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Photoelectric Effect

1 The Classical Picture of Light

1.1 Review: What is Wave?

Lets us first review the properties of wave. Up until you study wave, you
had studied the basis of Newtonian Mechanics (F = ma and whatnot), which
tells you how objects move under various forces. In more technical language, we
say Newtonian mechanics deals with the motion of particle, because in applying
F = ma we typically ignore the actual shape and structure of the object but
treat it as if it is just a point mass with no size. Think of your trajectory motion;
even though a baseball has a finite volume, when solving problem we only talk
about THE y-coordinate of the ball (the coordinate of what? The center? The
top? The bottom?).

Of course, in the real world everything has size, so apart from displacements,
they can also undergo other type of motion. In particular, if the object is de-
formable (can change shape), then each individual part of the object can be in
independent motion (oscillation especially) while keeping the object as a whole
stationary (So the object is not displaced). We call this a wave motion.

Wave is a distribution of motion (or disturbance).

While wave is just a distribution of disturbance, it often behaves as if it is

an independent entity, for example it can be passed through from one object
to another, hence we often treat wave as a separate physical object (and an
abstract) from its medium.

1.2 Characteristics of Wave

There are two things particularly special for waves.

First, waves follow the superposition principle; they can be overlapped

with each other. This allows the phenomena of interfere and diffraction occurs.

Second, the energy of a wave is directly related to its amplitude. Why?

Think of the waving string as a continuous set of infinitely small simple oscilla-
tor. Each oscillator has total energy E = 21 kA2 , and it is obvious that the total
energy, as the sum of all these 12 kA2 , is controlled by A.

In particular, in the case of electromagnetic waves, or in other words, light,
the energy is related to the amplitude (or intensity) of the wave only but
nothing else, in the classical wave picture.

1.3 Wave vs. Particle

Classically, as a physical object, waves are so different as it can be from parti-


1. Particles are localized (the apple is on the tree), whereas waves are ex-
tended and distributed (Wheres the wave? It is everywhere!)

2. Waves have frequency f and wavelength , and particles are characterized

by momentum p and energy E.

3. Waves can diffract around obstacles, while particles will only be reflected
if blocked.

4. Particles are discrete, you can count and labeled them as 1, 2, 3...; waves
have infinitely many modes, and you can have a continuum of waves at
arbitrary amplitudes (you can turn on your light as bright or as dim as
you like)

5. Waves can overlap hence interfere with each other (superposition), whereas
particles can only collide

1.4 Light as a Wave

The question of what exactly is light had been one of the biggest questions
in classical physics. Newton and his followers thought light are particles while
Hooke (the one who wrote F = kx for springs) and many others thought
light is some kind of wave. The controversy was not ended until finally in
1801 Thomas Young had performed his famous double-slit experiment (this
experiment is so important that DSE forces you to study it even though it is
already 217 years since its first came out).

double-slit experiment, he showed the inference effect of light hence demon-

strated light must be a wave, as I had argued in Sect. 1.3.

But the problem is is that really the whole truth?

2 Failure of the Wave Picture

2.1 First Encounter of Photoelectric Effect

In 1887, Hertz (what you called Hz = s1 ) found that when a metal surface is
shinned with light, electrons can be emitted from the surface. This is what we
now called the photoelectric effect.

An experiment was set up to examine the physics behind this phenomenon

using a circuit:

1. A variable voltage source is connected to a pair of metal plates (capacitor).

When the is turned on, the metal plates will become charged and creat-
ing a electric field hence a potential difference between the plate (same
magnitude as the source but different direction).
2. One of the metal plates are then shinned by a light source and emits
electrons, if the emitted electrons has enough energy then a current will
be passed through the circuit (photocurrent).
3. The voltage value will be continuously adjusted until no electron can get
across the potential difference, we call that the stopping potential Vs Then
by energy conservation E = K eVs = 0, at the end, so K = eVs . This
will be the maximal possible kinetic energy of the emitted electrons.

