Electronic Transitions

Have you ever had a go at a high striker game at an amusement park? They're a traditional test of strength and power. You hit a lever with a hammer or pallet, which sends a puck shooting towards the top of a column. The more force you put into your blow, the higher up the column the puck moves. If you hit the lever hard enough, the puck will reach the top of the tower, and you'll be rewarded by the triumphant chime of a bell. 

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    Electronic Transitions an image of a high striker amusement park game StudySmarterFig. 1 - A traditional high striker.

    Now, replace the high striker's lever with a molecule and its puck with an electron. If you supply an electron with the right amount of energy, it jumps from one energy level to a second, higher level. The more energy you provide, the greater the jump the electron can make.

    The process of moving from one energy level to another is known as an electronic transition. In this article, we'll learn all about electronic transitions, their types, and how we use them to analyse mixtures and solutions in spectroscopy.

    • This article is about electronic transitions in chemistry.
    • We'll start by defining electronic transition before looking at the four different types.
    • Then, we'll explore the energy order of electronic transitions using a simple diagram.
    • After that, we'll learn how you calculate the energy change associated with a certain electronic transition using the electronic transition formula.
    • Finally, we'll consider how we use electronic transitions, alongside molecular vibrational and rotational transitions, to analyse mixtures and solutions in spectroscopy.

    Electronic Transition Definition

    It's the moment you've been waiting for. You've stood in the queue and paid your fee; now it is time to step up to the game. You hoist up the heavy hammer and bring it crashing down onto the lever, then watch the puck shoot up the column. One meter, two, then three - does it reach the top?

    The movement of the puck up the column, jumping from one height to another, is like an electronic transition in chemistry.

    Electronic transition is the name for the process that takes place when an electron is excited from one energy level to another.

    Let's explore that in more detail.

    When you shine electromagnetic waves on an atom or molecule, you supply it with energy in the form of photons. Electrons can absorb the energy from these photons and use it to jump from one electron shell or molecular orbital, known as an energy level, to another. This second electron shell or molecular orbital is a much higher energy level than the first.

    • When the electron is in the first, lower energy level, we say that it is in its ground state.
    • When the electron is in the second, higher energy level, we say that it is in its excited state.

    Each electron shell has a fixed energy level. Therefore, a jump from one energy shell to another requires a certain amount of energy. The energy of an electromagnetic wave depends on its wavelength, and so certain electron transitions require certain amounts of energy and absorb certain wavelengths of light.

    We can use the analytical technique of spectroscopy to plot a graph of the light absorbed by an atom, molecule, or solution, separating the light waves by their wavelength. This graph is known as a spectrum. We can then use the spectrum to work out the energy absorbed by the atom, molecule, or solution, and deduce the electronic transitions that took place.

    1. The plural of spectrum is spectra - one spectrum, two spectra.
    2. Only outer-shell electrons can be excited and change energy levels. However, these electrons can be either bonded or non-bonded. On the other hand, inner-shell electrons can't be excited in this way - they are too stable and prefer to stay put.
    3. Note that we'll be using photon, light wave, and radiation to refer to all forms of waves in the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

    Types of Electronic Transition

    We mentioned that both bonded and non-bonded outer-shell electrons can be excited by electromagnetic waves. These electrons are found in different molecular orbitals:

    • Non-bonded electrons are found in non-bonding molecular orbitals, represented by the letter n.
    • Bonded electrons can be either sigma or pi electrons. These electrons are found in bonding molecular orbitals or anti-bonding molecular orbitals
      • Sigma bonding orbitals are represented by the symbol σ, whilst pi bonding orbitals take the symbol π.
      • Likewise, anti-bonding orbitals are represented using σ* and π* respectively.

    Bonding orbitals are lower in energy than non-bonding orbitals. These in turn are lower in energy than anti-bonding orbitals. You can see the relative energy levels of different molecular orbitals in the diagram below:

    Electronic Transitions A diagram showing the relative energy levels order of non-bonding, bonding, and anti-bonding molecular orbitals StudySmarterFig. 2 - A diagram showing the relative energy levels and order of non-bonding, bonding, and anti-bonding molecular orbitals.

