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What is Electromagnetic Energy?

Posted on by Everything Energy 5 minutes, 34 seconds

Electromagnetic energy is all around us. From tuning to your favorite radio station, sending a text message via your mobile device, microwaving a late-night snack or getting an X-ray, we use electromagnetic energy in a variety of ways in our everyday lives.

Let’s further explore the question, “What is electromagnetic energy?”

What is electromagnetic energy, in simple words?

According to NASA Science, electromagnetic energy “travels in waves and spans a broad spectrum, from very long radio waves to very short gamma rays.” The human eye can only detect visible light, which is a very small part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

To better understand what electromagnetic energy is and how it works, it’s best to answer a few related questions.

What is an electromagnet?

An electromagnet is a magnet whose magnetic field is created when electricity is flowing. Unlike a refrigerator magnet that continuously generates a magnetic field, electromagnets are not permanent. They’re built and produce a magnetic field only when required.

An electromagnet consists of a length of wire (usually copper) wrapped around a piece of metal. When a current is introduced from a battery or other source, it flows through the wire. This creates a magnetic field around the coiled wire and magnetizes the metal.

What is an electromagnetic field?

An electromagnetic field is a property of space caused by the motion of an electric charge.

Electromagnetic radiation (EMR or EM radiation) consists of the waves of the electromagnetic field, which carry momentum and electromagnetic radiant energy.

Types of EMR are: radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation (UV), X-rays and gamma rays. These are all part of the electromagnetic spectrum (also known as the electromagnetic radiation spectrum or the electromagnetic wave spectrum).

What is electromagnetic spectrum?

The electromagnetic spectrum is the classification of electromagnetic waves according to their various wavelengths/frequencies.

The electromagnetic spectrum above represents different energy types based on wavelength and frequency. Source: Electromagnetic (EM) Spectrum | Center for Science Education (ucar.edu)

A wavelength is the distance between the peaks of each wave.

Frequency is the number of waves that pass a fixed point in a unit of time. The more electromagnetic energy a wave carries, the higher its frequency.

Frequency is inversely proportional to wavelength. So, the higher the frequency of an electromagnetic wave, the shorter the wavelength — and vice versa.

What 7 types of electromagnetic radiation span the electromagnetic spectrum?

The electromagnetic spectrum, from the electromagnetic waves with the longest wavelengths to the shortest, consists of 7 categories. Here are brief descriptions of each and electromagnetic energy examples in real life.

Radio waves

Radio waves are the lowest frequency waves. They can be up to miles in length and can be used to carry signals to receivers, where they’re translated into useable information.

We use radio waves for television and radio, military communication, mobile phones, wireless computer networks and other forms of wireless communication.


Microwaves are the next lowest frequency waves. They measure a few centimeters to up to a foot in length and can penetrate things that interfere with radio waves, like clouds and rain.

We use microwaves to cook food, of course. But we also use them for GPS navigation, electronic imaging in healthcare, submarine communication, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, weather satellites and more.

Infrared radiation

Next is infrared radiation. We can’t see it but can sometimes feel it when longer-wavelength infrared waves produce heat, as in radiation emitted by the sun or fire. Shorter-wavelength infrared waves are used in remote controls and imaging technology.

Visible light

Visible light is the only type of electromagnetic energy we can see in everyday life. We experience it as colors, from reds (lower wavelengths) up to violets (higher wavelengths).

The colors of visible light we see depend on which wavelengths of light an object absorbs and reflects.

Ultraviolet radiation (UV)

UV rays have shorter wavelengths than visible light. We know them best as the causes of sunburn, and they can also cause cancer.

UV light can also disinfect, purify air, be used for curing scratch-resistant surfaces and 3-D printing and much more.


X-rays are very high-energy waves with wavelengths not much longer than an atom. They can pass through most objects, including the body. That’s why x-rays are used by doctors to view bone structures.

X-rays in much higher doses are also used in radiation therapy to kill cancerous tumors and cells.

Gamma rays

The highest frequency electromagnetic waves are gamma rays, which can destroy living cells. They’re emitted by only the most energetic cosmic objects, like pulsars, supernovas and black holes. However,  any gamma rays from space are absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere.

Within our planet, lightning, nuclear explosions and radioactive decay can also emit gamma rays.

What are the dangers of electromagnetic energy?

While we have taken advantage of electromagnetic energy in many ways, there are also dangers of too much exposure.

In general, the higher the frequency of the radiation, the more damage it is likely to cause to our bodies.

Here are some of the dangers of each type of electromagnetic wave, compiled by the BBC:

Why is electromagnetic energy important?

As you can see, electromagnetic energy surrounds us naturally. From the visible light most people experience every day to the unseeable waves around us and in space, electromagnetic energy is an important part of our world.

Just as important is how we utilize these waves to enhance our lives, aid our health and develop new solutions to existing problems. By avoiding the dangers and maximizing the potential of electromagnetic energy, we can continue modernizing and improving the quality of our lives.


Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is electromagnetic energy?” and you know more about how it works, you can appreciate how much we interact with it in our daily lives — by choice and simply by existing.

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