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Portable ultraviolet lamp
UV radiation is also produced by electric arcs. Arc welders must wear eye protection and cover their skin to prevent photokeratitis and serious sunburn.

Ultraviolet (UV) is an electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength from 10 nm to 400 nm, shorter than that of visible light but longer than X-rays. UV radiation constitutes about 10% of the total light output of the Sun, and is thus present in sunlight. It is also produced by electric arcs and specialized lights, such as mercury-vapor lamps, tanning lamps, and black lights. Although it's not considered an ionizing radiation because its photons lack the energy to ionize atoms, long-wavelength ultraviolet radiation can cause chemical reactions and causes many substances to glow or fluoresce. Consequently, the chemical and biological effects of UV are greater than simple heating effects, and many practical applications of UV radiation derive from its interactions with organic molecules.

Suntan, freckling and sunburn are familiar effects of over-exposure, along with higher risk of skin cancer. Living things on dry land would be severely damaged by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun if most of it were not filtered out by the Earth's atmosphere. [4] More-energetic, shorter-wavelength "extreme" UV below 121 nm ionizes air so strongly that it is absorbed before it reaches the ground. [8] Ultraviolet is also responsible for the formation of bone-strengthening vitamin D in most land vertebrates, including humans. [11] The UV spectrum thus has effects both beneficial and harmful to human health.

Ultraviolet rays are invisible to most humans, although insects, birds, and some mammals can see near-UV.


Ultraviolet rays are invisible to most humans: the lens in a human eye ordinarily filters out UVB frequencies or higher, and humans lack color receptor adaptations for ultraviolet rays. Under some conditions, children and young adults can see ultraviolet down to wavelengths of about 310 nm, and people with aphakia (missing lens) or replacement lens can also see some UV wavelengths. [14] [16] Near-UV radiation is visible to insects, some mammals, and birds. Small birds have a fourth color receptor for ultraviolet rays; this gives birds "true" UV vision. [18]


"Ultraviolet" means "beyond violet" (from Latin ultra, "beyond"), violet being the color of the highest frequencies of visible light. Ultraviolet has a higher frequency than violet light.

UV radiation was discovered in 1801 when the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter observed that invisible rays just beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum darkened silver chloride -soaked paper more quickly than violet light itself. He called them "oxidizing rays" to emphasize chemical reactivity and to distinguish them from "heat rays", discovered the previous year 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, although there were those who held that these were an entirely different sort of radiation from light (notably John William Draper, who named them "tithonic rays"). The terms chemical and heat rays were eventually dropped in favour of ultraviolet and infrared radiation, respectively. [20] In 1878 the sterilizing effect of short-wavelength light by killing bacteria was discovered. By 1903 it was known the most effective wavelengths were around 250 nm. In 1960, the effect of ultraviolet radiation on DNA was established. [4]

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. [22]


The electromagnetic spectrum of ultraviolet radiation (UVR), defined most broadly as 10–400 nanometers, can be subdivided into a number of ranges recommended by the ISO standard ISO-21348: [4]

Name Abbreviation Wavelength (nm) Photon energy (eV, aJ) Notes / alternative names
Ultraviolet A UVA 315–400 3.10–3.94, 0.497–0.631 Long-wave, black light, not absorbed by the ozone layer
Ultraviolet B UVB 280–315 3.94–4.43, 0.631–0.710 Medium-wave, mostly absorbed by the ozone layer
Ultraviolet C UVC 100–280 4.43–12.4, 0.710–1.987 Short-wave, germicidal, completely absorbed by the ozone layer and atmosphere
Near ultraviolet NUV 300–400 3.10–4.13, 0.497–0.662 Visible to birds, insects and fish
Middle ultraviolet MUV 200–300 4.13–6.20, 0.662–0.993
Far ultraviolet FUV 122–200 6.20–12.4, 0.993–1.987
Hydrogen Lyman-alpha H Lyman-α 121–122 10.16–10.25, 1.628–1.642 Spectral line at 121.6 nm, 10.20 eV. Ionizing radiation at shorter wavelengths
Vacuum ultraviolet VUV 10–200 6.20–124, 0.993–19.867 Strongly absorbed by atmospheric oxygen, though 150–200 nm wavelengths can propagate through nitrogen
Extreme ultraviolet EUV 10–121 10.25–124, 1.642–19.867 Entirely ionizing radiation by some definitions; completely absorbed by the atmosphere

A variety of solid-state and vacuum devices have been explored for use in different parts of the UV spectrum. Many approaches seek to adapt visible light-sensing devices, but these can suffer from unwanted response to visible light and various instabilities. Ultraviolet 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. Spectrometers and radiometers are made for measurement of UV radiation. Silicon detectors are used across the spectrum. [4]

