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Photoelectric effect: How to understand the revolutionary experiment just like Einstein did

Basic experimental setup for the photoelectric effect
Level 2 (suitable for students)
Level 2 requires school mathematics. Suitable for pupils.
Updated by Alexander Fufaev on
Table of contents
  1. Experiment: Setup for the photoelectric effect Here you will learn everything you need to verify the photoelectric effect experimentally.
  2. Light particles for bombarding the electrode Here you will learn about the energy of light particles as an important basis for the photoelectric effect.
  3. Accelerating and stopping voltage between the electrodes Here you will learn what effect the polarity of the voltage applied to the capacitor has and how it is used in the photoelectric effect.
  4. Ejected electrons generate photocurrent Here you'll learn how to determine that electrons are being ejected.
  5. Overcome work function of the illuminated electrode Here the binding of the electron in the electrode is explained, which is represented by the work function.
  6. Photoelectric effect equation as a consequence of conservation of energy Here an experimentally useful formula for the photoelectric effect is explained and derived.
  7. Energy-frequency graph for the photoelectric effect Here, the linear relationship between energy and frequency is explained and how Planck's constant, work function and cutoff frequency can be determined from this.
  8. Photoelectric effect shows contradictions to wave theory Here you will find four contradictions to the classical wave theory shown by the experiment on the photoelectric effect.

The photoelectric effect is a phenomenon in which light ejects electrons from matter. Albert Einstein succeeded in the revolutionary explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905. His explanation paved the way for quantum physics and opened up many modern technical applications, such as solar cells and light sensors.

The goal of this lesson is to understand exactly how the photoelectric effect is explained and why it is represented by the following equations:

Formulas for the photoelectric effect
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Experiment: Setup for the photoelectric effect

Illustration : This is how a basic experimental setup for the photoelectric effect may look like. Light source, capacitor, voltmeter and ammeter.

To demonstrate the photoelectric effect, you basically need four things:

  1. Monochromatic light source - with this you create single-color light (e.g. green light). A vapor lamp (with sodium or mercury vapor) is fine for this purpose.

  2. Plate capacitor - consists of two metal plates (called electrodes) between which a voltage \(U\) can be applied. For the photoelectric effect, it should also be possible to change the polarity of the voltage. That means: It should be possible to charge one electrode positively (+) and the other negatively (-) and vice versa.

  3. Ammeter - is a current meter that allows you to measure the electric current \(I_{\text p}\) between the two electrodes.

  4. Voltmeter - is a voltage meter with which you can read off the set voltage \(U\) between the two electrodes.

Light particles for bombarding the electrode

The revolutionary aspect in the explanation of the photoelectric effect is the assumption that the light of the used light source does not propagate wave-like, but particle-like. We assume that the light consists of quite many light particles, which we call photons.

As soon as we illuminate one of the electrodes using the light source, many photons hit the electrode. This can trigger the photoelectric effect, because these light particles have a certain energy, which is then transferred to the electrode. We refer to the energy that a single photon has as photon energy \( W_{\text p} \). In monochromatic light, all photons have equal energy. This amount of energy that a photon has determines whether it can knock out an electron or not.

The light quantum hypothesis established by Einstein states that we can obtain the energy \( W_{\text p} \) of a single photon by multiplying the light frequency \(f\) with the Planck's constant \(h\):

Energy of a photon expressed with frequency
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Illustration : Four photons with a different frequency \( f \) have different energy.

The Planck's constant \( h = 6.626 \cdot 10^{-34} \, \mathrm{Js} \) is a physical constant which appears in the equations whenever nature shows quantum effects. In our case, light shows a quantum effect by occurring in 'small portions'.

Since the Planck's constant \(h\) does not change, you can read off from the equation 2 that the light frequency \( f \) alone determines how large the energy \( W_{\text p} \) of a photon is.

Frequency determines photon energy

The greater the light frequency \(f\) of the light, the greater the energy of a photon.

