A body at a temperature above absolute zero emits radiation in all directions over a wide range of wavelengths. The amount of radiation energy emitted from a surface at a given wavelength depends on the material of the body and the condition of its surface as well as the surface temperature. Therefore, different bodies may emit different amounts of radiation per unit surface area, even when they are at the same temperature. Thus, it is natural to be curious about the maximum amount of radiation that can be emitted by a surface at a given temperature. Satisfying this curiosity requires the definition of an idealized body, called a blackbody, to serve as a standard against which the radiative properties of real surfaces may be compared.

## What is a blackbody

A blackbody is defined as a perfect emitter and absorber of radiation. At a specified temperature and wavelength, no surface can emit more energy than a blackbody. A blackbody absorbs all incident radiation, regardless of wavelength and direction. Also, a blackbody emits radiation energy uniformly in all directions per unit area normal to direction of emission (fig. 1). That is, a blackbody is a diffuse emitter. The term diffuse means “independent of direction.”

The radiation energy emitted by a blackbody per unit time and per unit surface area was determined experimentally by Joseph Stefan in 1879 and expressed as

Eb(T ) = σT 4       (W/m2)    ….(1)

where σ = 5.67 * 108 W/m2 · K4 is the Stefan–Boltzmann constant and T is the absolute temperature of the surface in K. This relation was theoretically verified in 1884 by Ludwig Boltzmann. Equation (1) is known as the Stefan–Boltzmann law and Eb is called the blackbody emissive power. Note that the emission of thermal radiation is proportional to the fourth power of the absolute temperature.

## Difference between a blackbody and a black surface

Although a blackbody would appear black to the eye, a distinction should be made between the idealized blackbody and an ordinary black surface. Any surface that absorbs light (the visible portion of radiation) would appear black to the eye, and a surface that reflects it completely would appear white. Considering that visible radiation occupies a very narrow band of the spectrum from 390 to 700 nm, we cannot make any judgments about the blackness of a surface on the basis of visual observations. For example, snow and white paint reflect light and thus appear white. But they are essentially black for infrared radiation since they strongly absorb long-wavelength radiation. Surfaces coated with lampblack paint approach idealized blackbody behavior.