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2 Properties of Electromagnetic

‘I have no picture of this electromagnetic field that is in any sense accurate. . .
I see some kind of vague, shadowy, wiggling lines. . .
So if you have some difficulty in making such a picture, you should not be worried that your
difficulty is unusual’.
Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics

Some of the key properties of electromagnetic waves travelling in free space and in other
uniform media are introduced in this chapter. They establish the basic parameters and
relationships which are used as standard background when considering problems in antennas
and propagation in later chapters. This chapter does not aim to provide rigorous or complete
derivations of these relationships; for a fuller treatment see books such as, [Kraus, 98] or
[Hayt, 01]. It does, however, aim to show that any uniform medium can be specified by a small
set of descriptive parameters and that the behaviour of waves in such media may easily be


The existence of propagating electromagnetic waves can be predicted as a direct consequence
of Maxwell’s equations [Maxwell, 1865]. These equations specify the relationships between
the variations of the vector electric field E and the vector magnetic field H in time and space
within a medium. The E field strength is measured in volts per metre and is generated by
either a time-varying magnetic field or a free charge. The H field is measured in amperes per
metre and is generated by either a time-varying electric field or a current. Maxwell’s four
equations can be summarised in words as

An electric field is produced by a time-varying magnetic field

A magnetic field is produced by a time-varying electric field or by a current
Electric field lines may either start and end on charges; or are continuous
Magnetic field lines are continuous

The first two equations, Maxwell’s curl equations, contain constants of proportionality which
dictate the strengths of the fields. These are the permeability of the medium  in henrys per

Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems Second Edition Simon R. Saunders and
Alejandro Aragón-Zavala
ß 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
26 Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems

metre and the permittivity of the medium " in farads per metre. They are normally expressed
relative to the values in free space:

 ¼ 0 r ð2:2Þ
" ¼ "0 "r ð2:3Þ

where 0 and "0 are the values in free space, given by

0 ¼ 4  107 H m1 ð2:4Þ

"0 ¼ 8:854  1012  F m1 ð2:5Þ

and r ; "r are the relative values (i.e. r ¼ "r ¼ 1 in free space). Free space strictly indicates a
vacuum, but the same values can be used as good approximations in dry air at typical
temperatures and pressures.


Many solutions to Maxwell’s equations exist and all of these solutions represent fields which
could actually be produced in practice. However, they can all be represented as a sum of plane
waves, which represent the simplest possible time varying solution.
Figure 2.1 shows a plane wave, propagating parallel to the z-axis at time t ¼ 0.

l Motion
E0 Ex (Propagation/Poynting vector)

H0 z
Wave front

Figure 2.1: A plane wave propagating through space at a single moment in time

The electric and magnetic fields are perpendicular to each other and to the direction of
propagation of the wave; the direction of propagation is along the z axis; the vector in this
direction is the propagation vector or Poynting vector. The two fields are in phase at any point in
time or in space. Their magnitude is constant in the xy plane, and a surface of constant phase
(a wavefront) forms a plane parallel to the xy plane, hence the term plane wave. The oscillating
electric field produces a magnetic field, which itself oscillates to recreate an electric field and so
on, in accordance with Maxwell’s curl equations. This interplay between the two fields stores
energy and hence carries power along the Poynting vector. Variation, or modulation, of the
properties of the wave (amplitude, frequency or phase) then allows information to be carried
in the wave between its source and destination, which is the central aim of a wireless commu-
nication system.
Properties of Electromagnetic Waves 27

2.3.1 Field Relationships

The electric field can be written as

E ¼ E0 cosð!t  kzÞ^x ð2:6Þ

where E0 is the field amplitude [V m1], ! ¼ 2f is the angular frequency in radians for a
frequency f [Hz], t is the elapsed time [s], k is the wavenumber [m1], z is distance along the
z-axis (m) and ^
x is a unit vector in the positive x direction. The wavenumber represents the rate
of change of the phase of the field with distance; that is, the phase of the wave changes by kr
radians over a distance of r metres. The distance over which the phase of the wave changes by
2 radians is the wavelength l. Thus
k¼ ð2:7Þ