Sometimes instead of the light frequency \(f\), the light wavelength \( \lambda \) ("Lamda") is known. But this is not a problem, because the frequency is related to the wavelength by the speed of light \( c \) as follows: \( f = c / \lambda \). If instead of the frequency \( f \) the wavelength \( \lambda \) is given, then you can express the photon energy 2 with the help of the wavelength as follows:

Energy of a photon expressed with wavelength
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The speed of light is also like the Planck's constant a physical constant and has the following value:

Value of the speed of light

From the equation 3 you can see that photons with a smaller (shorter) wavelength carry a larger energy! Red light, for example, has a longer wavelength than blue light. The photons of the red light have a smaller energy than the photons of the blue light.

Illustration : Wavelength can be used alternatively to frequency to find out the energy of a photon. The largest wavelength here has the red light.
Table : Examples of light wavelengths, associated frequencies, energies, and colors.
Wavelength \(\lambda\)Frequency \(f\)Photon energy \(W_{\text p}\)
780 nm3.8 × 1014 Hz2.5 × 10-19 J
546 nm5.5 × 1014 Hz3.6 × 10-19 J
435 nm6.9 × 1014 Hz4.6 × 10-19 J
400 nm7.5 × 1014 Hz5 × 10-19 J
365 nm (UV light)8.2 × 1014 Hz5.4 × 10-19 J

Many photons generated by the light source fly towards the electrode surface at the speed of light and are absorbed by it. If a photon has a sufficiently large energy, it can release an electron. Here we have to answer two important questions:

  • How do I know that electrons are being ejected? I can't see them with the naked eye...

  • What does 'sufficiently large energy' mean here?

Keep reading and you won't have these questions anymore.

Accelerating and stopping voltage between the electrodes

In order to be able to answer these questions at all, we must first set up the capacitor's polarity appropriately.

If a voltage \(U\) is applied between the two electrodes, the electrodes can be polarized in two ways:

  1. The illuminated electrode is negatively charged and the opposite electrode is positively charged. In this case, an electron released from the illuminated electrode would be attracted by the opposite positive electrode. With this polarity, the voltage is called accelerating voltage \(U_{\text B}\) (see illustration 4).

  2. The illuminated electrode is positively charged and the opposite electrode is negatively charged. In this case, an electron released from the illuminated electrode would be repelled by the opposite negative electrode. With this polarity, the voltage is called stopping voltage \(U_{\text G}\) (see illustration 5).

What is the difference between the accelerating and stopping voltage in the photoelectric effect?

The accelerating voltage \(U_{\text B}\) would accelerate an ejected electron to the opposite electrode. The stopping voltage \(U_{\text G}\) would decelerate an ejected electron.

Illustration : Applied accelerating voltage accelerates electrons to the opposite electrode.
Capacitor with set stopping voltage for photoelectric effect
Hover the image! Get this illustration
Illustration : Applied stopping voltage slows down electrons so that they have difficulty reaching the opposite electrode.

When an electron moves from one charged electrode to the other, it gains or loses potential (electric) energy depending on whether accelerating voltage or stopping voltage is applied. The electron with elementary charge \(e\) gains / loses the following electrical energy \(W_{\text e}\) if it passes through the voltage \( U \):

Energy gain/loss when passing through a voltage
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As can be seen from Eq. 4, an electron loses/gains more energy when a larger voltage \(U\) is applied.

  • Electron gains energy \( e \, U_{\text B} \) when accelerating voltage \( U_{\text B} \) is set between electrodes. The electron accelerates to the opposite electrode.

  • Electron loses energy \( e \, U_{\text G} \) when the stopping voltage \( U_{\text G} \) is set between the electrodes. The electron is decelerated by the opposite electrode.

Ejected electrons generate photocurrent

To determine whether electrons are being ejected, we need an ammeter that measures the electric current between the two electrodes. If the electrode is now illuminated with a sufficiently high frequency of light, the ammeter will indicate a non-zero current. This is exactly the electric current that is used to prove that the light ejects the electrons.

