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Infrared can detect heat sources.

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Infrared (IR) radiation is electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength longer than that of visible light. Infrared is shorter than that of radio waves. The name Infrared means "below red" (from the Latin infra, "below"), red being the color of visible light of longest wavelength. Infrared radiation has wavelengths between approximately 750 nm and 1 mm, spanning three orders of magnitude.

Image of two girls in mid-infrared ("thermal") light (False-color).

The infrared portion of the spectrum has a number of technological uses, including target acquisition and tracking by the military; remote temperature sensing; short-ranged wireless communication; spectroscopy, and weather forecasting. telescopes equipped with infrared sensors are used in infrared astronomy to penetrate dusty regions of space, such as Molecular clouds; detect low temperature objects such as planets orbiting stars, and to view highly red-shifted objects from the early history of the universe.

At the atomic level, infrared energy elicits vibrational modes in a Molecule through a change in the dipole moment, making it a useful frequency range for study of these energy states. Infrared spectroscopy is the examination of absorption and transmission of photons in the infrared energy range, based on their frequency and intensity.

Different regions in the infrared.

  • Near infrared (NIR, IR-A DIN): 0.75-1.4 m in wavelength, defined by the water absorption, and commonly used in fiber optic telecommunication because of low attenuation losses in the SiO2 glass (silica) medium. Image intensifiers are sensitive to this area of the spectrum, about 1 micron, 1,000 nanometres or 10,000 Angstroms. Examples include night vision devices such as night vision goggles.
  • Short wavelength infrared (SWIR, IR-B DIN): 1.4-3 m, water absorption increases significantly at 1,450 nm. The 1,530 to 1,560 nm range is the dominant spectral region for long-distance telecommunications.
  • Mid wavelength infrared (MWIR, IR-C DIN) also called intermediate infrared (IIR): 3-8 m. In guided missile technology this is the 'heat seeking' region in which the homing heads of passive IR homing missiles are designed to work, homing on to the IR signature of the target aircraft, typically the jet engine exhaust plume.
  • Long wavelength infrared (LWIR, IR-C DIN): 8-15 m. About 10 microns is the "thermal imaging" region, in which sensors can obtain a completely passive picture of the outside world based on thermal emissions only and requiring no external light or thermal source such as the sun, moon or infrared illuminator. Forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems use this area of the spectrum. Sometimes also called the 'far infrared'.

NIR and SWIR is sometimes called reflected infrared while MWIR and LWIR is sometimes referred to as thermal infrared.

Astronomers typically divide the infrared spectrum as follows:

  • near: (0.7-1) to 5 m.
  • mid: 5 to (25-40) m.
  • long: (25-40) to (200-350) m.

These divisions are not precise and can vary depending on the publication. The three regions are used for observation of different temperature ranges, and hence different environments in space.

A third scheme divides up the band based on the response of various detectors:

  • Near infrared (NIR): from 0.7 to 1.0 micrometers (from the approximate end of the response of the human eye to that of silicon).
  • Short-wave infrared (SWIR): 1.0 to 3 micrometers (from the cut off of silicon to that of the MWIR atmospheric window. InGaAs covers to about 1.8 micrometers; the less sensitive lead salts cover this region.
  • Mid-wave infrared (MWIR): 3 to 5 micrometers (defined by the atmospheric window and covered by InSb and HgCdTe and partially PbSe).
  • Long-wave infrared (LWIR): 8 to 12, or 7 to 14 micrometers: the atmospheric window (Covered by HgCdTe and microbolometers).
  • Very-long wave infrared (VLWIR): 12 to about 30 micrometers, covered by doped silicon.

These divisions are justified by the different human response to this radiation: near infrared is the region closest in wavelength to the radiation detectable by the human eye, mid and far infrared are progressively further from the visible regime. Other definitions follow different physical mechanisms (emission peaks, vs. bands, water absorption) and the newest follow technical reasons (The common silicon detectors are sensitive to about 1,050 nm, while InGaAs' sensitivity starts around 950 nm and ends between 1,700 and 2,600 nm, depending on the specific configuration). Unfortunately, international standards for these specifications are not currently available.

