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Absorbance is defined as "the logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted radiant power through a sample (excluding the effects on cell walls)". [1] Alternatively, for samples which scatter light, absorbance may be defined as "the negative logarithm of one minus absorptance, as measured on a uniform sample". [2] The term is used in many technical areas to quantify the results of an experimental measurement. While the term has its origin in quantifying the absorption of light, it is often entangled with quantification of light which is “lost” to a detector system through other mechanisms. What these uses of the term tend to have in common is that they refer to a logarithm of the ratio of a quantity of light incident on a sample or material to that which is detected after the light has interacted with the sample.  


The term absorption refers to the physical process of absorbing light, while absorbance does not always measure only absorption; it may measure attenuation (of transmitted radiant power) caused by absorption, as well as reflection, scattering, and other physical processes.

History and uses of the term absorbance

Beer-Lambert law

The roots of the term absorbance are in the Beer–Lambert law.  As light moves through a medium, it will become dimmer as it is being "extinguished".  Bouguer recognized that this extinction (now often called attenuation) was not linear with distance traveled through the medium, but related by what we now refer to as an exponential function.  If is the intensity of the light at the beginning of the travel and is the intensity of the light detected after travel of a distance , the fraction transmitted, , is given by:  , where is called an attenuation constant (a term used in various fields where a signal is transmitted though a medium) or coefficient.  The amount of light transmitted is falling off exponentially with distance.  Taking the natural logarithm in the above equation, we get:   . For scattering media, the constant is often divided into two parts, , separating it into a scattering coefficient, , and an absorption coefficient, , [3] obtaining: .

If a size of a detector is very small compared to the distance traveled by the light, any light that is scattered by a particle, either in the forward or backward direction, will not strike the detector. In such case, a plot of as a function of wavelength will yield a superposition of the effects of absorption and scatter. Because the absorption portion is more distinct and tends to ride on a background of the scatter portion, it is often used to identify and quantify the absorbing species. Consequently this is often referred to as absorption spectroscopy, and the plotted quantity is called "absorbance", symbolized as . Some disciplines by convention use decadic absorbance rather than Napierian absorbance, resulting in: (with the subscript 10 usually not shown).

Beer–Lambert law with non-scattering samples

Within a homogeneous medium such as a solution, there is no scattering. For this case, researched extensively by August Beer, the concentration of the absorbing species follows the same linear response as the path-length. Additionally, the contributions of individual absorbing species are additive. This is a very favorable situation, and made absorbance an absorption metric far preferable to absorption fraction (absorptance). This is the case for which the term "absorbance" was first used.

A common expression of the Beer's law relates the attenuation of light in a material as: , where is the absorbance; is the molar attenuation coefficient or absorptivity of the attenuating species; is the optical path length; and is the concentration of the attenuating species.

Absorbance for scattering samples

For samples which scatter light, absorbance is defined as "the negative logarithm of one minus absorptance (absorption fraction: ) as measured on a uniform sample". [2] For decadic absorbance, [4] this may be symbolized as: . If a sample both transmits and remits light, and is not luminescent, the fraction of light absorbed (), remitted (), and transmitted () add to 1, or: . Note that , and the formula may be written as: . For a sample which does not scatter, , and , yielding the formula for absorbance of a material discussed below.

Even though this absorbance function is very useful with scattering samples, the function does not have the same desirable characteristics as it does for non-scattering samples. There is, however, a property called absorbing power which may be estimated for these samples. The absorbing power of a single unit thickness of material making up a scattering sample is the same as the absorbance of the same thickness of the materiel in the absence of scatter. [5]


In optics, absorbance or decadic absorbance is the common logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted radiant power through a material, and spectral absorbance or spectral decadic absorbance is the common logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted spectral radiant power through a material. Absorbance is dimensionless, and in particular is not a length, though it is a monotonically increasing function of path length, and approaches zero as the path length approaches zero. The use of the term "optical density" for absorbance is discouraged.

Mathematical definitions

Absorbance of a material

The absorbance of a material, denoted A, is given by [1]


is the radiant flux transmitted by that material,
is the radiant flux received by that material,
is the transmittance of that material.

Absorbance is a dimensionless quantity. Nevertheless, the absorbance unit or AU is commonly used in ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy and its high-performance liquid chromatography applications, often in derived units such as the milli-absorbance unit (mAU) or milli-absorbance unit-minutes (mAU×min), a unit of absorbance integrated over time. [6]

Absorbance is related to optical depth by

where τ is the optical depth.

