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The absorption, emission, or scattering of electromagnetic radiation by atoms or molecules is referred to as spectroscopy. A transition from a lower energy level to a higher level with transfer of electromagnetic energy to the atom or molecule is called absorption; a transition from a higher energy level to a lower level is called emission (if energy is transferred to the electromagnetic field); and the redirection of light as a result of its interaction with matter is called scattering.

When atoms or molecules absorb electromagnetic energy, the incoming energy transfers the quantized atomic or molecular system to a higher energy level. Electrons are promoted to higher orbitals by ultraviolet or visible light; vibrations are excited by infrared light, and rotations are excited by microwaves. Atomic-absorption spectroscopy measures the concentration of an element in a sample, whereas atomic-emission spectroscopy aims at measuring the concentration of elements in samples. UV-VIS absorption spectroscopy is used to obtain qualitative information from the electronic absorption spectrum, or to measure the concentration of an analyte molecule in solution. Molecular fluorescence spectroscopy is a technique for obtaining qualitative information from the electronic fluorescence spectrum, or, again, for measuring the concentration of an analyte in solution.

Infrared spectroscopy has been widely used in the study of surfaces. The most frequently used portion of the infrared spectrum is the region where molecular vibrational frequencies occur. This technique was first applied around the turn of the twentieth century in an attempt to distinguish water of crystallization from water of constitution in solids. Forty years later, the technique was being used to study surface hydroxyl groups on oxides and interactions between adsorbed molecules and hydroxyl groups.

Ultraviolet spectroscopy takes advantage of the selective absorbency of ultraviolet radiation by various substances. The technique is especially useful in investigating biologically active substances, such as compounds in body fluids, and drugs and narcotics either in the living body (in vivo) or outside it (in vitro). Ultraviolet instruments have also been used to monitor air and water pollution, to analyze dyestuffs, to study carcinogens, to identify food additives, to analyze petroleum fractions, and to analyze pesticide residues. Ultraviolet photoelectron spectroscopy, a technique that is analogous to x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, has been used to study valence electrons in gases.

Microwave spectroscopy, or molecular rotational resonance spectroscopy, addresses the microwave region and the absorption of energy by molecules as they undergo transitions between rotational energy levels. From these spectra it is possible to obtain information about molecular structure, including bond distances and bond angles. One example of the application of this technique is in the distinction of trans and gauche rotational isomers. It is also possible to determine dipole moments and molecular collision rates from these spectra.

In nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), resonant energy is transferred between a radio-frequency alternating magnetic field and a nucleus placed in a field sufficiently strong to decouple the nuclear spin from the influence of atomic electrons. Transitions induced between substates correspond to different quantized orientations of the nuclear spin relative to the direction of the magnetic field. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy has two subfields: broadline NMR and high resolution NMR. High resolution NMR has been used in inorganic and organic chemistry to measure subtle electronic effects, to determine structure, to study chemical reactions, and to follow the motion of molecules or groups of atoms within molecules.

Electron paramagnetic resonance is a spectroscopic technique similar to nuclear magnetic resonance except that microwave radiation is employed instead of radio frequencies. Electron paramagnetic resonance has been used extensively to study paramagnetic species present on various solid surfaces. These species may be metal ions, surface defects, or adsorbed molecules or ions with one or more unpaired electrons. This technique also provides a basis for determining the bonding characteristics and orientation of a surface complex. Because the technique can be used with low concentrations of active sites, it has proven valuable in studies of oxidation states.

Atoms or molecules that have been excited to high energy levels can decay to lower levels by emitting radiation. For atoms excited by light energy, the emission is referred to as atomic fluorescence; for atoms excited by higher energies, the emission is called atomic or optical emission. In the case of molecules, the emission is called fluorescence if the transition occurs between states of the same spin, and phosphorescence if the transition takes place between states of different spin.

In x-ray fluorescence, the term refers to the characteristic x rays emitted as a result of absorption of x rays of higher frequency. In electron fluorescence, the emission of electromagnetic radiation occurs as a consequence of the absorption of energy from radiation (either electromagnetic or particulate), provided the emission continues only as long as the stimulus producing it is maintained.

The effects governing x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy were first explained by Albert Einstein in 1905, who showed that the energy of an electron ejected in photoemission was equal to the difference between the photon and the binding energy of the electron in the target. In the 1950s, researchers began measuring binding energies of core electrons by x-ray photoemission. The discovery that these binding energies could vary as much as 6 eV, depending on the chemical state of the atom, led to rapid development of x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, also known as Electron Spectroscopy for Chemical Analysis (ESCA). This technique has provided valuable information about chemical effects at surfaces. Unlike other spectroscopies in which the absorption, emission, or scattering of radiation is interpreted as a function of energy, photoelectron spectroscopy measures the kinetic energy of the electrons(s) ejected by x-ray radiation.

Mössbauer spectroscopy was invented in the late 1950s by Rudolf Mössbauer, who discovered that when solids emit and absorb gamma rays, the nuclear energy levels can be separated to one part in 1014, which is sufficient to reflect the weak interaction of the nucleus with surrounding electrons. The Mössbauer effect probes the binding, charge distribution and symmetry, and magnetic ordering around an atom in a solid matrix. An example of the Mössbsauer effect involves the Fe-57 nuclei (the absorber) in a sample to be studied. From the ground state, the Fe-57 nuclei can be promoted to their first excited state by absorbing a 14.4-keV gamma-ray photon produced by a radioactive parent, in this case Co-57. The excited Fe-57 nucleus then decays to the ground state via electron or gamma-ray emission. Classically, one would expect the Fe-57 nuclei to undergo recoil when emitting or absorbing a gamma-ray photon (somewhat like what a person leaping from a boat to a dock observes when his boat recoils into the lake); but according to quantum mechanics, there is also a reasonable possibility that there will be no recoil (as if the boat were embedded in ice when the leap occurred).

When electromagnetic radiation passes through matter, most of the radiation continues along its original path, but a tiny amount is scattered in other directions. Light that is scattered without a change in energy is called Rayleigh scattering; light that is scattered in transparent solids with a transfer of energy to the solid is called Brillouin scattering. Light scattering accompanied by vibrations in molecules or in the optical region in solids is called Raman scattering.

In vibrational spectroscopy, also known as Raman spectroscopy, the light scattered from a gas, liquid, or solid is accompanied by a shift in wavelength from that of the incident radiation. The effect was discovered by the Indian physicist C. V. Raman in 1928. The Raman effect arises from the inelastic scattering of radiation in the visible region by molecules. Raman spectroscopy is similar to infrared spectroscopy in its ability to provide detailed information about molecular structures. Before the 1940s, Raman spectroscopy was the method of choice in molecular structure determinations, but since that time, infrared measurements have largely supplemented it. Infrared absorption requires that a vibration change the dipole moment of a molecule, but Raman spectroscopy is associated with the change in polarizability that accompanies a vibration. As a consequence, Raman spectroscopy provides information about molecular vibrations that is particularly well suited to the structural analysis of covalently bonded molecules, and to a lesser extent, of ionic crystals. Raman spectroscopy is also particularly useful in studying the structure of polyatomic molecules. By comparing spectra of a large number of compounds, chemists have been able to identify characteristic frequencies of molecular groups, e.g., methyl, carbonyl, and hydroxyl groups.

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