Spectroscopy Introduction

A visual example of spectroscopy

Florenco/Wikimedia Commons/CC SA 1.0

Spectroscopy is a technique that uses the interaction of energy with a sample to perform an analysis.


The data that is obtained from spectroscopy is called a spectrum. A spectrum is a plot of the intensity of energy detected versus the wavelength (or mass or momentum or frequency, etc.) of the energy.

What Information Is Obtained

A spectrum can be used to obtain information about atomic and molecular energy levels, molecular geometries, chemical bonds, interactions of molecules, and related processes. Often, spectra are used to identify the components of a sample (qualitative analysis). Spectra may also be used to measure the amount of material in a sample (quantitative analysis).

What Instruments Are Needed

Several instruments are used to perform spectroscopic analysis. In simplest terms, spectroscopy requires an energy source (commonly a laser, but this could be an ion source or radiation source) and a device for measuring the change in the energy source after it has interacted with the sample (often a spectrophotometer or interferometer).

Types of Spectroscopy

There are as many different types of spectroscopy as there are energy sources! Here are some examples:

Astronomical Spectroscopy

Energy from celestial objects is used to analyze their chemical composition, density, pressure, temperature, magnetic fields, velocity, and other characteristics. There are many energy types (spectroscopies) that may be used in astronomical spectroscopy.

Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy

Energy absorbed by the sample is used to assess its characteristics. Sometimes absorbed energy causes light to be released from the sample, which may be measured by a technique such as fluorescence spectroscopy.

Attenuated Total Reflectance Spectroscopy

This is the study of substances in thin films or on surfaces. The sample is penetrated by an energy beam one or more times, and the reflected energy is analyzed. Attenuated total reflectance spectroscopy and the related technique called frustrated multiple internal reflection spectroscopy are used to analyze coatings and opaque liquids.

Electron Paramagnetic Spectroscopy

This is a microwave technique based on splitting electronic energy fields in a magnetic field. It is used to determine structures of samples containing unpaired electrons.

Electron Spectroscopy

There are several types of electron spectroscopy, all associated with measuring changes in electronic energy levels.

Fourier Transform Spectroscopy

This is a family of spectroscopic techniques in which the sample is irradiated by all relevant wavelengths simultaneously for a short period of time. The absorption spectrum is obtained by applying mathematical analysis to the resulting energy pattern.

Gamma-ray Spectroscopy

Gamma radiation is the energy source in this type of spectroscopy, which includes activation analysis and Mossbauer spectroscopy.

Infrared Spectroscopy

The infrared absorption spectrum of a substance is sometimes called its molecular fingerprint. Although frequently used to identify materials, infrared spectroscopy also may be used to quantify the number of absorbing molecules.

Laser Spectroscopy

Absorption spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy commonly use laser light as an energy source. Laser spectroscopies provide information about the interaction of coherent light with matter. Laser spectroscopy generally has high resolution and sensitivity.

Mass Spectrometry

A mass spectrometer source produces ions. Information about a sample may be obtained by analyzing the dispersion of ions when they interact with the sample, generally using the mass-to-charge ratio.

Multiplex or Frequency-Modulated Spectroscopy

In this type of spectroscopy, each optical wavelength that is recorded is encoded with an audio frequency containing the original wavelength information. A wavelength analyzer can then reconstruct the original spectrum.

Raman Spectroscopy

Raman scattering of light by molecules may be used to provide information on a sample's chemical composition and molecular structure.

X-ray Spectroscopy

This technique involves the excitation of inner electrons of atoms, which may be seen as x-ray absorption. An x-ray fluorescence emission spectrum may be produced when an electron falls from a higher energy state into the vacancy created by the absorbed energy.

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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Spectroscopy Introduction." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/introduction-to-spectroscopy-603741. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 26). Spectroscopy Introduction. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/introduction-to-spectroscopy-603741 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Spectroscopy Introduction." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/introduction-to-spectroscopy-603741 (accessed May 29, 2023).