What is a photocurrent?

An electric current caused by ejected electrons is called photocurrent \(I_{\text p}\).

If we switch off the light, then the photocurrent drops to zero. When we switch on the light again, the ammeter shows a value different from zero. The photocurrent \(I_{\text p}\) between the two electrodes can be controlled in two ways:

  1. Vary the light intensity: For example, you can use an aperture to regulate the intensity of the incident light and thus vary the number of photons that hit the electrode. This also changes the number of electrons ejected. Doubling the light intensity, and thus doubling the number of photons, results in doubled photocurrent.

  2. Change voltage: With the help of a higher accelerating voltage, you can accelerate slower electrons so that they also reach the opposite electrode and thus contribute to the higher photocurrent. With the help of a larger stopping voltage, on the other hand, you can slow down faster electrons, so that they do not reach the opposite electrode and thus the photocurrent decreases.

If the voltage source is switched off, you can still measure a photocurrent with a proper light frequency, because some electrons fly straight towards the opposite electrode after being released. However, keep in mind that not all of the released electrons - with the voltage switched off - land on the opposite electrode. The measured photocurrent is not maximized! The reason for this is that some electrons exit the illuminated electrode at an angle and miss the opposite electrode.

Illustration : In the photoelectric effect, the photocurrent increases with the accelerating voltage and reaches saturation because all electrons are already 'sucked in'.

How can you make sure that ALL the electrons ejected end up on the electrode? Or in other words: How can you maximize the photocurrent? This is where the previously learned accelerating voltage comes into play! Increase the accelerating voltage \(U_{\text B}\). This makes the opposite plate even more positively charged. Of course, this results in a greater attractive force on all the electrons that are knocked out. Increase the voltage as long as the photocurrent \(I_{\text p}\) also increases. If you increase the voltage so that the photocurrent at the ammeter does not change any more, i.e., goes into saturation, then all electrons land on the opposite electrode. The electrical attraction of the opposite electrode on the electrons becomes so strong that even the obliquely emitted electrons are 'sucked in'. The photocurrent reaches a maximum possible value \(I_{\text{max}}\).

Example: How many electrons are extracted?

From the measured maximum photocurrent \( I_{\text{max}} \) you can figure out the number \( N \) of released electrons. The electric current tells you how much charge \( Q \) per time \( t \) passes through the ammeter. The charge \( Q = N \, e \) is a multiple of the elementary charge \( e = 1.6 \cdot 10^{-19} \, \mathrm{C} \). Rearrange for \( N \):

Number of photons as a function of the maximum photocurrent
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Within one second \( t = 1 \, \mathrm{s} \) at a measured photocurrent \( I_{\text{max}} = 0.5 \, \mathrm{A} \), so many electrons land on the opposite plate:

Photon count - example value
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At least so many photons must have hit the plate, because each electron is knocked out by exactly one photon. BAM! BAM! BAM!

Overcome work function of the illuminated electrode

In the photoelectric effect experiment, it is found that not all light is able to eject electrons. The electrons can move freely within the metallic electrode, but they cannot move out of the electrode because they are bound to it. This binding of the electron to the electrode can be overcome if you add enough energy to the electron so that it can be knocked out of the bond. But if you don't add enough energy to the electron, then of course it will continue to be bound and will not come out of the electrode.

What is work function?

The energy \(W\) required to eject an electron from a metal electrode is called work function.

The work function \(W\) differs depending on which material the electrode is made of. An electrode made of nickelium has a larger work function than an electrode made of aluminum. Electrons are more strongly bound to the nickelium electrode than to the aluminum electrode. Consequently, it will be more difficult to release electrons from the nickelium material. Here are a few examples of different materials:

Table : Examples of work function of various materials from which the illuminated electrode is made.
MaterialWork function in joulesWork function in electron volts
Cesium (Cs)3.1 × 10-19 J1.94 eV
Natrium (Na)3.6 × 10-19 J2.28 eV
Aluminium (Al)6.7 × 10-19 J4.20 eV
Zinkium (Zn)7 × 10-19 J4.34 eV
Platinium (Pt)8.6 × 10-19 J5.36 eV
What does the work function depend on?

