Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Changing Photon Frequency
Name: Philip
Status: student
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: N/A


Question:
If color is a function of the light energy, is it possible to pass, for example, green light through a medium of some kind which would slow it down, i.e. absorb some energy, and thereby transform the green light into, say, red light? In short, is it possible to convert light of one color into light of another color?



Replies:
The energy of a photon is not like the kinetic energy of a moving ball. Kinetic energy of a ball or other macroscopic object is proportional to the square of velocity, and you can change the velocity to any value you want (until you get to the speed of light...). Light is different, though. While the speed of light does change depending on the medium, the energy of a photon is a function of its frequency, not its velocity. Photon energy is quantized (e.g. it only exists in discrete 'packets'). You cannot change the energy of a photon continuously -- you have to skip among specific levels. Even if the photon 'slows down' slightly in a given medium, its frequency is unchanged, and therefore so is its energy.

That does not mean you cannot change its wavelength, though. There are many processes where light is absorbed by a material and ejected with a different wavelength. One that might be familiar to you is fluorescence, where light of higher energy /higher wavelength is absorbed (e.g. green), then emitted at a lower wavelength (e.g. red). The photon is not really being 'slowed down', but the wavelength in is different than the wavelength out.

I hope this helps!

Burr Zimmerman


Philip,

This does not happen because of how a medium absorbs the energy. The beam of light is made of a very large number of photons. Photons are objects that are not exactly particles and not exactly waves. They are little bundles of energy that travel together as a wave of light. When something as small as a molecule interacts with them, things happen to single photons. Each photon in the beam has the frequency of its color, of its energy. If the light is purely one color, purely one frequency, then all of the photons have the same frequency and energy. When energy is absorbed by the medium, individual molecules absorb individual photons. This makes the light dimmer, decreasing the total energy of the entire beam, but does not change the energy or frequency of the individual photons that remain.

Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Physics Instructor
Illinois Central College



Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory