Photoelectric effect

Emission of electrons when light hits a material

The photoelectric effect is a phenomenon in physics. The effect is based on the idea that electromagnetic radiation is made of a series of particles called photons.[1] When a photon hits an electron on a metal surface, the electron can be emitted.[2] The emitted electrons are called photoelectrons.[1] The effect is also called the Hertz Effect,[3][4] because it was discovered by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, but this name is not used often. The photoelectric effect has helped physicists understand the quantum nature of light and electrons. The concept of wave–particle duality was developed because of the photoelectric effect. Albert Einstein proposed the Laws of Photoelectric Effect and won the Nobel Prize For Physics 1921.

Photoelectric effect
A diagram that shows how electrons are emitted from a metal plate
Light-matter interaction
Low energy phenomena Photoelectric effect
Mid-energy phenomena Compton scattering
High energy phenomena Pair production


Not every electromagnetic wave will cause the photoelectric effect, only radiation of a certain frequency or higher will cause the effect. The minimum frequency needed is called the "cutoff frequency" or "threshold frequency'. The cutoff frequency is used to find the work function,  , which is the amount of energy holding the electron to the metal surface. The work function is a property of the metal and is not affected by the incoming radiation. If a frequency of light strikes the metal surface that is greater than the cutoff frequency, then the emitted electron will have some kinetic energy.

The energy of a photon causing the photoelectric effect is found through  , where   is Planck's constant, 6.626×10−34 J·s,   is the frequency of the electromagnetic wave,   is the kinetic energy of the photoelectron and   is the work function for the metal. If the photon has a lot of energy, Compton scattering (~ thousands of eV) or pair production (~ millions of eV) may take place.

The intensity of the light alone does not cause ejection of electrons. Only light of the cut off frequency or higher can do that. However, increasing the intensity of light will increase the number of electrons being emitted, as long as the frequency is above the cut off frequency.


Heinrich Hertz made the first observation of the photoelectric effect in 1887.[5] He reported that a spark jumped more readily between two charged spheres if light was shining on them. Further studies were done to learn about the effect observed by Hertz. In 1902, Philipp Lenard showed that the kinetic energy of a photoelectron does not depend on the light intensity.[6] However, it was not until 1905 that Einstein proposed a theory that explained the effect fully. The theory says that electromagnetic radiation is a series of particles, called photons. The photons collide with the electrons on the surface and emit them.[7] This theory ran against the belief that electromagnetic radiation was a wave. Thus, at first it was not recognised as correct. In 1916, Robert Millikan published the results of experiments using a vacuum photo-tube.[8] His work showed that Einstein's photoelectric equation explained the behaviour very accurately. However, Millikan and other scientists were slower to accept Einstein's theory of light quanta.[9] Maxwell's wave theory of electromagnetic radiation cannot explain the photoelectric effect and blackbody radiation. These are explained by quantum mechanics.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Skoog, Douglas A., Stanley R. Crouch, and F. James. Holler. Principles of Instrumental Analysis. Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/cole, 2007. ISBN 0-495-01201-7
  2. Serway, Raymond A. (1990). Physics for Scientists & Engineers. Saunders. pp. p. 1150. ISBN 0030302587.CS1 maint: extra text (link)
  3. The American journal of science. (1880). New Haven: J.D. & E.S. Dana. Page 234
  4. Wolfram Scienceworld describes the terminology of the photoelectric effect and the previous usage of the term Hertz Effect.
  5. Hertz, Heinrich (1887), "Ueber einen Einfluss des ultravioletten Lichtes auf die electrische Entladung" [On an Influence of Ultraviolet Light on Electrical Discharge] (PDF), Annalen der Physik, 31 (8): 983–1000, doi:10.1002/andp.18872670827
  6. Lenard, P. (1902), "Ueber die lichtelektrische Wirkung" [On the Photoelectric Effect] (PDF), Annalen der Physik, 8 (5): 149–198, doi:10.1002/andp.19023130510
  7. Einstein, Albert (1905), "Über einen die Erzeugung und Verwandlung des Lichtes betreffenden heuristischen Gesichtspunkt" [On a Heuristic Point of View about the Creation and Conversion of Light] (PDF), Annalen der Physik, 17 (6): 132–148, doi:10.1002/andp.19053220607
  8. Millikan, R. A. (March 1916), "A Direct Photoelectric Determination of Planck's "h"", Physical Review, 7 (3): 355–388, doi:10.1103/PhysRev.7.355
  9. Niaz, Mansoor; Klassen, Stephen; McMillan, Barbara; Metz, Don (September 2010), "Reconstruction of the history of the photoelectric effect and its implications for general physics textbooks", Science Studies and Science Education, 94 (5): 903–931, doi:10.1002/sce.20389

Other websitesEdit