Work function \(W\) depends on the material used for the illuminated electrode.

You probably noticed from Table 2 that the work function was not only given in Joules (J), but also in Electron volts (eV). This is a typical compact energy unit in which the work function in the photoelectric effect and other quantum mechanical effects is given.

  • Divide the energy in Joules (J) by the value of the elementary charge \( 1.6 \cdot 10^{-19} \) to express it in Electronvolts (eV).

  • Multiply the energy in Electronvolts (eV) by the value of the elementary charge \( 1.6 \cdot 10^{-19} \) to convert it to Joules (J).

How do you supply the electron with this required energy? So how do you overcome this work function and thus also the binding of the electron to the electrode? Now, photons come into play. You have learned that the photon carries an energy \( W_{\text p} \), which is determined by the light frequency \( f \) or wavelength \( \lambda \). Now there are two possibilities which can occur:

  1. Photon energy is smaller than the work function: \(W_{\text p} < W \).
    In this case, the photon cannot eject an electron.

  2. Photon energy is greater than the work function: \(W_{\text p} \geq W \).
    In this case, a photon ejects an electron.

Express work function with cutoff frequency or cutoff wavelength

Let us assume that we use photons with energy \(W_{\text p}\) smaller than the work function \(W\). So no electrons can be ejected. What do you have to do to make the photon energy greater than the work function? Look at the equations 2 and 3. You just have to use the light with a larger frequency \(f\) (smaller wavelength \(\lambda\)).

If you increase the light frequency \(f\), you will eventually arrive at the so-called cutoff frequency \(f_0\).

What is cutoff frequency?

The frequency that the light must have at least in order to eject electrons is called cutoff frequency \(f_0\).

According to 2 the photon energy \( h \, f_0 \) is exactly equal to the work function \(W\).

Work function expressed with cut-off frequency
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If you manage to set the light frequency \(f_0\) (cutoff frequency), then you can use the equation 7 to find out an important property of the illuminated material, namely its work function.

Obviously, the cutoff frequency \(f_0\) is different depending on which material is illuminated. Different materials have different work function. For nickelium (Ni), the cutoff frequency is larger than for aluminum (Al) because the electrons in nickelium electrode are more bound (nickelium has larger work function).

Using the general relationship \( c = \lambda \, f\) between the wavelength and the frequency, you can express the work function 7 using the cutoff wavelength \(\lambda_0\).

Work function expressed with cutoff wavelength
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What is cutoff wavelength?

The cutoff wavelength \(\lambda_0\) is the wavelength of light above which electrons can be released from the electrode material.

Table : Cutoff frequency and wavelength for some materials of the illuminated electrode.
MaterialCutoff frequency \(f_0\)Cutoff wavelength \(\lambda_0\)
Cesium (Cs)4.7 × 1014 Hz641 nm
Natrium (Na)5.5 × 1014 Hz545 nm
Aluminium (Al)1 × 1015 Hz297 nm
Zinkium (Zn)1.1 × 1015 Hz285 nm

Equivalent to the above two conditions for photon energy and work function, two conditions for frequency \(f\) and cutoff frequency \(f_0\) can be established:

  1. Light frequency is smaller than cutoff frequency: \(f < f_0 \).
    In this case, the photon cannot eject an electron.

