Provided it is above the threshold frequency of the metal, when electromagnetic radiation is shone onto a metals surface photo-electrons are emitted. This occurs because 1 photon is absorbed by 1 electron giving it enough energy to be ejected.

We know that the energy of the incident photons are all equal from the equation E = hf. If this is so why does the kinetic energy of the emitted photons vary? Why is there a maximum kinetic energy, is it not the same amount every time?


There are a couple of reasons for this. First and foremost, the electrons are ejected from the surface of the metal in random directions. When you measure things like the "stopping potential" you're only sensitive to motion in directions that would carry the photo-electron to the anode. Because you're only sensitive to motion in particular directions, you only see the part of the kinetic energy along that particular direction. It is this kinematic messiness that makes measuring the reverse potential needed to stop all current the preferred method of measuring the photoelectric effect - the last electrons stopped will be the ones where the largest possible fraction of the photon's energy went in to propelling the electron toward the anode.

Secondarily, the valence electrons in metals have energies in what are known as the "conduction band", which means the electron's energy can exist in a continuum. That fact, combined with the random messiness inherent in thermodynamics, means that no two electrons will have the same kinetic energy before the photons hit them. Thus, each electron will have a slightly different kinetic energy after it gets ejected from the metal.

Of approximately equal weight is the spread in frequencies for the incident light. See, even if your light is produced by a nice sharp atomic line, like in a low pressure mercury lamp, the mercury atoms in the gas will be undergoing thermal motion, leading to Doppler broadening of the line.


"We know that the energy of the incident photons are all equal"

True only if the light shone is monochromatic. Look at the plot used to determine the photoelectric effect:

it uses the maximum electron energy for a given frequency, so as to not depend on the kinematic dispersion discussed in the chosen answer.



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