Spectral absorbance

Spectral absorbance in frequency and spectral absorbance in wavelength of a material, denoted Aν and Aλ respectively, are given by [1]


Φe,νt is the spectral radiant flux in frequency transmitted by that material,
Φe,νi is the spectral radiant flux in frequency received by that material,
Tν is the spectral transmittance in frequency of that material,
Φe,λt is the spectral radiant flux in wavelength transmitted by that material,
Φe,λi is the spectral radiant flux in wavelength received by that material,
Tλ is the spectral transmittance in wavelength of that material.

Spectral absorbance is related to spectral optical depth by


τν is the spectral optical depth in frequency,
τλ is the spectral optical depth in wavelength.

Although absorbance is properly unitless, it is sometimes reported in "absorbance units", or AU. Many people, including scientific researchers, wrongly state the results from absorbance measurement experiments in terms of these made-up units. [7]

Relationship with attenuation


Absorbance is a number that measures the attenuation of the transmitted radiant power in a material. Attenuation can be caused by the physical process of "absorption", but also reflection, scattering, and other physical processes. Absorbance of a material is approximately equal to its attenuance[ clarification needed ] when both the absorbance is much less than 1 and the emittance of that material (not to be confused with radiant exitance or emissivity) is much less than the absorbance. Indeed,


Φet is the radiant power transmitted by that material,
Φeatt is the radiant power attenuated by that material,
Φei is the radiant power received by that material,
Φee is the radiant power emitted by that material,

that is equivalent to


T = Φetei is the transmittance of that material,
ATT = Φeattei is the attenuance of that material,
E = Φeeei is the emittance of that material,

and according to Beer–Lambert law, T = 10−A, so

and finally

Attenuation coefficient

Absorbance of a material is also related to its decadic attenuation coefficient by


l is the thickness of that material through which the light travels,
a(z) is the decadic attenuation coefficient of that material at z.

If a(z) is uniform along the path, the attenuation is said to be a linear attenuation, and the relation becomes

Sometimes the relation is given using the molar attenuation coefficient of the material, that is its attenuation coefficient divided by its molar concentration:


ε is the molar attenuation coefficient of that material,
c(z) is the molar concentration of that material at z.

If c(z) is uniform along the path, the relation becomes

The use of the term "molar absorptivity" for molar attenuation coefficient is discouraged. [1]


Logarithmic vs. directly proportional measurements

The amount of light transmitted through a material diminishes exponentially as it travels through the material, according to the Beer–Lambert law (A=(ε)(l)). Since the absorbance of a sample is measured as a logarithm, it is directly proportional to the thickness of the sample and to the concentration of the absorbing material in the sample. Some other measures related to absorption, such as transmittance, are measured as a simple ratio so they vary exponentially with the thickness and concentration of the material.

Absorbance: −log10etei)Transmittance: Φetei

Instrument measurement range

Any real measuring instrument has a limited range over which it can accurately measure absorbance. An instrument must be calibrated and checked against known standards if the readings are to be trusted. Many instruments will become non-linear (fail to follow the Beer–Lambert law) starting at approximately 2 AU (~1% transmission). It is also difficult to accurately measure very small absorbance values (below 10−4) with commercially available instruments for chemical analysis. In such cases, laser-based absorption techniques can be used, since they have demonstrated detection limits that supersede those obtained by conventional non-laser-based instruments by many orders of magnitude (detections have been demonstrated all the way down to 5 × 10−13). The theoretical best accuracy for most commercially available non-laser-based instruments is attained in the range near 1 AU. The path length or concentration should then, when possible, be adjusted to achieve readings near this range.

Method of measurement

Typically, absorbance of a dissolved substance is measured using absorption spectroscopy. This involves shining a light through a solution and recording how much light and what wavelengths were transmitted onto a detector. Using this information, the wavelengths that were absorbed can be determined. [8] First, measurements on a "blank" are taken using just the solvent for reference purposes. This is so that the absorbance of the solvent is known, and then any change in absorbance when measuring the whole solution is made by just the solute of interest. Then measurements of the solution are taken. The transmitted spectral radiant flux that makes it through the solution sample is measured and compared to the incident spectral radiant flux. As stated above, the spectral absorbance at a given wavelength is

The absorbance spectrum is plotted on a graph of absorbance vs. wavelength. [9]

A UV-Vis spectrophotometer will do all this automatically. To use this machine, solutions are placed in a small cuvette and inserted into the holder. The machine is controlled through a computer and, once it has been "blanked", automatically displays the absorbance plotted against wavelength. Getting the absorbance spectrum of a solution is useful for determining the concentration of that solution using the Beer–Lambert law and is used in HPLC.