Similarly, the magnetic field vector H can be written as

H ¼ H0 cosð!t  kzÞ^y ð2:8Þ

where H0 is the magnetic field amplitude and ^ y is a unit vector in the positive y direction.
In both Eqs. (2.6) and (2.8), it has been assumed that the medium in which the wave travels
is lossless, so the wave amplitude stays constant with distance. Notice that the wave varies
sinusoidally in both time and distance.
It is often convenient to represent the phase and amplitude of the wave using complex
quantities, so Eqs. (2.6) and (2.8) become

E ¼ E0 exp½jð!t  kzÞ^x ð2:9Þ

H ¼ H0 exp½jð!t  kzÞ^y ð2:10Þ

The real quantities may then be retrieved by taking the real parts of Eqs. (2.9) and (2.10).
Complex notation will be applied throughout this book.

2.3.2 Wave Impedance

Equations (2.6) and (2.8) satisfy Maxwell’s equations, provided the ratio of the field
amplitudes is a constant for a given medium,
jEj Ex E0 
¼ ¼ ¼ ¼Z ð2:11Þ
jHj Hy H0 "

where Z is called the wave impedance and has units of ohms. In free space, r ¼ "r ¼ 1 and
the wave impedance becomes
rffiffiffiffiffi rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
0 36
Z ¼ Z0 ¼  4  107  9 ¼ 120  377 ð2:12Þ
"0 10
28 Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems

Thus, in free space or any uniform medium, it is sufficient to specify a single field quantity
together with Z in order to specify the total field for a plane wave.

2.3.3 Poynting Vector

The Poynting vector S, measured in watts per square metre, describes the magnitude and
direction of the power flow carried by the wave per square metre of area parallel to the xy
plane, i.e. the power density of the wave. Its instantaneous value is given by

S ¼ E  H ð2:13Þ

Usually, only the time average of the power flow over one period is of concern,

Sav ¼ E0 H0^z ð2:14Þ

The direction vector in Eq. (2.14) emphasises that E, H and Sav form a right-hand set, i.e. Sav
is in the direction of movement of a right-handed corkscrew, turned from the E direction to the
H direction.

2.3.4 Phase Velocity

The velocity of a point of constant phase on the wave, the phase velocity v at which wave
fronts advance in the S direction, is given by

! 1
v¼ ¼ pffiffiffiffiffiffi ð2:15Þ
k "

Hence the wavelength l is given by

l¼ ð2:16Þ

This book is concerned entirely with frequencies from around 30 MHz to 300 GHz, i.e. free
space wavelengths from 10 m to 1 mm.
In free space the phase velocity becomes

v ¼ c ¼ pffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi  3  108 m s1 ð2:17Þ
 0 "0

Note that light is an example of an electromagnetic wave, so c is the speed of light in free

2.3.5 Lossy Media

So far only lossless media have been considered. When the medium has significant con-
ductivity, the amplitude of the wave diminishes with distance travelled through the medium
Properties of Electromagnetic Waves 29

as energy is removed from the wave and converted to heat, so Eqs. (2.9) and (2.10) are then
replaced by

E ¼ E0 exp½jð!t  kzÞ  az^x ð2:18Þ


H ¼ H0 exp½jð!t  kzÞ  az^y ð2:19Þ

The constant a is known as the attenuation constant, with units of per metre [m1],
which depends on the permeability and permittivity of the medium, the frequency of
the wave and the conductivity of the medium, , measured in siemens per metre or per-
ohm-metre [m]1. Together ,  and " are known as the constitutive parameters of
the medium.
In consequence, the field strength (both electric and magnetic) diminishes exponentially as
the wave travels through the medium as shown in Figure 2.2. The distance through which the
wave travels before its field strength reduces to e1 ¼ 0:368 ¼ 36:8% of its initial value is its
skin depth , which is given by

¼ ð2:20Þ


E0 1



E0 / e


0 0.5 1 1.5 2 2.5 3 3.5 4 4.5 5
Distance along propagation vector [skin depths]

Figure 2.2: Field attenuation in lossy medium

30 Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems

Thus the amplitude of the electric field strength at a point z compared with its value at z ¼ 0 is
given by

EðzÞ ¼ Eð0Þez= ð2:21Þ

Table 2.1 gives expressions for a and k which apply in both lossless and lossy media. Note
that the expressions may be simplified depending on the relative values of  and !". If 
dominates, the material is a good conductor; if  is very small, the material is a good insulator
or good dielectric.

