Electromagnetic radiation produced by a sudden slowing down or deflection of charged particles, especially electrons, passing through matter in the vicinity of the strong electric fields of atomic nuclei. It occurs as cosmic rays pass through the Earth's atmosphere and accounts for continuous X-ray spectra.
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Bremsstrahlung may also be referred to as free-free radiation. This refers to the radiation that arises as a result of a charged particle that is free both before and after the deflection (acceleration) that causes the emission. Strictly speaking, bremsstrahlung refers to any radiation due to the acceleration of a charged particle, which includes synchrotron radiation; however, it is frequently used (even when not speaking German) in the more narrow sense of radiation from electrons stopping in matter.
The word Bremsstrahlung is retained from the original German to describe the radiation which is emitted when electrons are decelerated or "braked" when they are fired at a metal target. Accelerated charges give off electromagnetic radiation, and when the energy of the bombarding electrons is high enough, that radiation is in the x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is characterized by a continuous distribution of radiation which becomes more intense and shifts toward higher frequencies when the energy of the bombarding electrons is increased.
Beta particle emitting substances sometimes exhibit a weak radiation with continuous spectrum that is due to both outer and inner bremsstrahlung, or to one of them alone.
Bremsstrahlung is a type of "secondary radiation", in that it is produced as a result of stopping (or slowing) the primary radiation (beta particles). In some cases, e.g. 32P, the Bremsstrahlung produced by shielding this radiation with the normally used dense materials (e.g. lead) is itself dangerous; in such cases, shielding must be accomplished with low density materials, e.g. Plexiglass (lucite), plastic, wood, or water ; because the rate of deceleration of the electron is slower, the radiation given off has a longer wavelength and is therefore less penetrating.
Integrating over all angles then gives the total power emitted as
The general expression for the total radiated power is
In a plasma the free electrons are constantly producing Bremsstrahlung in collisions with the ions. In a uniform plasma, with thermal electrons (distributed according to the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution with the temperature ), the power spectral density (power per angular frequency interval per volume, integrated over the whole solid angle) of the Bremsstrahlung radiated, is calculated to be
where is the number density of electrons, is the classical radius of electron, is its mass, is the Boltzmann constant, and is the speed of light. Note that all but the third bracketed factor on the right-hand side are dimensionless. The "effective" ion charge state is given by an average over the charge states of the ions:
where is the number density of ions with charge .
The special function is defined in the exponential integral article, and
( is a maximum or cutoff wavenumber). when 27.2 eV (for a single ion species; 27.2 eV is twice the ionization energy of hydrogen) where K is a pure number and is a thermal electron de Broglie wavelength. Otherwise, where is the classical Coulomb distance of closest approach.
For the case , we find
is infinite at , and decreases rapidly with . The resulting power density, integrated over all frequencies, is finite and equals
Note the appearance of the fine structure constant due to the quantum nature of . In practical units, a commonly used version of this formula is
This formula agrees with the theoretical estimate if we set K=3.17; the value K=3 is suggested by Ichimaru.
If the plasma is optically thin, the Bremsstrahlung radiation leaves the plasma, carrying part of the internal plasma energy. This effect is known as the Bremsstrahlung cooling.
The dominant luminous component in a cluster of galaxies is the 107 to 108 Kelvin intracluster medium. The emission from the intracluster medium is characterized by thermal Bremsstrahlung. Thermal Bremsstrahlung radiation occurs when the particles populating the emitting plasma are at a uniform temperature and are distributed according to the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution
where speed, v, is defined as
The bulk emission from this gas is thermal Bremsstrahlung. The power emitted per cubic centimeter per second can be written in the compact form
with cgs units [erg cm-3 s-1] and where 'ff' stands for free-free, 1.4x10-27 is the condensed form of the physical constants and geometrical constants associated with integrating over the power per unit area per unit frequency, ne and ni are the electron and ion densities, respectively, Z is the number of protons of the bending charge, gB is the frequency averaged Gaunt factor and is of order unity, and T is the global x-ray temperature determined from the spectral cut-off frequency
above which exponentially small amount of photons are created because the energy required for creation of such a photon is available only for electrons in the tail of the Maxwell distribution.
This process is also known as Bremsstrahlung cooling since the plasma is optically thin to photons at these energies and the energy radiated is emitted freely into the universe.
This radiation is in the energy range of X-rays and can be easily observed with space-based telescopes such as Chandra X-ray Observatory, XMM-Newton, ROSAT, ASCA, EXOSAT, Astro-E2, and future missions like Con-X and NeXT