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File:Blue sun.jpg

False-color image of the Sun's corona as seen in deep ultraviolet by the Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope


Black light fluorescent tubes, a common source of long wave (UVA) ultraviolet.

Ultraviolet (UV) light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than X-rays, in the range 10 nm to 400 nm, and energies from 3 eV to 124 eV. It is named because the spectrum consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies higher than those that humans identify as the color violet.

Although ultraviolet radiation is invisible to the human eye, most people are aware of the effects of UV through sunburn,and in tanning beds. The UV spectrum has many other effects, both beneficial and damaging, to human health.


The discovery of UV radiation was associated with the observation that silver salts darken when exposed to sunlight. In 1801, the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter made the hallmark observation that invisible rays just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum were especially effective at lightening silver chloride-soaked paper. He called them "oxidizing rays" to emphasize chemical reactivity and to distinguish them from "heat rays" at the other end of the visible spectrum. The simpler term "chemical rays" was adopted shortly thereafter, and it remained popular throughout the 19th century. The terms chemical and heat rays were eventually dropped in favour of ultraviolet and infrared radiation, respectively.[1]

The discovery of the ultraviolet radiation below 200 nm, named vacuum ultraviolet because it is strongly absorbed by air, was made in 1893 by the German physicist Victor Schumann.[2]

Origin of the term

The name means "beyond violet" (from Latin ultra, "beyond"), violet being the color of the shortest wavelengths of visible light. UV light has a shorter wavelength than violet light.

Template:Visible anchor

The electromagnetic spectrum of ultraviolet light can be subdivided in a number of ways. The draft ISO standard on determining solar irradiances (ISO-DIS-21348)[3] describes the following ranges:

Name Abbreviation Wavelength range in nanometers Energy per photon
Before UV spectrum Visible light above 400 nm below 3.10 eV
Ultraviolet A, long wave, or black light UVA 400 nm–315 nm 3.10–3.94 eV
Near NUV 400 nm–300 nm 3.10–4.13 eV
Ultraviolet B or medium wave UVB 315 nm–280 nm 3.94–4.43 eV
Middle MUV 300 nm–200 nm 4.13–6.20 eV
Ultraviolet C, short wave, or germicidal UVC 280 nm–100 nm 4.43–12.4 eV
Far FUV 200 nm–122 nm 6.20–10.2 eV
Vacuum VUV 200 nm–100 nm 6.20–12.4 eV
Low LUV 100 nm–88 nm 12.4–14.1 eV
Super SUV 150 nm–10 nm 8.28–124 eV
Extreme EUV 121 nm–10 nm 10.2–124 eV
Beyond UV range X-rays below 10 nm above 124 eV

Sources of UV

Natural sources of UV

The sun emits ultraviolet radiation in the UVA, UVB, and UVC bands. The Earth's ozone layer blocks 97-99% of this UV radiation from penetrating through the atmosphere.[4] Of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface, 98.7% is UVA.[citation needed] (UVC and more energetic radiation is responsible for the generation of the ozone layer, and formation of the ozone there). Extremely hot stars emit proportionally more UV radiation than the sun; the star R136a1 has a thermal energy of 4.57 eV, which falls in the near-UV range.

Ordinary glass is partially transparent to UVA but is opaque to shorter wavelengths, whereas silica or quartz glass, depending on quality, can be transparent even to vacuum UV wavelengths. Ordinary window glass passes about 90% of the light above 350 nm, but blocks over 90% of the light below 300 nm.[5][6][7]

Vacuum UV, which begins at 200 nm, can of course propagate through a vacuum—hence the name—but air is opaque to it, as these wavelengths are strongly absorbed by molecular oxygen in the air. Pure nitrogen (with less than about 10 ppm oxygen) is transparent to wavelengths in the range of about 150–200 nm. This has come to have wide practical significance since semiconductor manufacturing processes have been using wavelengths shorter than 200 nm. By working in oxygen-free gas, the equipment does not have to be built to withstand the pressure differences required to work in a vacuum. Some other scientific instruments which operate in this spectral region, such as circular dichroism spectrometers, are also commonly nitrogen-purged.

Extreme UV is characterized by a transition in the physics of interaction with matter: wavelengths longer than about 30 nm interact mainly with the chemical valence electrons of matter, whereas shorter wavelengths interact mainly with inner-shell electrons and nuclei. The long end of the EUV/XUV spectrum is set by a prominent He+ spectral line at 30.4 nm. XUV is strongly absorbed by most known materials, but it is possible to synthesize multilayer optics that reflect up to about 50% of XUV radiation at normal incidence. This technology, which was pioneered by the NIXT and MSSTA sounding rockets in the 1990s, has been used to make telescopes for solar imaging (current examples are SOHO/EIT and TRACE), and equipment for nanolithography (printing of very small-scale traces and devices on microchips).