Not all electrons emitted with the same energy K, because each electron in-
teract and bounded with the metal atoms in a very complicated way, depending
on how strongly it is bounded, more energy is needed to kick it out from the
metal hence less energy is available to be its kinetic energy. But Kmax = eVs is

the maximum that can be achieved, and it corresponds to the least bounded
electron. We hence define:

The work function is the minimal energy required to remove the least
bounded electron from the metal.

2.2 The Classical Prediction

The classical physicists thought that they knew light well enough, thus following
their classical knowledge of light, they made the following theory and predictions
for the photoelectric effect:

1. Kmax Intensity: As I said in Sec 1.2, the energy of classical EM

waves depended on intensity, so it is intuitive to expect that with higher
intensity, more energy can be transported to the electrons.
2. Independent of f requency: Since the energy of classical EM waves de-
pend only on the intensity, so the frequency or the color of the light used
should be completely irrelevant.
3. Delay bef ore f irst emission: In the classical wave theory of light, energy
is distributed throughout the wave, and the time is needed before the
electron absorbed enough energy from the wave to be freed.

Exactly how long is needed?

A standard laser pointer your teacher uses for class have a power of about
P = 1mW on a area of about A0 1cm2 . Suppose you point that to a metal
atom, who typcially has a radius of r 0.1 109 m and a work function of
about 1eV , then classically you would expect the first electron to be fired
with a time delay t of

Energy N eeded
t =
P ower received by atom

= P 2
A0 r
10( 19)
= 1103
(110 2) (1 109 )2
= 1 sec

So these are the classical prediction. What you have to understand is that,
people in that time thought that physics was completed and they knew every-
thing about physics, about waves and about light. So people in that time is
seriously expecting that their wave theory of the photoelectric effect is correct
there is no reason for it to be wrong.

2.3 The Experimental Results

But of course, you know how the story goes everything they thought they
knew is completely wrong and not even close.

1. The stopping potential, hence Kmax is independent of intensity but directly

related to frequency f To put that graphically, if we plot the photocur-
rent as a function of applied voltage, the plot goes like this: (positive V
means forward voltage, which favor the flow of current; negative V means
backward voltage, which resist the flow of current.

2. The magnitude of the photocurrent I is related to the light intensity. Al-

though Kmax is related only to frequency, the actual size of the current
is still proportional to the intensity. This is perhaps the only thing that
matches the classical prediction.

3. Kmax is in fact directly proportional to f ; moreover, there exists a cutoff

frequency f0 , under which no photoelectric effect is observable . This is
striking. As a classical wave, light should have its energy proportional
to its intensity (brightness), but this result is saying that no matter how
bright your light source is, if it does not have the right color then no
electron can ever be kicked out by the light (why?).

4. The first electron emission occurs practically immediately, in the order of

109 second of time. This again is puzzling. No matter how weak your
light source is, as soon as you shine your light to the metal, the electron
immediately absorbed enough energy to escape, which is unexplainable
by the wave theory of light.

Moral of story: Photoelectric effect is something that classical physics com-
pletely failed to explain. There is something more about light that we did not
know, and we need to figure that out.

3 Photon

3.1 Einsteins Thoery

The resolution eventually came from the famous genius Albert Einstein in
1905 (His Nobel prize was in fact awarded for his work on photoelectric effect).
Stay tuned, not everyone has the luck to learn about the great thoughts from

The problem is that light is a wave, which is impossible to have the photo-
electric effect. To solve this problem, Einstein postulate the following


1. Light is not a just wave, but also a beam of localized particles called

2. Each photon has energy E = hf ; if there are n photon then the total
E = nhf
3. The intensity of a beam of light is related to the number of photon in
there but not the energy of the individual photon

4. In the photoelectric effect, a photon somehow collide with the electron, and
during the interaction, the photon transfer all its energy to the electron
hence kicking it out from the metal.

