The photoelectric effect is the basis for solar panels. It’s really famous because it’s also some of the first evidence we had that light was a particle (this of course became extremely confusing when the double slit experiment gave us evidence that light was a wave, but that’s for another time.)
First, remember that materials are made of atoms, which are made of protons and neutrons and orbited by electrons:
Different materials hold their electrons more or less tightly. Metals happen to hold their electrons pretty loosely, like kids in a neighborhood where all the kids just run around wherever they want:
These kids wander around wherever they feel like it, but they generally stay inside the metal (in this case copper). However, they can get knocked out of the metal by light (photons).
This is kind of like a game of red rover (I hated this game so much when I was a kid.) Let’s imagine that the kids line up at the edge of their town, and they play red rover with the neighboring kids, who just happen to be photons (light). The kids are there just hanging out in the metal, and the photon comes and tries to knock them out.
If the photon is weak enough, nothing happens.
In fact, if the photons are too weak, it doesn’t matter how many of them hit the metal, no electrons are knocked off.
In photon-terms, a weak photon is one without a lot of energy. The energy of a photon is its frequency, which is also its color. For example, red is a lower frequency than blue. And, infra-red is lower frequency than red. Ultra-violet is higher frequency that violet. Radio waves are lower frequency than infra-red, and x-rays are higher frequency than ultra-violet. (All of these are just frequencies of light that we can’t see.)
So, if the light hitting the electrons gets more energy, let’s say its violet now (like violent!)
Now, the more photons that hit the metal, the more electrons will be kicked off.
Different metals hold their electrons more or less tightly, so different metals require different energies of photons before electrons will get kicked off. This is called the “work function” of the metal, and it’s often denoted with the Greek letter phi:
Sometimes the incoming photon has more energy than it needs to kick off an electron. If that’s the case, then the leftover energy becomes kinetic energy of the electron. (i.e. the stronger the kid from the neighboring town is, the faster you’ll be going when he tosses you out of the line of electrons.) Here’s the fancy equation for that, if you’re interested:
But, we said earlier that the energy of a photon depends on its frequency. It turns out we can calculate the energy of the photon by taking its frequency (in Hertz) and multiplying it by planck’s constant (6.6 x 10-34). This gives us the energy in Joules. So, another way to write the above equation is this:
For example, the work function of copper is 4.7 electron volts, which is 7.53e-19 Joules. This works out to a frequency of 1.14e15 Hz, which is a wavelength of 260 nanometers of light. This is higher than the visible spectrum, it’s just into the ultraviolet range, so you need ultraviolet light to knock electrons off of copper (or gamma rays 🙂
The really cool thing is that this is evidence that light is a particle. Because, if you hook up some wires to the piece of copper, and you hook those wires up to a detector that makes a sound every time there’s some current (ie. every time an electron gets kicked off- current is just moving electrons) it would make a sound like rain on a tin roof.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Concerns?