Infrared region.
Plot of atmospheric transmittance in part of the infrared region.

The boundary between visible and infrared light is not precisely defined. The human eye is markedly less sensitive to light above 700 nm wavelength, so shorter frequencies make insignificant contributions to scenes illuminated by common light sources. But particularly intense light (e.g., from lasers, or from bright daylight with the visible light removed by colored gels) can be detected up to approximately 780 nm, and will be perceived as red light. The onset of infrared is defined (according to different standards) at various values typically between 700 nm and 800 nm.

Telecommunication bands in the infrared.

In optical communications, the part of the infrared spectrum that is used is divided into several bands based on availability of light sources, transmitting/absorbing materials (fibers) and detectors:

BandDescriptorWavelength range
O band Original 1260-1360 nm
E band Extended 1360-1460 nm
S band Short wavelength 1460-1530 nm
C band Conventional 1530-1565 nm
L band Long wavelength 1565-1625 nm
U band Ultralong wavelength 1625-1675 nm

The C-band is the dominant band for long-distance telecommunication networks. The S and L bands are based on less well established technology, and are not as widely deployed.

Infrared heat and thermal radiation.

Infrared radiation is popularly known as "heat" or sometimes "heat radiation," since many people attribute all radiant heating to infrared light. This is a widespread misconception, since light and electromagnetic waves of any frequency will heat surfaces that absorb them. Infrared light from the Sun only accounts for 50% of the heating of the Earth, the rest being caused by visible light that is absorbed then re-radiated at longer wavelengths. Visible light or ultraviolet-emitting lasers can char paper and incandescently hot objects emit visible radiation. It is true that objects at room temperature will emit radiation mostly concentrated in the 8-12 micron band, but this is not distinct from the emission of visible light by incandescent objects and ultraviolet by even hotter objects (see black body and Wien's displacement law).

Heat is energy in transient form that flows due to temperature difference. Unlike heat transmitted by thermal conduction or thermal convection, radiation can propagate through a vacuum.

Applications for infrared: Night vision.

Infrared is used in night-vision equipment when there is insufficient visible light to see an object. The radiation is detected and turned into an image on a screen, hotter objects showing up in different shades than cooler objects, enabling the police and military to distinguish warm targets, such as human beings and automobiles. Also see Forward looking infrared. IR radiation is a secondary effect of heat; it is not heat itself. Heat itself is a measure of the translational energy of an amount of matter. "Thermal" detectors do not actually detect heat directly but the difference in IR radiation from objects. The device itself that detects the radiation is known as a photocathode. Military gunnery ranges sometimes use special materials that reflect IR radiation to simulate enemy vehicles with running engines. The targets can be at the exact same temperature as the surrounding terrain, but they emit (reflect) much more IR radiation. Different materials emit more or less IR radiation as temperature increases or decreases, depending on the composition of the material. Infrared imagery is usually formed as a result of the integrated inband intensity of the radiation, based on temperate and emissivity.

Simple infrared sensors were used by British, American and German forces in the Second World War as night vision aids for snipers.

Smoke is more transparent to infrared than to visible light, so firefighters use infrared imaging equipment when working in smoke-filled areas.

Infrared: Thermography.

Infrared dog.
A thermographic image of a dog in infrared.

Infrared thermography is a non-contact, non-destructive test method that utilizes a thermal imager to detect, display and record thermal patterns and temperatures across the surface of an object. Infrared thermography may be applied to any situation where knowledge of thermal profiles and temperatures will provide meaningful data about a system, object or process. Thermography is widely used in industry for predictive maintenance, condition assessment, quality assurance, and forensic investigations of electrical, mechanical and structural systems. Other applications include, but are not limited to: law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, and medical and veterinary sciences.

Aside from test equipment, training is the most important investment a company will make in an infrared inspection program. Advances in technology have provided infrared equipment that is user-friendly; however, infrared thermography is not a "simply point and shoot" technology. In addition to understanding the object or system being inspected, thermographers must also understand common error sources that can influence observed thermal data. Typically,infrared training courses should cover the topics of infrared theory, heat transfer concepts, equipment selection and operation, how to eliminate or overcome common error sources, and specific applications. Training courses from independent training companies are preferred since they are not biased toward a single brand or type of equipment.

