field" zone, the physical relationships between the electric and magnetic components of the field can be complex, and it is best to use the field strength units discussed above. Power density is measured in terms of power per unit area, for example, milliwatts per square centimeter (mW/cm²). When speaking of frequencies in the microwave range and higher, power density is usually used to express intensity since exposures that might occur would likely be in the far field zone.
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