    When it comes to electronic transitions, electrons always jump from bonding or non-bonding orbitals to anti-bonding orbitals. Thus, the bonding and non-bonding orbitals form the ground state, and the anti-bonded orbitals form the excited state. We end up with four distinct types of electronic transitions, varying in the molecular orbitals involved:

    • σ → σ*
    • n σ*
    • π π*
    • n π*

    Let's now consider the energy order of these different electronic transitions.

    Energy Order of Electronic Transitions

    Look back to the diagram showing the relative energy levels of bonding, non-bonding and anti-bonding molecular orbitals. Jumping from one energy level to another requires energy, and as you'd expect, the energy required is equal to the energy difference between the two levels. As a result, the four different types of electronic transitions require different amounts of energy.

    Electronic Transition Energy Level Diagram

    You can see the magnitude of energy associated with each type of electronic transition in the following diagram:

    Electronic Transitions A diagram showing the associated with the four types of electronic transitions StudySmarterFig. 3 - A diagram showing the energy associated with the four types of electronic transitions.

    We can order the electronic transitions in terms of their associated energy:

    Electronic Transitions A table showing the energy order of electronic transitions StudySmarterFig. 4 - A table showing the energy order of electronic transitions.

    Remember that the energy associated with an electron transition is the energy difference between the ground state and the excited state.

    Electronic Transitions Formula

    So, σ → σ* transitions require more energy than, for example, n π* transitions. Can we show this quantitively? The answer is yes - using a formula for electronic transitions.

    Remember that electronic transitions occur when outer-shell electrons absorb energy from photons in electromagnetic radiation. The energy of the photon absorbed equals the energy difference between the electron's ground state and its excited state. Electromagnetic radiation exists over a vast spectrum, and the energy of the photon relates to its wavelength. Hence, different electronic transitions absorb radiation with different wavelengths.

    • The shorter the wavelength of the radiation, the higher its energy.
    • The longer the wavelength of the radiation, the lower its energy.
    • For example, this means that σ → σ* transitions absorb radiation with a shorter wavelength than, say, n π* transitions.

    We can use spectroscopy to find out the energy of the radiation absorbed by a molecule, atom, or solution to determine the energy of its electronic transitions, by looking at the spectra that this technique produces. Spectra show the wavelength of the absorbed light waves. Electromagnetic radiation wavelength and energy are related by a simple formula:



    • E is the energy of the radiation, in Joules, J.
    • h is Planck's constant, which equals 6.63 × 10-34 J s.
    • c is the speed of light, which equals 3.00 × 108 m s-1.
    • λ is the wavelength of the photon, in meters, m.

    Try deriving the formula above yourself by combining the equation involving the frequency and wavelength of a photon, and the speed of light ( \(c=\lambda v\) ), with Planck's equation ( \(E=hv\) ). Here's how:

    1. Rearrange the first equation to find v: $$v=\frac{c}{\lambda}$$
    2. Then, substitute this into Planck's equation: $$E=hv$$ $$E=h\frac{c}{\lambda}$$

    A molecule absorbs light with a wavelength of 124 nm. Calculate the energy used in the electronic transition.

    To answer this question, we simply put our value of wavelength into the formula we learned above. However, we need to check our units carefully. We are given wavelength in terms of nanometers (nm), not meters (m). To convert nanometers into meters, we divide by 109:

    $$\frac{124}{10^9}=1.24\times 10^{-7}\space m$$

    Now, substitute this into the formula:

    $$E=h\frac{c}{\lambda}$$ $$E=(6.63\times 10^{-34}\,m^2\,\frac{kg}{s})\frac{(3.00\times 10^8)\,m/s} {(1.24\times 10^{-7})\,m}$$

    $$E=1.60\times 10^{-18}\space J$$

    Electronic Transitions and Spectroscopy

    Electronic transitions are useful because they give us an idea of the structure of a molecule, or indeed, the composition and concentration of a mixture or solution. As previously mentioned, we get data about electronic transitions using spectroscopy.

    Spectroscopy is an analytical technique that works to identify a sample based on its interaction with electromagnetic radiation.