Shade number

Some filters, notably welding glass, are rated by shade number (SN), which is 7/3 times the absorbance plus one: [10]


For example, if the filter has 0.1% transmittance (0.001 transmittance, which is 3 absorbance units), its shade number would be 8.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Beer–Lambert law</span> Law describing absorption of light

The Beer–Lambert law, also known as Beer's law, the Lambert–Beer law, or the Beer–Lambert–Bouguer law relates the attenuation of light to the properties of the material through which the light is travelling. The law is commonly applied to chemical analysis measurements and used in understanding attenuation in physical optics, for photons, neutrons, or rarefied gases. In mathematical physics, this law arises as a solution of the BGK equation.

In physics, the cross section is a measure of the probability that a specific process will take place when some kind of radiant excitation intersects a localized phenomenon. For example, the Rutherford cross-section is a measure of probability that an alpha particle will be deflected by a given angle during an interaction with an atomic nucleus. Cross section is typically denoted σ (sigma) and is expressed in units of area, more specifically in barns. In a way, it can be thought of as the size of the object that the excitation must hit in order for the process to occur, but more exactly, it is a parameter of a stochastic process.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Refractive index</span> Ratio of the speed of light in vacuum to that in the medium

In optics, the refractive index of an optical medium is a dimensionless number that gives the indication of the light bending ability of that medium.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Optical depth</span>

In physics, optical depth or optical thickness is the natural logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted radiant power through a material. Thus, the larger the optical depth, the smaller the amount of transmitted radiant power through the material. Spectral optical depth or spectral optical thickness is the natural logarithm of the ratio of incident to transmitted spectral radiant power through a material. Optical depth is dimensionless, and in particular is not a length, though it is a monotonically increasing function of optical path length, and approaches zero as the path length approaches zero. The use of the term "optical density" for optical depth is discouraged.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Radiometry</span> Techniques for measuring electromagnetic radiation

Radiometry is a set of techniques for measuring electromagnetic radiation, including visible light. Radiometric techniques in optics characterize the distribution of the radiation's power in space, as opposed to photometric techniques, which characterize the light's interaction with the human eye. The fundamental difference between radiometry and photometry is that radiometry gives the entire optical radiation spectrum, while photometry is limited to the visible spectrum. Radiometry is distinct from quantum techniques such as photon counting.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reflectance</span> Capacity of an object to reflect light

The reflectance of the surface of a material is its effectiveness in reflecting radiant energy. It is the fraction of incident electromagnetic power that is reflected at the boundary. Reflectance is a component of the response of the electronic structure of the material to the electromagnetic field of light, and is in general a function of the frequency, or wavelength, of the light, its polarization, and the angle of incidence. The dependence of reflectance on the wavelength is called a reflectance spectrum or spectral reflectance curve.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Planck's law</span> Spectral density of light emitted by a black body

In physics, Planck's law describes the spectral density of electromagnetic radiation emitted by a black body in thermal equilibrium at a given temperature T, when there is no net flow of matter or energy between the body and its environment.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fabry–Pérot interferometer</span>

In optics, a Fabry–Pérot interferometer (FPI) or etalon is an optical cavity made from two parallel reflecting surfaces. Optical waves can pass through the optical cavity only when they are in resonance with it. It is named after Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot, who developed the instrument in 1899. Etalon is from the French étalon, meaning "measuring gauge" or "standard".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Transmittance</span> Ratio of transmitted to incident radiant flux

Transmittance of the surface of a material is its effectiveness in transmitting radiant energy. It is the fraction of incident electromagnetic power that is transmitted through a sample, in contrast to the transmission coefficient, which is the ratio of the transmitted to incident electric field.

In radiometry, radiance is the radiant flux emitted, reflected, transmitted or received by a given surface, per unit solid angle per unit projected area. Radiance is used to characterize diffuse emission and reflection of electromagnetic radiation, and to quantify emission of neutrinos and other particles. The SI unit of radiance is the watt per steradian per square metre. It is a directional quantity: the radiance of a surface depends on the direction from which it is being observed.

