DUAL NATURE OF RADIATION AND MATTER – Introduction, Electron Emission, Photoelectric Effect, Hertz’s observations, Hallwachs’ and Lenard’s observations (NCERT 12TH PHYSICS)


The Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism and Hertz experiments on the generation and detection of electromagnetic waves in 1887 strongly established the wave nature of light. Towards the same period at the end of 19th century, experimental investigations on conduction of electricity (electric discharge) through gases at low pressure in a discharge tube led to many historic discoveries. The discovery of X-rays by Roentgen in 1895, and of electron by J. J. Thomson in 1897, were important milestones in the understanding of atomic structure. It was found that at sufficiently low pressure of about 0.001 mm of mercury column, a discharge took place between the two electrodes on applying the electric field to the gas in the discharge tube. A fluorescent glow appeared on the glass opposite to cathode. The colour of glow of the glass depended on the type of glass, it being yellowish-green for soda glass. The cause of this fluorescence was attributed to the radiation which appeared to be coming from the cathode. These cathode rays were discovered, in 1870, by William Crookes who later, in 1879, suggested that these rays consisted of streams of fast moving negatively charged particles. The British physicist J. J. Thomson (1856-1940) confirmed this hypothesis. By applying mutually perpendicular electric and magnetic fields across the discharge tube, J. J. Thomson was the first to determine experimentally the speed and the specific charge [charge to mass ratio (e/m)] of the cathode ray particles. They were found to travel with speeds ranging from about 0.1 to 0.2 times the speed of light (3 ×108 m/s). The presently accepted value of e/m is 1.76 × 1011 C/kg. Further, the value of e/m was found to be independent of the nature of the material/metal used as the cathode (emitter), or the gas introduced in the discharge tube. This observation suggested the universality of the cathode ray particles.

Around the same time, in 1887, it was found that certain metals, when irradiated by ultraviolet light, emitted negatively charged particles having small speeds. Also, certain metals when heated to a high temperature were found to emit negatively charged particles. The value of e/m of these particles was found to be the same as that for cathode ray particles. These observations thus established that all these particles, although produced under different conditions, were identical in nature. J. J. Thomson, in 1897, named these particles as electrons, and suggested that they were fundamental, universal constituents of matter. For his epoch-making discovery of electron, through his theoretical and experimental investigations on conduction of electricity by gasses, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906. In 1913, the American physicist R. A. Millikan (1868-1953) performed the pioneering oil-drop experiment for the precise measurement of the charge on an electron. He found that the charge on an oil-droplet was always an integral multiple of an elementary charge, 1.602 × 10–19 C. Millikan’s experiment established that electric charge is quantised. From the values of charge (e) and specific charge (e/m), the mass (m) of the electron could be determined.


We know that metals have free electrons (negatively charged particles) that are responsible for their conductivity. However, the free electrons cannot normally escape out of the metal surface. If an electron attempts to come out of the metal, the metal surface acquires a positive charge and pulls the electron back to the metal. The free electron is thus held inside the metal surface by the attractive forces of the ions. Consequently, the electron can come out of the metal surface only if it has got sufficient energy to overcome the attractive pull. A certain minimum amount of energy is required to be given to an electron to pull it out from the surface of the metal. This minimum energy required by an electron to escape from the metal surface is called the work function of the metal. It is generally denoted by f0 and measured in eV (electron volt). One electron volt is the energy gained by an electron when it has been accelerated by a potential difference of 1 volt, so that 1 eV = 1.602 ×10–19 J.

This unit of energy is commonly used in atomic and nuclear physics. The work function (f0) depends on the properties of the metal and the nature of its surface. These values are approximate as they are very sensitive to surface impurities.

The work function of platinum is the highest (f0  = 5.65 eV) while it is the lowest (f0  = 2.14 eV) for caesium. The minimum energy required for the electron emission from the metal surface can be supplied to the free electrons by any one of the following physical processes:

(i) Thermionic emission: By suitably heating, sufficient thermal energy can be imparted to the free electrons to enable them to come out of the metal.

(ii) Field emission: By applying a very strong electric field (of the order of 108 V m–1) to a metal, electrons can be pulled out of the metal, as in a spark plug.

(iii) Photoelectric emission: When light of suitable frequency illuminates a metal surface, electrons are emitted from the metal surface. These photo (light)-generated electrons are called photoelectrons.


Hertz’s observations

The phenomenon of photoelectric emission was discovered in 1887 by Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), during his electromagnetic wave experiments. In his experimental investigation on the production of electromagnetic waves by means of a spark discharge, Hertz observed that high voltage sparks across the detector loop were enhanced when the emitter plate was illuminated by ultraviolet light from an arc lamp.

Light shining on the metal surface somehow facilitated the escape of free, charged particles which we now know as electrons. When light falls on a metal surface, some electrons near the surface absorb enough energy from the incident radiation to overcome the attraction of the positive ions in the material of the surface. After gaining sufficient energy from the incident light, the electrons escape from the surface of the metal into the surrounding space.

Hallwachs’ and Lenard’s observations

Wilhelm Hallwachs and Philipp Lenard investigated the phenomenon of photoelectric emission in detail during 1886-1902. Lenard (1862-1947) observed that when ultraviolet radiations were allowed to fall on the emitter plate of an evacuated glass tube enclosing two electrodes (metal plates), current flows in the circuit. As soon as the ultraviolet radiations were stopped, the current flow also stopped. These observations indicate that when ultraviolet radiations fall on the emitter plate C, electrons are ejected from it which are attracted towards the positive, collector plate A by the electric field. The electrons flow through the evacuated glass tube, resulting in the current flow. Thus, light falling on the surface of the emitter causes current in the external circuit. Hallwachs and Lenard studied how this photo current varied with collector plate potential, and with frequency and intensity of incident light. Hallwachs, in 1888, undertook the study further and connected a negatively charged zinc plate to an electroscope. He observed that the zinc plate lost its charge when it was illuminated by ultraviolet light. Further, the uncharged zinc plate became positively charged when it was irradiated by ultraviolet light. Positive charge on a positively charged zinc plate was found to be further enhanced when it was illuminated by ultraviolet light. From these observations he concluded that negatively charged particles were emitted from the zinc plate under the action of ultraviolet light.

After the discovery of the electron in 1897, it became evident that the incident light causes electrons to be emitted from the emitter plate. Due to negative charge, the emitted electrons are pushed towards the collector plate by the electric field. Hallwachs and Lenard also observed that when ultraviolet light fell on the emitter plate, no electrons were emitted at all when the frequency of the incident light was smaller than a certain minimum value, called the threshold frequency. This minimum frequency depends on the nature of the material of the emitter plate. It was found that certain metals like zinc, cadmium, magnesium, etc., responded only to ultraviolet light, having short wavelength, to cause

electron emission from the surface. However, some alkali metals such as lithium, sodium, potassium, caesium and rubidium were sensitive even to visible light. All these photosensitive substances emit electrons when they are illuminated by light. After the discovery of electrons, these electrons were termed as photoelectrons. The phenomenon is called photoelectric effect.

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