    Spectroscopy produces graphs known as spectra. The spectra show the wavelengths of light absorbed by the sample, which we now know are related to the energy absorbed during an electronic transition. Although the exact energy absorbed depends not only on the molecular orbitals involved in the electronic transition but also the entirety of the molecule's structure and any solvent it is dissolved in, certain electronic transitions are always associated with certain bands of light absorption. For example, the spectrum for a sample containing ethane has a band at 135 nm, which represents the σ → σ* transition1.

    In general, electronic transitions are associated with ultraviolet or visible radiation. These types of radiation typically have wavelengths between 10-400 nm and 400-700 nm respectively (between 1 × 10-8 and 7 × 10-7 meters). But spectra can also display bands in other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The bands show that the molecule absorbed electromagnetic radiation with different wavelengths, associated with either a change in molecular rotational levels or a change in molecular vibration levels. These are both types of molecular transitions.

    • Changes in molecular rotational levels are associated with microwave radiation. Simply put, this refers to how a molecule spins on the spot. Absorption of microwave radiation produces bands at 0.1-10 mm (between 1 × 10-4 and 1 × 10-2 meters).
    • Changes in molecular vibrational levels are associated with infrared radiation (sometimes spelled with a hyphen: infra-red). This refers to how a molecule pulses back and forth on the spot, much like a spring. Absorption of infrared radiation produces bands at 0.7-100 μm (between 7 × 10-7 and 1 × 10-4 meters).

    Electronic Transitions diagram showing the regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and associated molecular or electronic transitions StudySmarterFig. 5 - A diagram showing the regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and the molecular or electronic transitions that they are associated with.

    Electronic transitions are responsible for the brilliant colours of the fireworks you might see on Independence Day, or New Year's Eve. Fireworks contain specific metals. When you heat the metal, you supply it with energy, which - you guessed it - excites some of its outer-shell electrons. Moving from ground state to an excited state makes the metal very unstable, so it then tries to release the absorbed energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Like before, the energy of the radiation relates to its wavelength, which in turn relates to its place on the electromagnetic spectrum. If the radiation's wavelength happens to fall in the region visible to our eyes, then you end up with a dazzling display of bright light and colour!

    Electronic Transitions - Key takeaways

    • An electronic transition is the process that takes place when an electron is excited from one energy level to another.
    • When electrons jump from one energy level to another, they absorb energy equivalent to the energy difference between the two levels.
    • The energy of electromagnetic radiation relates to its wavelength with the equation \(E=h\frac{c}{\lambda}\)
    • Molecular and electronic transitions can be detected using spectroscopy. The spectra produced show bands at certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, which indicate the radiation absorbed by a sample due to these transitions.
    • Electronic transitions are associated with visible and ultraviolet radiation. In contrast, molecular rotation is associated with microwave radiation, whilst molecular vibration is associated with infrared radiation.


    1. 'Molecular electronic transition'. Wikipedia (updated 08/02/2022)
    2. Fig. 1 - A traditional high striker (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7e/High_Striker.JPG/640px-High_Striker.JPG) by JohnsonL623 on Wikimedia Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Electronic Transitions

    What is electronic transition?

    An electronic transition is the process that takes place when an electron is excited from one energy level to another.

    What are the types of electronic transitions?

    The types of electronic transitions are:

    • σ → σ*
    • n → σ*
    • π → π*
    • n → π*

    What is the principle of electronic spectroscopy?

    Electronic spectroscopy is an analytical technique used to find out the identity and electronic structure of molecules and atoms. It works by shining electromagnetic radiation on a molecule, which excites electrons from one energy level to a second, higher level. This absorbs certain wavelengths of radiation. The wavelength of the light absorbed can be seen on a spectrum and relates to the energy difference between the two energy levels.

    What are examples of electronic transition?

    An example of an electronic transition is an n → σ*transitionn. Here, an electron in a non-bonding molecular orbital jumps to a sigma anti-bonding orbital. 

    What is the difference between electronic transition and vibrational transition?

    Electronic transitions refer to the process when electrons jump from one energy level to another. However, a vibrational transition is when a molecule changes vibrational states.

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