These are extremely light-sensitive vacuum tubes with a photocathode coated onto part (an end or side) of the inside of the envelope. The photocathode contains combinations of materials such as cesium, rubidium, and antimony specially selected to provide a low work function, so when illuminated even by very low levels of light, the photocathode readily releases electrons. By means of a series of electrodes (dynodes) at ever-higher potentials, these electrons are accelerated and substantially increased in number through secondary emission to provide a readily detectable output current. Photomultipliers are still commonly used wherever low levels of light must be detected.[56]

Image sensors:

Video camera tubes in the early days of television used the photoelectric effect, for example, Philo Farnsworth’s “Image dissector” used a screen charged by the photoelectric effect to transform an optical image into a scanned electronic signal.

Gold-leaf electroscope:

 Gold leaf electroscope

Gold-leaf electroscopes are designed to detect static electricity. Charge placed on the metal cap spreads to the stem and the gold leaf of the electroscope. Because they then have the same charge, the stem and leaf repel each other. This will cause the leaf to bend away from the stem.

An electroscope is an important tool in illustrating the photoelectric effect. For example, if the electroscope is negatively charged throughout, there is an excess of electrons and the leaf is separated from the stem. If high-frequency light shines on the cap, the electroscope discharges, and the leaf will fall limp. This is because the frequency of the light shining on the cap is above the cap’s threshold frequency. The photons in the light have enough energy to liberate electrons from the cap, reducing its negative charge. This will discharge a negatively charged electroscope and further charge a positive electroscope. However, if the electromagnetic radiation hitting the metal cap does not have a high enough frequency (its frequency is below the threshold value for the cap), then the leaf will never discharge, no matter how long one shines the low-frequency light at the cap.

Photoelectron spectroscopy:

Since the energy of the photoelectrons emitted is exactly the energy of the incident photon minus the material’s work function or binding energy, the work function of a sample can be determined by bombarding it with a monochromatic X-ray source or UV source, and measuring the kinetic energy distribution of the electrons emitted:

Photoelectron spectroscopy is usually done in a high-vacuum environment, since the electrons would be scattered by gas molecules if they were present. However, some companies are now selling products that allow photoemission in air. The light source can be a laser, a discharge tube, or a synchrotron radiation source.

The concentric hemispherical analyzer (CHA) is a typical electron energy analyzer and uses an electric field to change the directions of incident electrons, depending on their kinetic energies. For every element and core (atomic orbital) there will be a different binding energy. The many electrons created from each of these combinations will show up as spikes in the analyzer output, and these can be used to determine the elemental composition of the sample.


The photoelectric effect will cause spacecraft exposed to sunlight to develop a positive charge. This can be a major problem, as other parts of the spacecraft are in shadow which will result in the spacecraft developing a negative charge from nearby plasmas. The imbalance can discharge through delicate electrical components. The static charge created by the photoelectric effect is self-limiting, because a higher charged object doesn’t give up its electrons as easily as a lower charged object does.

Moon dust:

Light from the sun hitting lunar dust causes it to become charged with the photoelectric effect. The charged dust then repels itself and lifts off the surface of the Moon by electrostatic levitation. This manifests itself almost like an “atmosphere of dust”, visible as a thin haze and blurring of distant features, and visible as a dim glow after the sun has set. This was first photographed by the Surveyor program probes in the 1960s. It is thought that the smallest particles are repelled kilometers from the surface and that the particles move in “fountains” as they charge and discharge.

Night vision devices:

Photons hitting a thin film of alkali metal or semiconductor material such as gallium arsenide in an image intensifier tube cause the ejection of photoelectrons due to the photoelectric effect. These are accelerated by an electrostatic field where they strike a phosphor coated screen, converting the electrons back into photons. Intensification of the signal is achieved either through acceleration of the electrons or by increasing the number of electrons through secondary emissions, such as with a micro-channel plate. Sometimes a combination of both methods is used. Additional kinetic energy is required to move an electron out of the conduction band and into the vacuum level. This is known as the electron affinity of the photocathode and is another barrier to photoemission other than the forbidden band, explained by the band gap model. Some materials such as Gallium Arsenide have an effective electron affinity that is below the level of the conduction band. In these materials, electrons that move to the conduction band are all of the sufficient energy to be emitted from the material and as such, the film that absorbs photons can be quite thick. These materials are known as negative electron affinity materials.

Cross section:

The photoelectric effect is one interaction mechanism between photons and atoms. It is one of 12 theoretically possible interactions.

At the high photon energies comparable to the electron rest energy of 511 keV, Compton scattering, another process, may take place. Above twice this (1.022 MeV) pair production may take place. Compton scattering and pair production are examples of two other competing mechanisms.

Indeed, even if the photoelectric effect is the favoured reaction for a particular single-photon bound-electron interaction, the result is also subject to statistical processes and is not guaranteed, albeit the photon has certainly disappeared and a bound electron has been excited (usually K or L shell electrons at gamma ray energies). The probability of the photoelectric effect occurring is measured by the cross-section of interaction, σ. This has been found to be a function of the atomic number of the target atom and photon energy. A crude approximation, for photon energies above the highest atomic binding energy, is given by:

Here Z is atomic number and n is a number which varies between 4 and 5. (At lower photon energies a characteristic structure with edges appears, K edge, L edges, M edges, etc.) The obvious interpretation follows that the photoelectric effect rapidly decreases insignificance, in the gamma-ray region of the spectrum, with increasing photon energy, and that photoelectric effect increases steeply with atomic number. The corollary is that high-Z materials make good gamma-ray shields, which is the principal reason that lead (Z = 82) is a preferred and ubiquitous gamma radiation shield.

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