photochemistry, study of chemical processes that are accompanied by or catalyzed by the emission or absorption of visible light or ultraviolet radiation. A molecule in its ground (unexcited) state can absorb a quantum of light energy, or photon, and go to a higher-energy state, or excited state (see quantum theory). Such a molecule is then much more reactive than a ground-state molecule and can undergo entirely different reactions than the more stable molecule, following several different reaction pathways. One possibility is that it can simply emit the absorbed light and fall back to the ground state. This process, called chemiluminescence, is illustrated by various glow-in-the-dark objects. Another possibility is for the molecule to take part in a photo-induced chemical reaction; it may break apart (photodissociate), rearrange, isomerize, dimerize, eliminate or add small molecules, or even transfer its energy to another molecule. Photochromic compounds—compounds that change color reversibly in going from the dark to the light—are generally compounds that are capable of reversible isomerization, or rearrangement. In the absence of light, the compound exists in its most stable form, which exhibits a particular color; in the presence of light, the compound goes to a less stable form, which exhibits a different color. After removal of the light, the compound will revert back to its original state. The best-known and most important photochemical reaction is photosynthesis, the complex, chlorophyll-catalyzed synthesis of sugars from carbon dioxide and water in the presence of light. Other extremely important and complex photochemical reactions take place in the eye. Photochemistry is indispensible to industries involved with dyes, photography, television, and many other applications of light and color.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.