I am trying to understand what determines to what degree energy from a "hot" object is emitted as characteristic radiation or blackbody radiation.

For example in a gas discharge lamp, a considerable amount of the energy emitted by the hot gas is clearly emitted as characteristic radiation, but some of it must also be emitted as blackbody radiation.

Another example would be a gas, such as a greenhouse gas, e.g. CO2, in the atmosphere absorbing, terrestrial radiation. When discussing the greenhouse effect, it is often simply stated that this energy is emitted as blackbody radiation by the atmosphere. Is emission of characteristic radiation according to allowed transitions not relevant?


*By characteristic radiation I mean line emission i.e. emission due to electronic, rotational, vibronic... transitions.

*The question was prompted by a project on the greenhouse effect, so I am mainly interested in whether it is accurate to say that the energy absorbed by the atmosphere from the thermal radiation of the earth, is subsequently emitted as blackbody radiation. John Rennie's answer seems to suggest this is not the case. If so, why is the greenhouse model explained in terms of the atmosphere doing precisely that?

  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting topic but the question, as written, is somewhat vague. What exactly is the question? In the first two paragraphs I get the feeling you want to know how to understand the amount of "characteristic" (I've never heard this phrase before, but I know what you mean from context) versus black body radiation for a material. Then, in the third paragraph you bring up another example, so I'm not sure whether you're asking about this issue in general or if you want information on the specific examples. Then, in the last sentence, you ask another general question. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 1:24
  • $\begingroup$ So, "characteristic" means line emission? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank Thank you for your comments and sorry for the late feedback. Please see the update to my post regarding your questions. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ @DilithiumMatrix Thank you for your comments and sorry for the late feedback. Please see the update to my post regarding your question. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:00

1 Answer 1


The dominant source of black body radiation are transient oscillating dipoles induced by thermal vibrations within the material.

If we treat a solid as a cloud of electrons intermingled with a cloud of nuclei, then any thermally induced vibrations will cause small local changes in the average electron and nucleus density, and this will result in a small local electric dipole. As these dipoles change with time they emit the electromagnetic radiation that we see as black body radiation.

This applies to any system dense enough to support these sorts of charge density oscillations. Under normal conditions this means a solid or a liquid, but a plasma will behave in the same way if it can be made dense enough. This is hard to do in the laboratory but the Sun manages it :-)

However a gas cannot sustain oscillations of this form because the gas molecules spend most of their time distant from each other. To a first approximation gases do not emit black body radiation. You only see radiation from rotational, vibrational and electronic transitions, and these produce discrete lines. Gas molecules do interact when they collide, so if you increase the number of collisions by making the gas denser and hotter it will start to produce more black body radiation and eventually transition to radiation dominated by the black body spectrum.

Although both the absoprtion and emission spectra are discrete lines, the lines can be quite densely packed. Add a bit of pressure and Doppler broadening and they can blur out to give broad absorption/emission features. However these are still not a black body spectrum.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for your answer! As I mentioned in the update, the question was prompted by a project on the greenhouse effect. Referring to your answer, it doesn't seem accurate to say that the thermal radiation emitted by the earth is absorbed by the atmosphere and subsequently emitted as thermal radiation. Yet, according to my understanding, this is the view usually presented when explaining the greenhouse effect. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ You say "by making the gas denser and hotter it will start to produce more black body radiation", but another option is just to increase the gas volume (while maintaining a uniform temperature and pressure), right? For example, if you make a 1500K gas cube where each side is 1 mile long (assuming all gasses have "radiation absorption lengths" less than 1 mile at 1 atm) and then poke a little hole in the cube, radiation from that hole should follow the 1500K blackbody spectrum, right? Notice that the OP's "UPDATE" shows this same confusion... $\endgroup$
    – bobuhito
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 3:39
  • $\begingroup$ Is it too simple to say that only extremely dense and hot ideal gases generate blackbody radiation? The other sources are interesting for me to learn about (electron transitions, dipole moments and Van der Waals) as I always assumed the standard derivation was for an ideal gas. $\endgroup$
    – michael b
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 3:35

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