It consists of an evacuated glass/quartz tube having a thin photosensitive plate C and another metal plate A. Monochromatic light from the source S of sufficiently short wavelength passes through the window W and falls on the photosensitive plate C (emitter). A transparent quartz window is sealed on to the glass tube, which permits ultraviolet radiation to pass through it and irradiate the photosensitive plate C. The electrons are emitted by the plate C and are collected by the plate A (collector), by the electric field created by the battery. The battery maintains the potential difference between the plates C and A, that can be varied. The polarity of the plates C and A can be reversed by a commutator. Thus, the plate A can be maintained at a desired positive or negative potential with respect to emitter C. When the collector plate A is positive with respect to the emitter plate C, the electrons are attracted to it. The emission of electrons causes flow of electric current in the circuit. The potential difference between the emitter and collector plates is measured by a voltmeter (V) whereas the resulting photo current flowing in the circuit is measured by a microammeter (μA). The photoelectric current can be increased or decreased by varying the potential of collector plate A with respect to the emitter plate C. The intensity and frequency of the incident light can be varied, as can the potential difference V between the emitter C and the collector A.

The variation of photocurrent with (a) intensity of radiation, (b) frequency of incident radiation, (c) the potential difference between the plates A and C, and (d) the nature of the material of plate C. Light of different frequencies can be used by putting appropriate coloured filter or coloured glass in the path of light falling on the emitter C. The intensity of light is varied by changing the distance of the light source from the emitter.

Effect of intensity of light on photocurrent

The collector A is maintained at a positive potential with respect to emitter C so that electrons ejected from C are attracted towards collector A. Keeping the frequency of the incident radiation and the potential fixed, the intensity of light is varied and the resulting photoelectric current is measured each time. It is found that the photocurrent increases linearly with intensity of incident light. The photocurrent is directly proportional to the number of photoelectrons emitted per second. This implies that the number of photoelectrons emitted per second is directly proportional to the intensity of incident radiation.

Effect of potential on photoelectric current

We first keep the plate A at some positive potential with respect to the plate C and illuminate the plate C with light of fixed frequency n and fixed intensity I1. We next vary the positive potential of plate A gradually and measure the resulting photocurrent each time. It is found that the photoelectric current increases with increase in positive (accelerating) potential. At some stage, for a certain positive potential of plate A, all the emitted electrons are collected by the plate A and the photoelectric current becomes maximum or saturates. If we increase the accelerating potential of plate A further, the photocurrent does not increase. This maximum value of the photoelectric current is called saturation current. Saturation current corresponds to the case when all the photoelectrons emitted by the emitter plate C reach the collector plate A.

We now apply a negative (retarding) potential to the plate A with respect to the plate C and make it increasingly negative gradually. When the polarity is reversed, the electrons are repelled and only the sufficiently energetic electrons are able to reach the collector A. The photocurrent is found to decrease rapidly until it drops to zero at a certain sharply defined, critical value of the negative potential V0 on the plate A. For a particular frequency of incident radiation, the minimum negative (retarding) potential V0 given to the plate A for which the photocurrent stops or becomes zero is called the cut-off or stopping potential.


The wave nature of light was well established by the end of the nineteenth century. The phenomena of interference, diffraction and polarisation were explained in a natural and satisfactory way by the wave picture of light. According to this picture, light is an electromagnetic wave consisting of electric and magnetic fields with continuous distribution of energy over the region of space over which the wave is extended. Let us now see if this wave picture of light can explain the observations on photoelectric emission given in the previous section.

According to the wave picture of light, the free electrons at the surface of the metal (over which the beam of radiation falls) absorb the radiant energy continuously. The greater the intensity of radiation, the greater are the amplitude of electric and magnetic fields. Consequently, the greater the intensity, the greater should be the energy absorbed by each electron. In this picture, the maximum kinetic energy of the photoelectrons on the surface is then expected to increase with increase in intensity. Also, no matter what the frequency of radiation is, a sufficiently intense beam of radiation (over sufficient time) should be able to impart enough energy to the electrons, so that they exceed the minimum energy needed to escape from the metal surface . A threshold  frequency, therefore, should not exist.

Further, we should note that in the wave picture, the absorption of energy by electron takes place continuously over the entire wavefront of the radiation. Since a large number of electrons absorb energy, the energy absorbed per electron per unit time turns out to be small. Explicit calculations estimate that it can take hours or more for a single electron to pick up sufficient energy to overcome the work function and come out of the metal. This conclusion is again in striking contrast to observation (iv) that the photoelectric emission is instantaneous. In short, the wave picture is unable to explain the most basic features of photoelectric emission.


In 1905, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) proposed a radically new picture of electromagnetic radiation to explain photoelectric effect. In this picture, photoelectric emission does not take place by continuous absorption of energy from radiation. Radiation energy is built up of discrete units – the so called quanta of energy of radiation. Each quantum of radiant energy has energy hn,, where h is Planck’s constant and n the frequency of light. In photoelectric effect, an electron absorbs a quantum of energy (hn, ) of radiation. If this quantum of energy absorbed exceeds the minimum energy needed for the electron to escape from the metal surface (work function f0), the electron is emitted with maximum kinetic energy


Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) Einstein, one of the greatest physicists of all time, was born in Ulm, Germany. In 1905, he published three pathbreaking papers. In the first paper, he introduced the notion of light quanta (now called photons) and used it to explain the features of photoelectric effect. In the second paper, he developed a theory of Brownian motion, confirmed experimentally a few years later and provided a convincing evidence of the atomic picture of matter. The third paper gave birth to the special theory of relativity. In 1916, he published the general theory of relativity. Some of Einstein’s most significant later contributions are: the notion of stimulated emission introduced in an alternative derivation of Planck’s blackbody radiation law, static model of the universe which started modern cosmology, quantum statistics of a gas of massive bosons, and a critical analysis of the foundations of quantum mechanics. In 1921, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his contribution to theoretical physics and the photoelectric effect.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Spread the word