Waves are disturbances and movements that transfer energy from one place to another. Both electromagnetic waves and mechanical waves are two important ways that energy can be transferred or transported around.
The two also share several similarities. For starters, they can be measured and quantified by their wavelengths, frequencies, and amplitude. They can also be reflected, transmitted, absorbed, refracted, or diffracted when they interact with matter.
Difference Between Electromagnetic Waves and Mechanical Waves
However, both are fundamentally different. Take note of the following differences between electromagnetic waves and mechanical waves:
• EM waves can propagate through a vacuum or empty space, as well as through solid, liquid, or gas. However, mechanical waves can only travel through a medium.
• Specifically, mechanical waves travel through a medium that has elasticity and inertia by causing molecules to bump into each other.
• Note that sound waves, an example of mechanical waves, cannot travel through a vacuum. This is the reason why sound cannot be heard in outer space.
To understand further the difference between the two, take note of their properties, characteristics, and examples:
• Another difference is the type of energy they transfer. Mechanical waves transfer mechanical energy, particularly potential energy and kinetic energy, while EM waves radiant energy or photon energy.
• Note that a specific mechanical wave requires an initial energy input. This initial energy causes the wave to travel through a medium until all energy is transferred.
• More examples of mechanical waves include ripples in a pond, the seismic wave produced by earthquakes or volcanic explosions, tidal waves, and tsunamis, among others. There are also three types: transverse, longitudinal, and surface waves.
• On the other hand, EM waves represent the waves or stream of mass-less particles called photons of electromagnetic radiation.
• They are produced when a changing magnetic field induces a changing electric field, and vice versa; or when a charged particle changes its velocity.
• Radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, light, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays are types of EM radiation and thus, examples of EM waves.
• All types of EM radiation have wave-like and particle-like properties. Hence, they behave like waves and particles. This is important in understanding the difference between electromagnetic waves and mechanical waves.