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Do computers emit radiation?
The answer to that question is yes, and no. So, which is it?
Modern computer towers and laptops are mainly comprised of microelectronics and consume very low amounts of power compared with their predecessors. The laptop upon which I am writing at the moment has a mid-grade processor and runs about 15-60 Watts of power use.
Less power means less electromagnetic emissions. When we discuss radiation in relation to microelectronics, we are talking about electromagnetic frequencies (EMF).
The word “radiation” typically freaks people out, conjuring up images of hair, teeth, and nails falling out, skin sloughing away. That is ionizing radiation and not the same type of radiation we are talking about here, which is non-ionizing radiation.
For example, if you turn on a flashlight, it is emitting electromagnetic radiation. Before a discussion of EMF and modern electronics, let’s talk about EMF radiation, what it is, and what it is not.
Radiative EMF energy is a product of emissions from the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum of frequencies ranges from gamma radiation and x-rays on one end to radio signals on the other end with visible light somewhere in the middle.
The operative word here is “light”, which is made of photons. Electromagnetic spectra (radio waves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet light, microwaves, x-rays, and gamma radiation) consists of photons of light, whether the light can be observed or not.
The differences between portions of the spectrum have to do with wavelength, which is the distance between pulses of energy and also describes how frequently (a.k.a., what frequency in Hertz or cycles/second) those pulses of energy are emitted.
What is not described by these features is energy intensity. For some portions of the spectrum, any emission at those wavelengths is potentially harmful (for example, x-rays and gamma rays). In the other portions of the spectrum, it is a matter of intensity and not necessarily wavelength.
We know you can get a really nasty burn from visible light, take high-intensity lasers for example. Radio waves pass through structures, send us information to our stereo radio receivers, laptops, cell phones, and other devices but do not pose an immediate health risk.
However, climb up a radio tower and stand next to the transmitter and it is an entirely different story. You will basically be cooked alive up there, which is one of the reasons, apart from the better over-the-horizon transmission, that radio towers are so tall.
Distance is a great mitigator of radiation intensity, since energy density diminishes over the inverse square of the distance traveled, following the inverse square law.
Inverse Square Law
Despite the math, the inverse square law is not all that hard to understand. Let us use a simple example.
If you shine a flashlight on the wall, you see a bright spot where the beam falls. Back up a little way and the spot gets larger, but it also gets dimmer.
If you continue to move away from the wall a sufficient distance, you will at some point not see a spot at all or any useful illumination of the surface. That is because the density of the projected energy is diluted over a larger and larger surface area, diminishing in that density by the inverse square of the distance.
So, a beam of emitted energy of 10 on a surface at a distance of 10 meters becomes 2.5 at a distance of 20 meters, 1.1 at a distance of 30 meters, and so on. For any radiating source of electromagnetic energy, distance from that source is the simplest means of reducing your exposure.
What Radiation do Laptop Computers Emit?
Laptops and tower computers do emit some forms of non-ionizing radiation, which are listed below:
Visible light. Yes, that bright screen you spend so much time staring at emits electromagnetic radiation in the form of visible light.
That constitutes EMF spectra in the 400-800 THz (tera-Hertz) band. One THz comes to 1012 cycles per second.
Infrared light. Infrared light, also known as radiant heat, is given off by energy-consuming sources in the laptop and emitted as a radiative byproduct. This is a normal process of thermal emission.
Infrared light runs in the 10-100 THz band.
Radio waves. The WiFi and Bluetooth antennas in your laptop or tower both receive and transmit radio wave emissions in either the 2.4 GHz (giga-Hertz) and/or 5.0 GHz portions of the spectrum. Wireless devices send and receive data to foster communication, the transmission of information, and for a checks-and-balances system of regulating reliable information transfer.
One GHz is defined as 109 cycles per second, so a bit longer wavelength than visible light.
Low-frequency EMF. Normal operation of the circuitry components of your tower or laptop produces low-frequency signals as a normal matter of course.
Nuclear radiation. Yep, there are some nuclear radiative emissions, which include gamma rays, put out by your computer. However, these are at the level of natural background radioactive decay found in the materials of which are used for components in the machine and its housing.
The amount of radioactive emissions is very low and generally not distinguishable from levels of exposure in the natural environment.
Should I Worry About It?
No, not at all. Here are some take-home points to remember when thinking about radiation and your level of exposure.
Thermal radiation (heat) is emitted by all objects. I would like to repeat that, all objects.
This is a basic principle of thermodynamics and involves all the laws of thermodynamics. It is simply how energy, in the form of heat, is transferred between objects in a system.
Most materials obtained from the environment have some concentration of radioactive substances within them. Whether that radiation is ionizing radiation relates to the intensity of the emitted energy.
In most cases, it is not. Any naturally occurring source of an element, for example, carbon, is actually a mixture of various isotopes of carbon, some of which are radioactive.
What’s an isotope? Think of an element as a family and the isotopes as different members of the family.
They all have the same last name, but they are different people.
Electronic circuitry produces magnetic fields which emit electromagnetic energies as a result of current flowing through the circuit. It’s how circuits work and you cannot get away from it.
Of all the EMF spectra in a modern laptop, the above emissions are inconsequential sources. However, WiFi and Bluetooth radio transmissions are of sufficient energy to produce EMF pollution in a contained environment if there are too many sources in a small area.