  2. Light frequency is greater than cutoff frequency: \(f \geq f_0 \).
    In this case, a photon knocks out an electron.

Photoelectric effect equation as a consequence of conservation of energy

But what if you take a higher frequency of the light than the cutoff frequency \( f_0 \)? Or equivalently: What if the photon energy is much greater than the work function: \( W_{\text p} \gt W \)? A part of the photon energy (namely work function \( W \)) is needed to overcome the bond of the electron to release it from the electrode. We subtract this work function \(W\) from the photon energy. But there is still a remaining energy:

Difference between photon energy and work function
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Where is this remaining energy \( \Delta W \)? After all, it cannot simply disappear according to the energy conservation law!

In the experiment, it is observed that if you use light with sufficiently large frequency, then the ammeter will show a non-zero electric current: \( I_{\text p} \neq 0 \). As it looks, electrons released still have a velocity in the direction of the opposite electrode. And there we have our remaining energy! The remaining energy \( \Delta W \) is given to the electron in the form of kinetic energy \( W_{\text{kin}} \). The remaining energy is the kinetic energy of the ejected electron: \( W_{\text{kin}} = \Delta W \).

Kinetic energy of the extracted electron
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The larger the photon energy \( W_{\text p} \) and the smaller the work function \( W \) of the material, the faster the electrons.

You can substitute the photon energy 2 into eq. 10:

Kinetic energy as difference between photon energy and work function
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To find out the concrete velocity \( v \) of the released electrons, you use for \(W_{\text{kin}}\) the classical formula for kinetic energy:

Kinetic energy as difference between photon energy and work function written out
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Here \( m_{\text e} ~=~ 9.109 \cdot 10^{-31} \, \mathrm{kg} \) is the rest mass of the electron. Rearranged for the photon energy, you get the famous formula for the photoelectric effect, for which Albert Einstein got the Nobel Prize:

Photoelectric effect formula using kinetic energy
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Where ist the photon and its energy after an electron is ejected?

The photon energy \(h\,f\) is partially used to overcome the work function \(W\) and the remaining energy is transferred to the electron as kinetic energy.

The velocity \(v\) in 13 is not directly measurable, so we express it with the measurable quantity, using the stopping voltage \( U_{\text G}\).

To determine the value of the stopping voltage, you must increase the stopping voltage very slowly in the experiment and observe how the photocurrent decreases. In this way, fewer and fewer electrons reach the opposite electrode. At some point, you will reach a value of the voltage at which the repulsive force of the opposite electrode is so large that not a single electron reaches the electrode. The photocurrent has now dropped to zero. You have slowed down the last fastest electrons. At this value of the stopping voltage the fastest electron has lost the energy \(e \, U_{\text G}\). This lost energy just corresponds to its kinetic energy:

Kinetic energy equated with electrical energy
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You may replace in this way the kinetic energy in 13 with \(e \, U_{\text G}\):

Photoelectric effect formula using stopping voltage
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Using Eq. 15, you can obtain the work function of the material for a given light frequency/wavelength and the stopping voltage read on the voltmeter. Or, for a given work function and stopping voltage, figure out the light frequency / wavelength.

Note, however, that you are not allowed to increase the stopping voltage further, so that the equation 14 is valid. Further increasing of the stopping voltage does not change the photocurrent, because it is already zero. You have to set exactly the reverse voltage value at which the photocurrent just becomes zero!

Energy-frequency graph for the photoelectric effect

Illustration : Photoelectric effect results in linear relation between kinetic energy \( W_{\text{kin}} \) of the released electrons and light frequency \( f \). From the straight line, the cutoff frequency \( f_{0} \), the work function \( W \) and the quantum of action \( h \) can be determined.

You can illustrate the equation 11 in a graph:

Kinetic energy using light frequency and work function
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Kinetic energy \( W_{\text{kin}} \) is plotted on the \(y\) axis and light frequency \( f \) is plotted on the \(x\) axis.

If you look closely at the equation 16, you will see that it is a straight line equation of the form \( y = mx+b \). In our case:

  • \(y\)-axis is the kinetic energy: \( y = W_{\text{kin}}\).

  • \(x\)-axis is the light frequency: \(x = f\).

  • The slope \(m\) of the straight line is the Planck's constant \( m = h \).