Infrared and other imaging.

Infrared light.
Infrared light from the LED of a remote control as seen by a digital camera.

In infrared photography, infrared filters are used to capture the near-infrared spectrum. digital cameras often use infrared blockers. Cheaper digital cameras and some camera phones which do not have appropriate filters can "see" near-infrared, appearing as a bright white colour (try pointing a TV remote at your digital camera). This is especially pronounced when taking pictures of subjects near IR-bright areas (such as near a lamp), where the resulting infrared interference can wash out the image. There is also a technique called 'T-ray' imaging, which is imaging using far infrared or terahertz radiation. Lack of bright sources makes terahertz photography technically more challenging than most other infrared imaging techniques. Recently T-ray imaging has been of considerable interest due to a number of new developments such as terahertz time-domain spectroscopy.

Infrared use for heating.

Infrared radiation is used in infrared saunas to heat the occupants, and to remove ice from the wings of aircraft (de-icing). It is also gaining popularity as a method of heating asphalt pavements in place during new construction or in repair of damaged asphalt. Infrared can be used in cooking and heating food as it heats only opaque, absorbent objects and not the air around them, if there are no particles in it.

Infrared heating is also becoming more popular in industrial manufacturing processes, e.g. curing of coatings, forming of plastics, annealing, plastic welding, print drying. In these applications, infrared heaters replace convection ovens and contact heating. If the wavelength of the infrared heater is matched to the absorption characteristics of the material, significant gains in energy efficiency are possible.

Infrared useage in communications.

IR data transmission is also employed in short-range communication among computer peripherals and personal digital assistants. These devices usually conform to standards published by IrDA, the Infrared Data Association. Remote controls and IrDA devices use infrared light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to emit infrared radiation which is focused by a plastic lens into a narrow beam. The beam is modulated, i.e. switched on and off, to encode the data. The receiver uses a silicon photodiode to convert the infrared radiation to an electric Current. It responds only to the rapidly pulsing signal created by the transmitter, and filters out slowly changing infrared radiation from ambient light. Infrared communications are useful for indoor use in areas of high population density. IR does not penetrate walls and so does not interfere with other devices in adjoining rooms. Infrared is the most common way for remote controls to command appliances.

Free space optical communication using infrared lasers can be a relatively inexpensive way to install a communications link in an urban area operating at up to 4 gigabit/s, compared to the cost of burying fiber optic cable.

Infrared lasers are used to provide the light for optical fiber communications systems. Infrared light with a wavelength around 1,330 nm (least dispersion) or 1,550 nm (best transmission) are the best choices for standard silica fibers.

Infrared line of light: Spectroscopy.

Infrared vibrational spectroscopy is a technique which can be used to identify molecules by analysis of their constituent bonds. Each chemical bond in a molecule vibrates at a frequency which is characteristic of that bond. A group of atoms in a molecule (e.g. CH2) may have multiple modes of oscillation caused by the stretching and bending motions of the group as a whole. If an oscillation leads to a change in Dipole in the molecule, then it will absorb a photon which has the same frequency. The vibrational frequencies of most molecules correspond to the frequencies of infrared light. Typically, the technique is used to study organic compounds using light radiation from 4000-400 cm-1, the mid-infrared. A spectrum of all the frequencies of absorption in a sample is recorded. This can be used to gain information about the sample composition in terms of chemical groups present and also its purity (for example a wet sample will show a broad O-H absorption around 3200cm-1).

Infrared use in meteorology.

Infrared Satellite picture.
Infrared Satellite picture taken 1315 Z on 15th October 2006. A frontal system can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico with embedded Cumulonimbus cloud. Shallower Cumulus and Stratocumulus can be seen off the Eastern Seaboard.

Weather satellites equipped with scanning radiometers produce thermal or infrared images which can then enable a trained analyst to determine cloud heights and types, to calculate land and surface water temperatures, and to locate ocean surface features. The scanning is typically in the range 10.3-12.5 m (IR4 and IR5 channels).