3.2 Photoelectric Effect as Collision

Now light is not a wave, problem solved. In particular, the photoelectric effect
can be explained in a simple particle collision picture, which you know well
enough to analyze.

We can imagine the electron has a initial attractive potential energy ,

then upon the interaction with the photon, we obtain the kinetic energy of the
electron as

K = hf (1)

And the reason why there is a cutoff frequency f0 is because the incoming
photon must have enough energy to overcome the attraction from the work
function, so the cutoff occurs when after absorbing the photon, the electron has
exactly zero energy (meaning the electron is completely free from attraction but
has no motion)

0 = hf0 (2)

f0 = (3)

But since c = f , we can also write down the cutoff wavelength

= (4)

Finally, this particle picture of light also explain why the photocurrent still
proportion to light intensity and why the first emission of electron occurs almost
immediately. Since the intensity of light tells you how many photon is there
in your light beam, so more intense light has more photon and causes more
electron to be kicked out. Being a measurement of how many electron is flowing
(I = q
t ), I is naturally proportional to the intensity of the current. Also, since
photoelectric effect is interpreted as some sort of collision between photons and
electrons, it is natural that the electron is immediately kicked out when it got
shined by a light.

4 Conclusion

4.1 Wave? Particle?

Ok. So in the beginning I said light is wave because only wave, but not particle,
can interfere. But now I said light is particle because only if it is something like
a particle, but not wave, then can it exhibit the photoelectric effect. So whats
the deal?

The answer took quite a great effort for the 20th century physicists to figure
out, and the final answer is No and No.

Light is not a classical wave nor a classical particle. It is not something

that we can describe fully using our knowledge of classical physics. We need
something else; we need a new formalism of physics to understand these objects,

and this is what we called nowaday Quantum Mechanics. In the language of
quantum mechanics, light is not a wave nor a particle, it is a quantum called
the photon. It is localized like particles but can interfere with each others
like a wave. And while it has definite momentum and energy like a particle,
you cannot know where exactly is it at any moment; it is spreaded out like
a wave. Strange things like this happen all the time in quantum mechanics,
and to understand how photon interact exactly with electrons would require
something called QED (quantum electrodynamics), which is one step (or several
steps) further from quantum mechanics.

Historically, photoelectric effect is the starting point of the whole story of

quantum mechanics, which is one of the two main branch of our modern physics.
Perhaps thats why you are forced to study it by DSE. I would love to tell you
more about quantum mechanics, but that is a bit too far beyond your DSE

5 Exercise

1. A 75-W light source consumes 75 W of electrical power. Assume all this

energy goes into emitted light of wavelength 600 nm. (a) Calculate the frequency
of the emitted light. (b) How many photons per second does the source emit?
(c) Are the answers to parts (a) and (b) the same? Is the frequency of the light
the same thing as the number of photons emitted per second? Explain.

Ans: (a)5.00 1014 Hz, (b) 1.13 1019 photons.

2. What would the minimum work function for a metal have to be for visible light
(380750 nm) to eject photoelectrons?

Ans: 1.77eV

3. When ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 400.0 nm falls on a certain metal

surface, the maximum kinetic energy of the emitted photoelectrons is measured to
be 1.10 eV. What is the maximum kinetic energy of the photoelectrons when light of
wavelength 300.0 nm falls on the same surface?

Ans: 2.14eV

4. The photoelectric work function of potassium is 2.3 eV. If light having a wave-
length of 250 nm falls on potassium, find (a) the stopping potential in volts; (b) the
kinetic energy in electron volts of the most energetic electrons ejected; (c) the speed
of these electrons. (Electron has mass me = 9.11 1031 kg)

Ans: (a) 2.7V , (b) 2.7eV , (c) 9.7 105 m/s

5. A metal surface has a photoelectric cutoff wavelength of 325.6 nm. It is illumi-

nated with light of wavelength 259.8 nm. What is the stopping potential?

Ans: 0.964 V