A spectral line is a weaker or stronger region in an otherwise uniform and continuous spectrum, resulting from emission or absorption of light in a narrow frequency range, compared with the nearby frequencies. Spectral lines are often used to identify atoms and molecules. These "fingerprints" can be compared to the previously collected ones of atoms and molecules, and are thus used to identify the atomic and molecular components of stars and planets, which would otherwise be impossible.
Spectral lines are the result of interaction between a quantum system (usually atoms, but sometimes molecules or atomic nuclei) and a single photon. When a photon has about the right amount of energy (which is connected to its frequency) to allow a change in the energy state of the system (in the case of an atom this is usually an electron changing orbitals), the photon is absorbed. Then the energy will be spontaneously re-emitted, either as one photon at the same frequency as the original one or in a cascade, where the sum of the energies of the photons emitted will be equal to the energy of the one absorbed (assuming the system returns to its original state).
A spectral line may be observed either as an emission line or an absorption line. Which type of line is observed depends on the type of material and its temperature relative to another emission source. An absorption line is produced when photons from a hot, broad spectrum source pass through a cooler material. The intensity of light, over a narrow frequency range, is reduced due to absorption by the material and re-emission in random directions. By contrast, a bright emission line is produced when photons from a hot material are detected, perhaps in the presence of a broad spectrum from a cooler source. The intensity of light, over a narrow frequency range, is increased due to emission by the hot material.
Spectral lines are highly atom-specific, and can be used to identify the chemical composition of any medium. Several elements, including helium, thallium, and caesium, were discovered by spectroscopic means. Spectral lines also depend on the temperature and density of the material, so they are widely used to determine the physical conditions of stars and other celestial bodies that cannot be analyzed by other means.
Depending on the material and its physical conditions, the energy of the involved photons can vary widely, with the spectral lines observed across the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to gamma rays.
Strong spectral lines in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum often have a unique Fraunhofer line designation, such as K for a line at 393.366 nm emerging from singly-ionized calcium atom, Ca+, though some of the Fraunhofer "lines" are blends of multiple lines from several different species.
In other cases, the lines are designated according to the level of ionization by adding a Roman numeral to the designation of the chemical element. Neutral atoms are denoted with the Roman numeral I, singly ionized atoms with II, and so on, so that, for example:
Cu II — copper ion with +1 charge, Cu1+
Fe III — iron ion with +2 charge, Fe2+
More detailed designations usually include the line wavelength and may include a multiplet number (for atomic lines) or band designation (for molecular lines). Many spectral lines of atomic hydrogen also have designations within their respective series, such as the Lyman series or Balmer series. Originally all spectral lines were classified into series: the principal series, sharp series, and diffuse series. These series exist across atoms of all elements, and the patterns for all atoms are well-predicted by the Rydberg-Ritz formula. These series were later associated with suborbitals.
There are a number of effects which control spectral line shape. A spectral line extends over a range of frequencies, not a single frequency (i.e., it has a nonzero linewidth). In addition, its center may be shifted from its nominal central wavelength. There are several reasons for this broadening and shift. These reasons may be divided into two general categories – broadening due to local conditions and broadening due to extended conditions. Broadening due to local conditions is due to effects which hold in a small region around the emitting element, usually small enough to assure local thermodynamic equilibrium. Broadening due to extended conditions may result from changes to the spectral distribution of the radiation as it traverses its path to the observer. It also may result from the combining of radiation from a number of regions which are far from each other.
The lifetime of excited states results in natural broadening, also known as lifetime broadening. The uncertainty principle relates the lifetime of an excited state (due to spontaneous radiative decay or the Auger process) with the uncertainty of its energy. Some authors use the term "radiative broadening" to refer specifically to the part of natural broadening caused by the spontaneous radiative decay. A short lifetime will have a large energy uncertainty and a broad emission. This broadening effect results in an unshifted Lorentzian profile. The natural broadening can be experimentally altered only to the extent that decay rates can be artificially suppressed or enhanced.
The atoms in a gas which are emitting radiation will have a distribution of velocities. Each photon emitted will be "red"- or "blue"-shifted by the Doppler effect depending on the velocity of the atom relative to the observer. The higher the temperature of the gas, the wider the distribution of velocities in the gas. Since the spectral line is a combination of all of the emitted radiation, the higher the temperature of the gas, the broader the spectral line emitted from that gas. This broadening effect is described by a Gaussian profile and there is no associated shift.
The presence of nearby particles will affect the radiation emitted by an individual particle. There are two limiting cases by which this occurs:
Pressure broadening may also be classified by the nature of the perturbing force as follows:
Inhomogeneous broadening is a general term for broadening because some emitting particles are in a different local environment from others, and therefore emit at a different frequency. This term is used especially for solids, where surfaces, grain boundaries, and stoichiometry variations can create a variety of local environments for a given atom to occupy. In liquids, the effects of inhomogeneous broadening is sometimes reduced by a process called motional narrowing.
Certain types of broadening are the result of conditions over a large region of space rather than simply upon conditions that are local to the emitting particle.
Opacity broadening is an example of a non-local broadening mechanism. Electromagnetic radiation emitted at a particular point in space can be reabsorbed as it travels through space. This absorption depends on wavelength. The line is broadened because the photons at the line center have a greater reabsorption probability than the photons at the line wings. Indeed, the reabsorption near the line center may be so great as to cause a self reversal in which the intensity at the center of the line is less than in the wings. This process is also sometimes called self-absorption.
Radiation emitted by a moving source is subject to Doppler shift due to a finite line-of-sight velocity projection. If different parts of the emitting body have different velocities (along the line of sight), the resulting line will be broadened, with the line width proportional to the width of the velocity distribution. For example, radiation emitted from a distant rotating body, such as a star, will be broadened due to the line-of-sight variations in velocity on opposite sides of the star (this effect usually referred to as rotational broadening). The greater the rate of rotation, the broader the line. Another example is an imploding plasma shell in a Z-pinch.
Each of these mechanisms can act in isolation or in combination with others. Assuming each effect is independent, the observed line profile is a convolution of the line profiles of each mechanism. For example, a combination of the thermal Doppler broadening and the impact pressure broadening yields a Voigt profile.
However, the different line broadening mechanisms are not always independent. For example, the collisional effects and the motional Doppler shifts can act in a coherent manner, resulting under some conditions even in a collisional narrowing, known as the Dicke effect.
The phrase "spectral lines", when not qualified, usually refers to lines having wavelengths in the visible band of the full electromagnetic spectrum. Many spectral lines occur at wavelengths outside this range. At shorter wavelengths, which correspond to higher energies, ultraviolet spectral lines include the Lyman series of hydrogen. At the much shorter wavelengths of X-rays, the lines are known as characteristic X-rays because they remain largely unchanged for a given chemical element, independent of their chemical environment. Longer wavelengths correspond to lower energies, where the infrared spectral lines include the Paschen series of hydrogen. At even longer wavelengths, the radio spectrum includes the 21-cm line used to detect neutral hydrogen throughout the cosmos.
For each element, the following table shows the spectral lines which appear in the visible spectrum at about 400-700 nm.