This question discusses atmospheric absorption of radiation (specifically 5G radio waves) due to oxygen at 60 GHz.

I would like to know exactly what happens to oxygen in all its forms (be it air or ozone) when it absorbs radiation at 60GHz.

I'm aware of different types of absorption but not sure what it means for oxygen. Also, the experiments cited in these types of Wikipedia articles seem to look at oxygen atoms or molecules in controlled environments, but I can't quite extract the lay explanations of what happens and how it applies to the air we breathe.


The oxygen molecule is unusual in having a ground state that has unpaired electrons, and this means it has a net spin of one. Technically the ground state is a triplet. This is unusual because ground states normally have spin zero i.e. they are singlets. For example the $\mathrm{N}_2$ molecule has a singlet ground state.

Anyhow, the non-zero spin of the oxygen molecule causes the ground state to split into a couple of closely separated levels. This type of splitting is known as fine structure. The spacing between these levels is 0.246 meV, which corresponds to a frequency of 59.4 GHz i.e. microwaves with a frequency of 59.4 Ghz have just the right amount of energy to cause transitions between the fine structure levels.

And this is what happens when oxygen absorbs microwaves at 60 GHz. The absorption spectrum is actually very complex because the oxygen molecule changes its rotation as well as jumping between the fine structure levels, so we get a complicated cluster of lines centred around 60 GHz. At atmospheric pressure the lines are broadened by collisions between oxygen molecules and we see only the characteristic broad absorption hump at 60 GHz. To resolve the many lines within this hump requires the absorption to be measured at very low pressures where collisions between the molecules are infrequent.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer. From the answer I deduce that there's no chemical change to the air around the antenna. You also don't mention heat (however slight), so for all intents and purposes, nothing happens to the air we breathe when 60GHz RF is radiated through it. $\endgroup$ – opyate Mar 2 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @opyate yes. The two states are for all intents and purposes identical and absorption of the 60 GHz photon makes no difference to the behaviour of the oxygen molecule. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Mar 2 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ Please elaborate on the singlet state of the oxygen molecule. How long is it in the singlet state for? What causes it to go back to the triplet ground state? Does any oxygen remain in the singlet state? (I don't have enough reputation on here to incorporate comments into the answer.) $\endgroup$ – opyate Mar 3 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @opyate The singlet state is not involved in the 60 GHz absorption. The singlet state is at a much high energy and the absorption line associated with the singlet state is in the near infrared.See the Wikipedia article on singlet oxygen. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Mar 3 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ A few more clarifications in chat: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/105119 Thanks again :) $\endgroup$ – opyate Mar 3 at 11:43

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