  • \(y\)-intercept \(b\) is the negative work function: \( b = -W \).

To get the intersection of the line with the \(x\) axis, you must set the kinetic energy to zero in Eq. 16: \( W_{\text{kin}} = 0 \). After rearranging the equation, you will find that the intersection point corresponds to the cutoff frequency \( f_0 \) (see illustration 6).

With this knowledge you are able to determine the Planck's constant \(h\) with the help of the photoelectric effect.

You hopefully know from mathematics how to determine the slope of a straight line:

Slope of a straight line
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In our case, the slope corresponds to the Planck's constant: \( m = h\). Here \(y_{2}\) and \(y_{1}\) are two arbitrary values \(W_{\text{kin,1}}\) and \(W_{\text{kin,2}}\) for kinetic energy of electrons. And \(x_{2}\), \(x_{1}\) are associated light frequencies \(f_2\), \(f_1\). So you can rewrite equation 17 like this:

Slope of the straight line as Planck constant
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Unfortunately, the kinetic energy of electrons is not directly experimentally accessible. Since you perform the experiment in a plate capacitor, you can use it to rewrite the kinetic energy with an experimentally accessible quantity. This quantity is the stopping voltage \(U_{\text G}\) between the two electrodes.

In this case, the kinetic energy corresponds to the electrical energy: \(W_{\text{kin}}=e \, U_{\text G}\). Here, \(U_{\text G}\) is the stopping voltage necessary to completely decelerate the electrons. Substituting electrical energy into eq. 19 yields:

Slope of the straight line as Planck constant using stopping voltage
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Investigate the photoelectric effect with two different, known light frequencies \(f_1\) and \(f_2\), read off the corresponding stopping voltages \(U_{\text{G},1}\) and \(U_{\text{G},2}\). Use 19 to determine the Planck's constant \(h\) experimentally.

Photoelectric effect shows contradictions to wave theory

What is observed in the photoelectric effect experiment cannot be explained by the assumption that light is wave-like.

According to the classical idea, electrons should be able to be ejected with any light frequency \( f \). Something like a cutoff frequency \( f_0 \) does not exist in the wave theory of light. However, this contradicts what is observed in the experiment.

Contradiction to wave theory #1

In the photoelectric effect a cutoff frequency \( f_0 \) occurs. Photons with smaller light frequency \( f \) than the cutoff frequency cannot eject electrons!

According to classical wave theory, you could simply illuminate the electrode with an arbitrary light frequency \( f \) for longer to supply more energy to the electrode. The photoelectric effect would then occur after a time delay. In the experiment, however, we observe no such behavior: No matter how long you illuminate the electrode, no electrons can escape if the light frequency is too small.

Contradiction to wave theory #2

The illumination time does not matter; electrons are knocked out without time delay if the light frequency is sufficient. Photoelectric effect occurs either immediately or not at all!

According to the classical wave theory, the kinetic energy of the electrons \( W_{\text{kin}} \) should decrease with increasing light frequency \( f \), because in the classical wave picture the following proportionality holds: \( W_{\text{kin}} \sim 1/f^2 \). The kinetic energy should even decrease quadratically. But what one finds in the experiment to the photoelectric effect is an increase and no decrease of the kinetic energy.

Contradiction to wave theory #3

The kinetic energy of the released electrons is larger if we use higher light frequency \( f \)!

Moreover, according to the classical idea, the kinetic energy should increase quadratically with the amplitude of the incident light: \( W_{\text{kin}} \sim A^2 \). However, the experiment shows a different behavior: Increasing the amplitude \(A\) (increasing light intensity) has no effect on the kinetic energy of the electrons.

Contradiction to wave theory #4

In the photoelectric effect the kinetic energy of the released electrons is independent of the used light intensity!

Now you have learned all the important points about the photoelectric effect. In the next lesson, we will turn to another important experiment that has made quantum mechanics so successful, the Franck-Hertz experiment.