High, cold ice cloud such as cirrus or Cumulonimbus show up bright white, lower warmer cloud such as Stratus or Stratocumulus show up as grey with intermediate clouds shaded accordingly. Hot land surfaces will show up as dark grey or black. One disadvantage of infrared imagery is that low cloud such as stratus or fog can be a similar temperature to the surrounding land or sea surface does not show up. However using the difference in brightness of the IR4 channel (10.3-11.5 m) and the near-infrared channel (1.58-1.64 m), low cloud can be distinguished, producing a fog satellite picture. The main advantage of infrared is that images can be produced at night, allowing a continuous sequence of weather to be studied.

These infrared pictures can depict ocean eddies or vortices and map currents such as the Gulf Stream which are valuable to the shipping industry. Fishermen and farmers are interested in knowing land and water temperatures to protect their crops against frost or increase their catch from the sea. Even El Nio phenomena can be spotted. Using color-digitized techniques, the gray shaded thermal images can be converted to color for easier identification of desired information.

Infrared applications in astronomy.

infrared space observatory.
The Spitzer space telescope is a dedicated infrared space observatory currently in orbit around the Sun. NASA image.

Astronomers observe objects in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum using optical components, including mirrors, lenses and solid state digital detectors. For this reason it is classified as part of optical astronomy. To form an image, the components of an infrared telescope need to be carefully shielded from heat sources, and the detectors are chilled using liquid helium.

The sensitivity of Earth-based infrared telescopes is significantly limited by water vapor in the atmosphere, which absorbs a portion of the infrared radiation arriving from space outside of selected atmospheric windows. This limitation can be partially alleviated by placing the telescope observatory at a high altitude, or by carrying the telescope aloft with a balloon or an aircraft. Space telescopes do not suffer from this handicap, and so outer space is considered the ideal location for infrared astronomy.

The infrared portion of the spectrum has several useful benefits for astronomers. Cold, dark Molecular clouds of gas and dust in our galaxy will glow with radiated heat as they are irradiated by imbedded stars. Infrared can also be used to detect protostars before they begin to emit visible light. Stars emit a smaller portion of their energy in the infrared spectrum, so nearby cool objects such as planets can be more readily detected. (In the visible light spectrum, the glare from the star will drown out the reflected light from a planet.)

Infrared light is also useful for observing the cores of Active galaxies which are often cloaked in gas and dust. Distant galaxies with a high Redshift will have the peak portion of their spectrum shifted toward longer wavelengths, so they are more readily observed in the infrared.

Infrared use in art history and archaeology.

Infrared Portrait.
The Arnolfini Portrait in infrared by Jan van Eyck, National Gallery, London.

Infra-red (as art historians call them) reflectograms are taken of paintings to reveal underlying layers, in particular the underdrawing or outline drawn to by the artist as a guide. This often uses Carbon black which shows up well in reflectograms, so long as it has not also been used in the ground underlying the whole painting. Art historians are looking to see if the visible layers of paint differ from the under-drawing or layers in between - such alterations are called pentimenti when made by the original artist. This is very useful information in deciding whether a painting is the prime version by the original artist or a copy, and whether it has been altered by over-enthusiatic restoration work. Generally the more pentimenti, the more likely a painting is to be the prime version. It also gives useful insights into working practices.

Among many other changes in the Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 (right), his face was higher by about the height of his eye, hers was higher, and her eyes looked more to the front. Each of his feet was underdrawn in one position, painted in another, and then overpainted in a third. These alterations are seen in infra-red reflectograms.

Similar uses of infrared are made by archaeologists on various types of objects, especially very old written documents such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Roman works in the Villa of the Papyri, and the Silk Road texts found in the Dunhuang Caves. Carbon black used in ink can show up extremely well.

Infrared biological systems.

Infrared Thermographic.
Infrared Thermographic image of a snake eating a mouse.

The pit viper is known to have two infrared sensory pits on its head. There is controversy over the exact thermal sensitivity of this biological infrared detection system.

