Electromagnetic Wave Transmission

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Electromagnetic wave transmission is the transmission of electrical energy by wires, the broadcasting of radio signals, and the phenomenon of visible light are all examples of the propagation of electromagnetic energy. Electromagnetic energy travels in the form of a wave. Its speed of travel is approximately 3 x 108 m/s (186,000 mi/sec) in a vacuum and is somewhat slower than this in liquid and solid insulators. An electromagnetic wave does not penetrate far into an electrical conductor, and a wave that's incident on the surface of a good conductor is largely reflected.

Electromagnetic waves originate from accelerated electric charges. For example, a radio wave originates from the oscillatory acceleration of electrons in the transmitting antenna. The light that's produced within a laser originates when electrons fall from a higher energy level to a lower one.

The waves emitted from a source are oscillatory and are described in terms of frequency of oscillation. The method of generating an electromagnetic wave depends on the frequency used, as do the techniques of transmitting the energy to another location and utilizing it when it has been received. Communication of information to a distant point is generally accomplished through the use of electromagnetic energy as a carrier.

The figure below shows the configuration of the electric and magnetic fields about a short vertical antenna in which flows a sinusoidal current. The picture applies either to an antenna in free space (in which case the illustration shows only the upper half of the fields), or to an antenna projecting above the surface of a highly conducting plane surface. In the latter case the conducting plane represents to a first approximation the surface of the Earth. The fields have symmetry about the axis through the antenna. For pictorial simplicity only selected portions of the fields are shown in this illustration. The magnetic field is circular about the antenna, is perpendicular at every point to the direction of the electric field, and is proportional in intensity to the magnitude of the electric field, as in a plane wave. All parts of the wave travel radially outward from the antenna with the velocity equal to that of a plane wave in the same medium.

Configuration of electric and magnetic fields about a short vertical antenna.
ABOVE: Configuration of electric and magnetic fields about a short vertical antenna. E = electric field intensity; H = magnetic field intensity; μ = absolute permeability of the medium; ε = permittivity of the medium; λ = wavelength.

Often it's desired to concentrate the radiated energy into a narrow beam. This can be done either by the addition of more antenna elements or by placing a large reflector, generally parabolic in shape, behind the antenna. The production of a narrow beam requires an antenna array, or alternatively a reflector, that's large in width and height compared with a wavelength. The very narrow and concentrated beam that can be achieved by a laser is made possible by the extremely short wavelength of the radiation as compared with the cross-sectional dimensions of the radiating system.

The ground is a reasonably good, but not perfect, conductor; hence, the actual propagation over the surface of the Earth will show a more rapid decrease of field strength than that for a perfect conductor. Irregularities and obstructions may interfere. In long-range transmission the spherical shape of the Earth is important. Inhomogeneities in the atmosphere refract the wave somewhat. For long-range transmission, the ionized region high in the atmosphere known as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, or ionosphere, can act as a reflector.

When an electromagnetic wave is introduced into the interior of a hollow metallic pipe of suitably large cross-sectional dimensions, the energy is guided along the interior of the pipe with comparatively little loss. The most common cross-sectional shapes are the rectangle and the circle. The cross-sectional dimensions of the tube must be greater than a certain fraction of the wavelength; otherwise the wave will not propagate in the tube. For this reason hollow waveguides are commonly used only at wavelengths of 10 cm or less (frequencies of 3000 MHz or higher). A dielectric rod can also be used as a waveguide. Such a rod, if of insufficient cross-sectional dimensions, can contain the electromagnetic wave by the phenomenon of total reflection at the surface.

Electromagnetic energy can be propagated in a simple mode along two parallel conductors. Such a waveguiding system is termed a transmission line. Three common forms are the coaxial cable, two-wire line, and parallel strip line. As the wave propagates along the line, it's accompanied by currents which flow longitudinally in the conductors. These currents can be regarded as satisfying the boundary condition for the tangential field at the surface of the conductor. The conductors have a finite conductivity, and so these currents cause a transformation of electrical energy into heat. The energy lost comes from the stored energy of the wave, and so the wave, as it progresses, diminishes in amplitude. The conductors are necessarily supported by insulators which are imperfect and cause additional attenuation of the wave.

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Updated: Friday, 2007-11-16 17:28 PST