People cannot perceive UV directly, since the lens of the human eye blocks most radiation in the wavelength range of 300–400 nm; shorter wavelengths are blocked by the cornea. [4] Nevertheless, the photoreceptors of the retina are sensitive to near-UV, and people lacking a lens (a condition known as aphakia) perceive near-UV as whitish-blue or whitish-violet. [4] [4]

Vacuum UV, or VUV, wavelengths (shorter than 200 nm) are strongly absorbed by molecular oxygen in the air, though the longer wavelengths of about 150–200 nm can propagate through nitrogen. Scientific instruments can therefore utilize this spectral range by operating in an oxygen-free atmosphere (commonly pure nitrogen), without the need for costly vacuum chambers. Significant examples include 193 nm photolithography equipment (for semiconductor manufacturing) and circular dichroism spectrometers.

Technology for VUV instrumentation was largely driven by solar astronomy for many decades. 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.

Extreme UV (EUV or sometimes XUV) is characterized by a transition in the physics of interaction with matter. Wavelengths longer than about 30 nm interact mainly with the outer valence electrons of atoms, while wavelengths shorter than that interact mainly with inner-shell electrons and nuclei. The long end of the EUV spectrum is set by a prominent He + spectral line at 30.4 nm. EUV is strongly absorbed by most known materials, but it is possible to synthesize multilayer optics that reflect up to about 50% of EUV radiation at normal incidence. This technology was pioneered by the NIXT and MSSTA sounding rockets in the 1990s, and has been used to make telescopes for solar imaging.

Solar ultraviolet

Very hot objects emit UV radiation (see black-body radiation). The Sun emits ultraviolet radiation at all wavelengths, including the extreme ultraviolet where it crosses into X-rays at 10 nm. Extremely hot stars emit proportionally more UV radiation than the Sun. Sunlight in space at the top of Earth's atmosphere (see solar constant) is composed of about 50% infrared light, 40% visible light, and 10% ultraviolet light, for a total intensity of about 1400 W/m 2 in vacuum. [4]

However, at ground level sunlight is 44% visible light, 3% ultraviolet (with the Sun at its zenith), and the remainder infrared. [4] [8] Thus, the atmosphere blocks about 77% of the Sun's UV, almost entirely in the shorter UV wavelengths, when the Sun is highest in the sky (zenith). Of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface, more than 95% is the longer wavelengths of UVA, with the small remainder UVB. There is essentially no UVC. [42] The fraction of UVB which remains in UV radiation after passing through the atmosphere is heavily dependent on cloud cover and atmospheric conditions. Thick clouds block UVB effectively, but in "partly cloudy" days, patches of blue sky showing between clouds are also sources of (scattered) UVA and UVB, which are produced by Rayleigh scattering in the same way as the visible blue light from those parts of the sky.

The shorter bands of UVC, as well as even more-energetic UV radiation produced by the Sun, are absorbed by oxygen and generate the ozone in the ozone layer when single oxygen atoms produced by UV photolysis of dioxygen react with more dioxygen. The ozone layer is especially important in blocking most UVB and the remaining part of UVC not already blocked by ordinary oxygen in air.

Blockers and absorbers

Ultraviolet absorbers are molecules used in organic materials (polymers, paints, etc.) to absorb UV radiation to reduce the UV degradation (photo-oxidation) of a material. The absorbers can themselves degrade over time, so monitoring of absorber levels in weathered materials is necessary.

In sunscreen, ingredients that absorb UVA/UVB rays, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone [8] and octyl methoxycinnamate, are organic chemical absorbers or "blockers". They are contrasted with inorganic absorbers/"blockers" of UV radiation such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

For clothing, the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) represents the ratio of sunburn -causing UV without and with the protection of the fabric, similar to SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings for sunscreen. Standard summer fabrics have UPF of approximately 6, which means that about 20% of UV will pass through.

Suspended nanoparticles in stained glass prevent UV rays from causing chemical reactions that change image colors. A set of stained glass color reference chips is planned to be used to calibrate the color cameras for the 2019 ESA Mars rover mission, since they will remain unfaded by the high level of UV present at the surface of Mars. [8]

Common soda lime glass is partially transparent to UVA but is opaque to shorter wavelengths, whereas fused quartz glass, depending on quality, can be transparent even to wavelengths. Ordinary window glass passes about 90% of the light above 350 nm, but blocks over 90% of the light below 300 nm. [8] [8] [8]

Wood's glass is a nickel-bearing form of glass with a deep blue-purple color that blocks most visible light and passes ultraviolet.

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