In radiometry, irradiance is the radiant flux received by a surface per unit area. The SI unit of irradiance is the watt per square metre (W⋅m−2). The CGS unit erg per square centimetre per second (erg⋅cm−2⋅s−1) is often used in astronomy. Irradiance is often called intensity, but this term is avoided in radiometry where such usage leads to confusion with radiant intensity. In astrophysics, irradiance is called radiant flux.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Quantum efficiency</span> Property of photosensitive devices

The term quantum efficiency (QE) may apply to incident photon to converted electron (IPCE) ratio of a photosensitive device, or it may refer to the TMR effect of a Magnetic Tunnel Junction.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Spectral power distribution</span>

In radiometry, photometry, and color science, a spectral power distribution (SPD) measurement describes the power per unit area per unit wavelength of an illumination. More generally, the term spectral power distribution can refer to the concentration, as a function of wavelength, of any radiometric or photometric quantity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Radiant flux</span> Radiant power

In radiometry, radiant flux or radiant power is the radiant energy emitted, reflected, transmitted, or received per unit time, and spectral flux or spectral power is the radiant flux per unit frequency or wavelength, depending on whether the spectrum is taken as a function of frequency or of wavelength. The SI unit of radiant flux is the watt (W), one joule per second, while that of spectral flux in frequency is the watt per hertz and that of spectral flux in wavelength is the watt per metre —commonly the watt per nanometre.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Absorption cross section</span>

Absorption cross section is a measure for the probability of an absorption process. More generally, the term cross section is used in physics to quantify the probability of a certain particle-particle interaction, e.g., scattering, electromagnetic absorption, etc. In honor of the fundamental contribution of Maria Goeppert Mayer to this area, the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section is named the "GM". One GM is 10−50 cm4⋅s⋅photon−1.

The linear attenuation coefficient, attenuation coefficient, or narrow-beam attenuation coefficient characterizes how easily a volume of material can be penetrated by a beam of light, sound, particles, or other energy or matter. A coefficient value that is large represents a beam becoming 'attenuated' as it passes through a given medium, while a small value represents that the medium had little effect on loss. The SI unit of attenuation coefficient is the reciprocal metre (m−1). Extinction coefficient is another term for this quantity, often used in meteorology and climatology. Most commonly, the quantity measures the exponential decay of intensity, that is, the value of downward e-folding distance of the original intensity as the energy of the intensity passes through a unit thickness of material, so that an attenuation coefficient of 1 m−1 means that after passing through 1 metre, the radiation will be reduced by a factor of e, and for material with a coefficient of 2 m−1, it will be reduced twice by e, or e2. Other measures may use a different factor than e, such as the decadic attenuation coefficient below. The broad-beam attenuation coefficient counts forward-scattered radiation as transmitted rather than attenuated, and is more applicable to radiation shielding.

The mass attenuation coefficient, or mass narrow beam attenuation coefficient of a material is the attenuation coefficient normalized by the density of the material; that is, the attenuation per unit mass. Thus, it characterizes how easily a mass of material can be penetrated by a beam of light, sound, particles, or other energy or matter. In addition to visible light, mass attenuation coefficients can be defined for other electromagnetic radiation, sound, or any other beam that can be attenuated. The SI unit of mass attenuation coefficient is the square metre per kilogram. Other common units include cm2/g and mL⋅g−1⋅cm−1. Mass extinction coefficient is an old term for this quantity.

Absorptance of the surface of a material is its effectiveness in absorbing radiant energy. It is the ratio of the absorbed to the incident radiant power. This should not be confused with absorbance and absorption coefficient.

The near-infrared (NIR) window defines the range of wavelengths from 650 to 1350 nanometre (nm) where light has its maximum depth of penetration in tissue. Within the NIR window, scattering is the most dominant light-tissue interaction, and therefore the propagating light becomes diffused rapidly. Since scattering increases the distance travelled by photons within tissue, the probability of photon absorption also increases. Because scattering has weak dependence on wavelength, the NIR window is primarily limited by the light absorption of blood at short wavelengths and water at long wavelengths. The technique using this window is called NIRS. Medical imaging techniques such as fluorescence image-guided surgery often make use of the NIR window to detect deep structures.

In chemistry, the molar absorption coefficient or molar attenuation coefficient is a measurement of how strongly a chemical species absorbs, and thereby attenuates, light at a given wavelength. It is an intrinsic property of the species. The SI unit of molar absorption coefficient is the square metre per mole, but in practice, quantities are usually expressed in terms of M−1⋅cm−1 or L⋅mol−1⋅cm−1. In older literature, the cm2/mol is sometimes used; 1 M−1⋅cm−1 equals 1000 cm2/mol. The molar absorption coefficient is also known as the molar extinction coefficient and molar absorptivity, but the use of these alternative terms has been discouraged by the IUPAC.


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