Detecting and measuring UV radiation

Ultraviolet detection and measurement technology can vary with the part of the spectrum under consideration. While some silicon detectors are used across the spectrum, and in fact the US NIST has characterized simple silicon diodes[8] that work with visible light too, many specializations are possible for different applications. Many approaches seek to adapt visible light-sensing technologies, but these can suffer from unwanted response to visible light and various instabilities. A variety of solid-state and vacuum devices have been explored for use in different parts of the UV spectrum. Ultraviolet light can be detected by suitable photodiodes and photocathodes, which can be tailored to be sensitive to different parts of the UV spectrum. Sensitive ultraviolet photomultipliers are available.

Near UV

Between 200-400 nm, a variety of detector options exist.

Vacuum UV

Technology for VUV instrumentation has been largely driven by solar physics for many decades and more recently some photolithography applications for semiconductors. While optics can be used to remove unwanted visible light that contaminates the VUV, in general, detectors can be limited by their response to non-VUV radiation, and the development of "solar-blind" devices has been an important area of research. Wide-gap solid-state devices or vacuum devices with high-cutoff photocathodes can be attractive compared to silicon diodes. Recently, a diamond-based device flew on the LYRA (see also Marchywka Effect). Template:Expand section

Human health-related effects of UV radiation

Further information: Risks and benefits of sun exposure

The health effects ultraviolet radiation has on human health has implications on weighting the risks and benefits of sun exposure, but is also implicated in issues such as fluorescent lamps and health.

Beneficial effects

Vitamin D

Further information: vitamin D

UVB exposure induces the production of vitamin D in the skin at a rate of up to 1,000 IUs per minute. The majority of positive health effects are related to this vitamin. It has regulatory roles in calcium metabolism (which is vital for normal functioning of the nervous system, as well as for bone growth and maintenance of bone density), immunity, cell proliferation, insulin secretion, and blood pressure.[9]


Too little UVB radiation may lead to a lack of vitamin D. Too much UVB radiation may lead to direct DNA damage, sunburn, and skin cancer. An appropriate amount of UVB (which varies according to skin color) leads to a limited amount of direct DNA damage. This is recognized and repaired by the body, then melanin production is increased, which leads to a long-lasting tan. This tan occurs with a 2-day lag phase after irradiation.

Harmful effects

An overexposure to UVB radiation can cause sunburn and some forms of skin cancer. However the most deadly form - malignant melanoma - is mostly caused by the indirect DNA damage (free radicals and oxidative stress). This can be seen from the absence of a UV-signature mutation in 92% of all melanoma.[10] In humans, prolonged exposure to solar UV radiation may result in acute and chronic health effects on the skin, eye, and immune system.[11] Moreover, UVC can cause adverse affects that can variously be mutagenic or carcinogenic.[12]

UVC rays are the highest energy, most dangerous type of ultraviolet light. Little attention has been given to UVC rays in the past since they are filtered out by the atmosphere. However, their use in equipment such as pond sterilization units may pose an exposure risk, if the lamp is switched on outside of its enclosed pond sterilization unit.

On April 13, 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization classified all categories and wavelengths of Ultraviolet Radiation as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is the highest level designation for carcinogens and means "There is enough evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans".

File:DNA UV mutation.svg

Ultraviolet photons harm the DNA molecules of living organisms in different ways. In one common damage event, adjacent thymine bases bond with each other, instead of across the "ladder". This "thymine dimer" makes a bulge, and the distorted DNA molecule does not function properly.


High intensities of UVB light are hazardous to the eyes, and exposure can cause welder's flash (photokeratitis or arc eye) and may lead to cataracts, pterygium,[13][14] and pinguecula formation.

UV light is absorbed by molecules known as chromophores, which are present in the eye cells and tissues. Chromophores absorb light energy from the various wavelengths at different rates - a pattern known as absorption spectrum. If too much UV light is absorbed, eye structures such as the cornea, the lens and the retina can be damaged.

Protective eyewear is beneficial to those who are working with or those who might be exposed to ultraviolet radiation, particularly short wave UV. Given that light may reach the eye from the sides, full coverage eye protection is usually warranted if there is an increased risk of exposure, as in high altitude mountaineering. Mountaineers are exposed to higher than ordinary levels of UV radiation, both because there is less atmospheric filtering and because of reflection from snow and ice.

Ordinary, untreated eyeglasses give some protection. Most plastic lenses give more protection than glass lenses, because, as noted above, glass is transparent to UVA and the common acrylic plastic used for lenses is less so. Some plastic lens materials, such as polycarbonate, inherently block most UV. There are protective treatments available for eyeglass lenses that need it, which will give better protection. But even a treatment that completely blocks UV will not protect the eye from light that arrives around the lens.

