The Photoelectric Effect


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The figure includes three diagrams of waves approaching a flat, horizontal surface that is labeled, “Metal,” from an angle around 45 degrees above and to the left relative to the surface. At the top of the diagram at the center is the label, “E equals h nu.” At the left, a sinusoidal wave reaches the surface and stops. The portion of the diagram near the flat metal surface is labeled, “No electrons ejected,” and the wave is labeled, “700 n m.” To the right, a second similar, more compressed wave, which is labeled, “550 n m,” reaches the flat surface. This time, an arrow extends up and to the right at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. A tiny yellow circle with a negative sign in it is at the center of the arrow shaft. Above this arrow is the equation, “v subscript max equals 2.96 times 10 superscript 5 m per s.” To the far right, a third similar, even more compressed wave, which is labeled “400 n m” reaches the flat surface. This time, an arrow extends up and to the right at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. A tiny yellow circle with a negative sign in it is at the center of the arrow shaft. Above this arrow is the equation “v subscript max equals 6.22 times 10 superscript 5 m per s.”
Photons with low frequencies do not have enough energy to cause electrons to be ejected via the photoelectric effect. For any frequency of light above the threshold frequency, the kinetic energy of an ejected electron will increase linearly with the energy of the incoming photon. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

The Photoelectric Effect (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

It had been observed that electrons could be ejected from the clean surface of a metal when light having a frequency greater than some threshold frequency was shone on it. Surprisingly, the kinetic energy of the ejected electrons did not depend on the brightness of the light, but increased with increasing frequency of the light. Since the electrons in the metal had a certain amount of binding energy keeping them there, the incident light needed to have more energy to free the electrons. According to classical wave theory, a wave’s energy depends on its intensity (which depends on its amplitude), not its frequency. One part of these observations was that the number of electrons ejected within in a given time period was seen to increase as the brightness increased. In 1905, Albert Einstein was able to resolve the paradox by incorporating Planck’s quantization findings into the discredited particle view of light (Einstein actually won his Nobel prize for this work, and not for his theories of relativity for which he is most famous).

Einstein argued that the quantized energies that Planck had postulated in his treatment of blackbody radiation could be applied to the light in the photoelectric effect so that the light striking the metal surface should not be viewed as a wave, but instead as a stream of particles (later called photons) whose energy depended on their frequency, according to Planck’s formula, E = . Electrons were ejected when hit by photons having sufficient energy (a frequency greater than the threshold). The greater the frequency, the greater the kinetic energy imparted to the escaping electrons by the collisions. Einstein also argued that the light intensity did not depend on the amplitude of the incoming wave, but instead corresponded to the number of photons striking the surface within a given time period. This explains why the number of ejected electrons increased with increasing brightness, since the greater the number of incoming photons, the greater the likelihood that they would collide with some of the electrons.

With Einstein’s findings, the nature of light took on a new air of mystery. Although many light phenomena could be explained either in terms of waves or particles, certain phenomena, such as the interference patterns obtained when light passed through a double slit, were completely contrary to a particle view of light, while other phenomena, such as the photoelectric effect, were completely contrary to a wave view of light. Somehow, at a deep fundamental level still not fully understood, light is both wavelike and particle-like. This is known as wave-particle duality.

Related Research: Research Article: Shorter Exposures to Harder X-Rays Trigger Early Apoptotic Events in Xenopus laevis Embryos

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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Absolute timing of the photoelectric effect