- Note: Ultraviolet is also the name of a 1998 UK television miniseries about vampires.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength shorter than that of the visible region, but longer than that of soft X-rays. It can be subdivided into near UV (380–200 nm wavelength) and extreme or vacuum UV (200–10 nm). When considering the effects of UV radiation on human health and the environment, the range of UV wavelengths is often subdivided into UVA (380–315 nm), also called Long Wave or "blacklight"; UVB (315–280 nm), also called Medium Wave; and UVC (280-10 nm), also called Short Wave or "germicidal". See 1 E-7 m for a list of objects of comparable sizes.
The name means "beyond violet" (from Latin ultra, "beyond"), violet being the color of the shortest wavelengths of visible light. Some of the UV wavelengths are colloquially called black light, as it is invisible to the human eye. Some animals, including birds, reptiles, and insects such as bees, can see into the near ultraviolet. Many fruits, flowers, and seeds stand out more strongly from the background in ultraviolet wavelengths as compared to human color vision. Many birds have patterns in their plumage that are invisible at usual wavelengths but seen in ultraviolet, and the urine of some animals is much easier to spot with ultraviolet.
The Sun emits ultraviolet radiation in the UVA, UVB, and UVC bands, but because of absorption in the atmosphere's ozone layer, 99% of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth's surface is UVA. (Some of the UVC light is responsible for the generation of the ozone.)
Ordinary glass is transparent to UVA but is opaque to shorter wavelengths. Silica or quartz glass, depending on quality, can be transparent even to vacuum UV wavelengths.
The onset of vacuum UV, 200 nm, is defined by the fact that ordinary air is opaque below this wavelength. This opacity is due to the strong absorption of light of these wavelengths by oxygen in the air. Pure nitrogen (less than about 10 ppm oxygen) is transparent to wavelengths in the range of about 150–200 nm. This has wide practical significance now that semiconductor manufacturing processes are 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, such as circular dichroism spectrometers, are also commonly nitrogen purged and operate in this spectral region.
Soon after infrared radiation had been discovered, the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter began to look for radiation at the opposite end of the spectrum, at the short wavelengths beyond violet. In 1801 he used silver chloride, a light-sensitive chemical, to show that there was a type of invisible light beyond violet, which he called chemical rays. At that time, many scientists, including Ritter, concluded that light was composed of three separate components: an oxidising or calorific component (infrared), an illuminating component (visible light), and a reducing or hydrogenating component (ultraviolet). The unity of the different parts of the spectrum was not understood until about 1842, with the work of Macedonio Melloni, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel and others.
In general, UVA is the least harmful, but can contribute to the aging of skin, DNA damage and possibly skin cancer. It penetrates deeply and does not cause sunburn. Because it does not cause reddening of the skin (erythema) it cannot be measured in the SPF testing. There is no good clinical measurement of the blocking of UVA radiation, but it is important that sunscreen block both UVA and UVB.
High intensities of UVB light are hazardous to the eyes, and exposure can cause welder's flash (photokeratitis or arc eye).
UVA, UVB and UVC all can damage collagen fibers and thereby accelerate aging of the skin.
Tungsten-halogen lamps have bulbs made of quartz, not of ordinary glass. Tungsten-halogen lamps that are not filtered by an additional layer of ordinary glass are a common, useful, and possibly dangerous, source of UVB light.
UVA light is known as "dark-light" and, because of its longer wavelength, can penetrate most windows. It also penetrates deeper into the skin than UVB light and is thought to be a prime cause of wrinkles.
UVB light in particular has been linked to skin cancers such as melanoma. The radiation ionizes DNA molecules in skin cells, causing covalent bonds to form between adjacent thymine bases, producing thymidine dimers. Thymidine dimers do not base pair normally, which can cause distortion of the DNA helix, stalled replication, gaps, and misincorporation. These can lead to mutations, which can result in cancerous growths. The mutagenicity of UV radiation can be easily observed in bacteria cultures.
This cancer connection is the reason for concern about ozone depletion and the ozone hole.
UVC rays are the strongest, most dangerous type of ultraviolet light. Little attention has been given to UVC rays in the past since they are normally filtered out by the ozone layer and do not reach the Earth. Thinning of the ozone layer and holes in the ozone layer are causing increased concern about the potential for UVC light exposure, however.
A positive effect of UV light is that it induces the production of vitamin D in the skin. Grant (2002) claims tens of thousands of premature deaths occur in the US annually from cancer due to insufficient UVB exposures (apparently via vitamin D deficiency).
As a defense against UV radiation, the body tans when exposed to moderate (depending on skin type) levels of radiation by releasing the brown pigment melanin. This helps to block UV penetration and prevent damage to the vulnerable skin tissues deeper down. Suntan lotion that partly blocks UV is widely available (often referred to as "sun block" or "sunscreen"). Most of these products contain an "SPF rating" that describes the amount of protection given. This protection applies only to UVB light. In any case, most dermatologists recommend against prolonged sunbathing.
It is advisable to use protective eyewear when working with ultraviolet radiation, especially short wave ultraviolet. Ordinary eyeglasses give some protection. Most plastic lenses give more protection than glass lenses. Some plastic lens materials, such as polycarbonate, block most UV. There are protective treatments available for eyeglass lenses that need it to give better protection. The most important reason that ordinary eyeglasses only give limited protection, however, is that light can reach the eye without going through the lens. Full coverage is important if the risk from exposure is high. Full coverage eye protection is usually recommended for high altitude mountaineering, for instance. 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.