Applications of UV

By wavelength:[15]

  • 13.5 nm: Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography
  • 230-400 nm: Optical sensors, various instrumentation
  • 230-365 nm: UV-ID, label tracking, barcodes
  • 240-280 nm: Disinfection, decontamination of surfaces and water (DNA absorption has a peak at 260 nm)
  • 250-300 nm: Forensic analysis, drug detection
  • 270-300 nm: Protein analysis, DNA sequencing, drug discovery
  • 280-400 nm: Medical imaging of cells
  • 300-400 nm: Solid-state lighting
  • 300-365 nm: Curing of polymers and printer inks
  • 300-320 nm: Light therapy in medicine
  • 350-370 nm: Bug zappers (flies are most attracted to light at 365 nm)[16]

Biological surveys and pest control

Some animals, including birds, reptiles, and insects such as bees, can see near-ultraviolet light. Many fruits, flowers, and seeds stand out more strongly from the background in ultraviolet wavelengths as compared to human color vision. Scorpions glow or take on a yellow to green color under UV illumination, thus assisting in the control of these arachnids. Many birds have patterns in their plumage that are invisible at usual wavelengths but observable in ultraviolet, and the urine and other secretions of some animals, including dogs, cats, and human beings, is much easier to spot with ultraviolet. Urine trails of rodents can be detected by pest control technicians for proper treatment of infested dwellings.

Butterflies use ultraviolet as a communication system for sex recognition and mating behavior.

Main article: Ultraviolet communication

Many insects use the ultraviolet wavelength emissions from celestial objects as references for flight navigation. A local ultraviolet emissor will normally disrupt the navigation process and will eventually attract the flying insect.

File:Ultraviolet trap entomologist.jpg

Entomologist using a UV light for collecting beetles in the Paraguayan Chaco.

Ultraviolet traps called bug zappers are used to eliminate various small flying insects. They are attracted to the UV light, and are killed using an electric shock, or trapped once they come into contact with the device. Different designs of ultraviolet light traps are also used by entomologists for collecting nocturnal insects during faunistic survey studies.


UV/VIS spectroscopy is widely used as a technique in chemistry, to analyze chemical structure, the most notable one being conjugated systems. UV radiation is often used in visible spectrophotometry to determine the fluorescence of a given sample. In biological research, UV light is used for quantification of nucleic acids or proteins.


Reptiles need long wave UV light for de novo synthesis of vitamin D. Vitamin D is needed to metabolize calcium for bone and egg production. Thus, in a typical reptile enclosure, a fluorescent UV lamp should be available for vitamin D synthesis. This should be combined with the provision of heat for basking, either in the same or by another lamp.

Evolutionary significance

Evolution of early reproductive proteins and enzymes is attributed in modern models of evolutionary theory to ultraviolet light. UVB light causes thymine base pairs next to each other in genetic sequences to bond together into thymine dimers, a disruption in the strand that reproductive enzymes cannot copy (see picture above). This leads to frameshifting during genetic replication and protein synthesis, usually killing the organism. As early prokaryotes began to approach the surface of the ancient oceans, before the protective ozone layer had formed, blocking out most wavelengths of UV light, they almost invariably died out. The few that survived had developed enzymes that verified the genetic material and broke up thymine dimer bonds, known as base excision repair enzymes. Many enzymes and proteins involved in modern mitosis and meiosis are similar to excision repair enzymes, and are believed to be evolved modifications of the enzymes originally used to overcome UV light.[17]

See also

  • High-energy visible light
  • Infrared light
  • Risks and benefits of sun exposure


  1. Hockberger, P. E. (2002). A history of ultraviolet photobiology for humans, animals and microorganisms. Photochem. Photobiol. 76 (6): 561–579.
  2. The ozone layer protects humans from this. Lyman, T. (1914). Victor Schumann. Astrophysical Journal 38: 1–4.
  3. ISO 21348 Process for Determining Solar Irradiances.
  4. Ozone layer. URL accessed on 2007-09-23.
  5. Soda Lime Glass Transmission Curve.
  6. B270-Superwite Glass Transmission Curve.
  7. Selected Float Glass Transmission Curve.
  8. Gullikson, Korde, Canfield, Vest, " Stable Silicon Photodiodes for absolute intensity measurements in the VU V and soft x-ray regions", Jrnl of Elec. Spect. and Related Phenomena 80(1996) 313-316. URL accessed on 2011-11-08.
  9. Oregon State University. URL accessed on 2011-11-08.
  10. Davies H.; Bignell G. R.; Cox C.; (June 2002). Mutations of the BRAF gene in human cancer. Nature 417 (6892): 949–954.
  11. Health effects of UV radiation.
  12. C.Michael Hogan. 2011. Sunlight. eds. P.saundry & C.Cleveland. Encyclopedia of Earth.
  13. Nolan, T. M. et al. (2003). The Role of Ultraviolet Irradiation and Heparin-Binding Epidermal Growth Factor-Like Growth Factor in the Pathogenesis of Pterygium. American Journal of Pathology 162 (2): 567–74.
  14. Di Girolamo, N. et al. (1 August 2005). Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Signaling Is Partially Responsible for the Increased Matrix Metalloproteinase-1 Expression in Ocular Epithelial Cells after UVB Radiation. American Journal of Pathology 167 (2): 489–503.
  15.[dead link]
  16. Ultraviolet Light, UV Rays, What is Ultraviolet, UV Light Bulbs, Fly Trap. URL accessed on 2011-11-08.
  17. Margulis, Lynn and Sagan, Dorion (1986). Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination.

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