Other organisms that actively employ thermo-receptors are rattlesnakes (Crotalinae subfamily) and boas (Boidae family), the Common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus), a variety of jewel beetles (Melanophila acuminata), darkly pigmented butterflies (Pachliopta aristolochiae and Troides rhadamathus plateni), and possibly blood-sucking bugs (Triatoma infestans).

The Earth as an infrared emitter.

The Earth's surface and the clouds absorb visible and invisible radiation from the Sun and re-emit much of the energy as infrared back to the atmosphere. Certain substances in the atmosphere, chiefly cloud droplets and water vapor, but also carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, and chlorofluorocarbons, absorb this infrared, and re-radiate it in all directions including back to Earth. Thus the greenhouse effect keeps the atmosphere and surface much warmer than if the infrared absorbers were absent from the atmosphere.

History of infrared science.

The discovery of infrared radiation is ascribed to William Herschel, the Astronomer, in the early 19th century. Herschel published his results in 1800 before the UK Royal Society. Herschel used a prism to refract light from the Sun and detected the infrared, beyond the red part of the spectrum, through an increase in the temperature recorded on a thermometer. He was surprised at the result and called them "Calorific Rays". The term 'Infrared' did not appear until late in the 19th century. Incidentally, Herschel is buried in Westminster Abbey between Darwin and Newton.

Infrared and other important dates include:

  • 1835: Macedonio Melloni makes the first thermopile IR detector;.
  • 1859: Gustav Kirchhoff formulates the blackbody theoremE = J(T,n);.
  • 1873: Willoughby Smith discovers the photoconductivity of selenium;.
  • 1879: Stefan-Boltzmann law formulated empirically .
  • 1880s & 1890s: Lord Rayleigh and Wilhelm Wien both solve part of the blackbody equation, but both solutions are approximations that "blow up" out of their useful ranges. This problem was called the "UV Catastrophe and Infrared Catastrophe".
  • 1901: Max Planck published the blackbody equation and theorem. He solved the problem by quantizing the allowable energy transitions.
  • Early 1900s: Albert Einstein develops the theory of the photoelectric effect, determining the photon. Also William Coblentz in spectroscopy and radiometry.
  • 1917: Case develops thallous sulfide detector; British develop the first infra-red search and track (IRST) in World War I and detect aircraft at a range of one mile;.
  • 1935: Lead salts-early missile guidance in World War II;.
  • 1938: Teau Ta-predicted that the pyroelectric effect could be used to detect infrared radiation.
  • 1952: H. Welker discovers InSb;.
  • 1950s: Paul Kruse (at Honeywell) and Texas Instruments form infrared images before 1955;.
  • 1950s and 1960s: Nomenclature and radiometric units defined by Fred Nicodemenus, G.J. Zissis and R. Clark, Jones defines D*;.
  • 1958: W.D. Lawson (Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern) discovers IR detection properties of HgCdTe;.
  • 1958: Falcon & Sidewinder missiles developed using infrared and the first textbook on infrared sensors appears by Paul Kruse, et al.
  • 1962: J. Cooper demonstrated pyroelectric detection;.
  • 1962: Kruse and Rodat advance HgCdTe; Signal Element and Linear Arrays available;.
  • 1965: First IR Handbook; first commercial imagers (Barnes, Ageme {now part of FLIR Systems Inc.}; Richard Hudson’s landmark text; F4 TRAM FLIR by Hughes; phenomenology pioneered by Fred Simmons and A.T. Stair; U.S. Army's night vision lab formed (now Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD), and Rachets develops detection, recognition and identification modeling there;.
  • 1970: ? Boyle & ? Smith propose CCD at Bell labs for picture phone;.
  • 1972: Common module program started by NVESD;.
  • 1978: Pommernig & ? Francis fabricate IRCCDs; US Common Module leads to a proliferation of IR Sensors in the U.S. military; commercial IR companies formed (Inframetrics in Boston, MA and FLIR Systems Inc. in Portland OR); Infrared imaging astronomy comes of age, observatories planned, IRTF on Mauna Kea opened; 32 by 32 and 64 by 64 arrays are produced in InSb, HgCdTe and other materials.

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