UV light has many various uses. Some of them are as follows:
A black light is the name commonly given to a lamp emitting almost entirely UV radiation and very little visible light. Ultraviolet radiation itself is invisible, but illuminating certain materials with UV radiation prompts the visible effects of fluorescence and phosphorescence. Black light testing is commonly used to authenticate antiques and bank notes. The fluorescence it prompts from certain textile fibers is also used as a recreational effect.
Fluorescent lamps produce UV radiation by the emission of low-pressure mercury gas. A phosphorescent coating on the inside of the tubes absorbs the UV and becomes visible.
The main mercury emission wavelength is in the UVC range. Unshielded exposure of the skin or eyes to mercury arc lamps that do not have a conversion phosphor is quite dangerous.
The light from a mercury lamp is predominantly at discrete wavelengths. Other practical UV sources with more continuous emission spectra include xenon arc lamps (commonly used as sunlight simulators), deuterium arc lamps, mercury-xenon arc lamps, metal-halide arc lamps, and tungsten-halogen incandescent lamps.
UV radiation is often used in visible spectrophotometry to determine the existence of fluorescence a given sample.
In astronomy, very hot objects preferentially emit UV radiation (see Wien's law). However, the same ozone layer that protects us causes difficulties for astronomers observing from the Earth, so most UV observations are made from space. (see UV astronomy, space observatory)
Ultraviolet lamps are also used in analyzing minerals, gems, and in other detective work including authentication of various collectibles. Materials may look the same under visible light, but fluoresce to different degrees under ultraviolet light; or may fluoresce differently under short wave ultraviolet versus long wave ultraviolet. UV fluorescent dyes are used in many applications (for example, biochemistry and forensics). The fluorescent protein Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) is often used in genetics as a marker. Many substances, proteins for instance, have significant light absorption bands in the ultraviolet that are of use and interest in biochemistry and related fields. UV-capable spectrophotometers are common in such laboratories.
Ultraviolet radiation is used for very fine resolution photolithography, a procedure where a chemical known as a photoresist is exposed to UV radiation which has passed through a mask. The light allows chemical reactions to take place in the photoresist, and after development (a step that either removes the exposed or unexposed photoresist), a geometric pattern which is determined by the mask remains on the sample. Further steps may then be taken to "etch" away parts of the sample with no photoresist remaining.
UV radiation is used extensively in the electronics industry because photolithography is used in the manufacture of semiconductors, integrated circuit components and printed circuit boards.
Checking electrical insulation
A new application of UV is to detect corona discharge (often simply called "corona") on electrical apparatus. Degradation of insulation of electrical apparatus or pollution causes corona, wherein a strong electric field ionizes the air and excites nitrogen molecules, causing the emission of ultraviolet radiation. The corona degrades the insulation level of the apparatus. Corona produces ozone and to a lesser extent nitrogen oxide which may subsequently react with water in the air to form nitrous acid and nitric acid vapour in the surrounding air.  (http://www.seeing-corona.com/)
Ultraviolet lamps are used to sterilize workspaces and tools used in biology laboratories and medical facilities. Conveniently, low pressure mercury discharge lamps emit about 50% of their light at the 253.7 nm mercury emission line which coincides very well with the peak of the germicidal effectiveness curve at 265 nm. UV light at this wavelength causes adjacent thymine molecules on DNA to dimerize, if enough of these defects accumulate on a microorganism's DNA its replication is inhibited, thereby rendering it harmless. Since microorganisms can be shielded from ultraviolet light in small cracks and other shaded areas, however, these lamps are used only as a supplement to other sterilization techniques.
Disinfecting drinking water
Ultraviolet radiation is increasingly being used to disinfect drinking water and in waste water treatment plants. Recently it was discovered that ultraviolet radiation could treat Cryptosporidium, previously unknown. The findings resulted in two US patents (http://www.calgoncarbon.com/company/news/index.cfm?mode=detail&id=DF8B2807-AB22-705E-D9769AEA0B6A744E) and the use of UV radiation as a viable method to treat drinking water.
Ultraviolet (UV) detectors generally use either a solid-state device, such as one based on silicon carbide or aluminum nitride, or a gas-filled tube as the sensing element. UV detectors which are sensitive to UV light in any part of the spectrum respond to irradiation by sunlight and artificial light. A burning hydrogen flame, for instance, radiates strongly in the 185 to 260 nanometre (1850 to 2450 angstrom) range and only very weakly in the IR region, while a coal fire emits very weakly in the UV band yet very strongly at IR wavelengths; thus a fire detector which operates using both UV and IR detectors is more reliable than one with a UV detector alone. Virtually all fires emit some radiation in the UVB band, while the Sun's radiation at this band is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere. The result is that the UV detector is "solar blind", meaning it will not cause an alarm in response to radiation from the Sun, so it can easily be used both indoors and outdoors.
UV detectors are sensitive to most fires, including hydrocarbons, metals, sulfur, hydrogen, hydrazine, and ammonia. Arc welding, electrical arcs, lightning, X-rays used in nondestructive metal testing equipment (though this is highly unlikely), and radioactive materials can produce levels that will activate a UV detection system. The presence of UV-absorbing gases and vapors will attenuate the UV radiation from a fire, adversely affecting the ability of the detector to "see" a flame. Likewise, the presence of an oil mist in the air or an oil film on the detector window will have the same effect.
- Grant, William B. (2002). An estimate of premature cancer mortality in the US due to inadequate doses of solar ultraviolet-B radiation. (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/abstract/91016211/ABSTRACT) Cancer 94 (6), 1867–1875.
- Matsumura Y, Ananthaswamy HN (2004). Toxic effects of UV radiation on the skin. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15020192) Toxicol. Appl. Pharmacol. 195 (3), 298-308.
- Hu S, et al. (2004). UV radiation and melanoma in US Hispanics & blacks. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=15262692) Arch Dermatol. 140 (7), 819-824.