Table 2.1: Attenuation constant, wave number, wave impedance, wavelength and phase velocity for plane
waves in lossy media (after [Balanis, 89])

Good dielectric
n ¼ ck=! (insulator) Good conductor
in all cases Exact expression ð=!"Þ2  1 ð=!"Þ2  1
#ffi rffiffiffi rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
Attenuation u "rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
  2ffi   !
constant !t 1þ 1 
2 "

a [m1] 2 !"
Wave number u "rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
  2ffi rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
u" pffiffiffiffiffiffi !
k [m1] !t 1þ þ1  ! " 
2 !" 2
Wave rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi rffiffiffi rffiffiffiffiffiffi
j!  !
impedance   ð1 þ jÞ
 þ j!" " 2
Z [] sffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
Wavelength 2 2 2
 pffiffiffiffiffiffi  2
l [m] k ! " !
Phase velocity ! 1 2!
v [m s1] k " 

Example 2.1
A linearly polarised plane wave at 900 MHz travels in the positive z direction in a
medium with constitutive parameters r ¼ 1; "r ¼ 3 and  ¼ 0:01 S m1. The electric
field magnitude at z ¼ 0 is 1 V m1.
(a) the wave impedance;
(b) the magnitude of the magnetic field at z ¼ 0;
(c) the average power available in a 0.5 m2 area perpendicular to the direction of
propagation at z ¼ 0;
(d) the time taken for the wave to travel through 10 cm;
(e) the distance travelled by the wave before its field strength drops to one tenth of
its value at z ¼ 0.
Properties of Electromagnetic Waves 31

Referring to Table 2.1,

¼ 9  0:07  1
!" 2  900  106  3  10

so the material can clearly be regarded as a good insulator.

(a) For an insulator, the wave impedance is given by
rffiffiffi rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi
 0 Z0 377
Z ¼ ¼ pffiffiffiffi  pffiffiffi  218 
" "r "0 "r 3

(b) From Eq. (2.11) the magnetic field amplitude is given by

E 1
H¼ ¼  4:6 mA m1
Z 218

(c) The available average power is the magnitude of the time-average Poynting
vector multiplied by the collection area, i.e.

EH 1  0:005
P ¼ SA ¼ A¼  0:5 ¼ 1:25 mW
2 2

(d) The time taken to travel a given distance is simply the distance divided by the
phase velocity

d pffiffiffiffiffiffi pffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi d pffiffiffiffi 0:1 pffiffiffi

t¼ ¼ d " ¼ d 0 "r "0 ¼ "r  3  0:6 ns
v c 3  108

(e) Rearranging Eq. (2.21) yields

z ¼  ln
1 2 " 2
¼  ¼
a   Z

and from Table 2.1 the approximation holds for good insulators. Thus

2 EðzÞ 2 1
z¼ ln ¼ ln ¼ 2:11 m
Z Eð0Þ 0:01  218 10
32 Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems

2.4.1 Polarisation States
The alignment of the electric field vector of a plane wave relative to the direction of
propagation defines the polarisation of the wave. In Figure 2.1 the electric field is parallel
to the x axis, so this wave is x polarised. This wave could be generated by a straight wire
antenna parallel to the x axis. An entirely distinct y-polarised plane wave could be generated
with the same direction of propagation and recovered independently of the other wave using
pairs of transmit and receive antennas with perpendicular polarisation. This principle is
sometimes used in satellite communications to provide two independent communication
channels on the same earth satellite link. If the wave is generated by a vertical wire
antenna (H field horizontal), then the wave is said to be vertically polarised; a wire antenna
parallel to the ground (E field horizontal) primarily generates waves that are horizontally
The waves described so far have been linearly polarised, since the electric field vector has
a single direction along the whole of the propagation axis. If two plane waves of equal
amplitude and orthogonal polarisation are combined with a 90 phase difference, the resulting
wave will be circularly polarised (CP), in that the motion of the electric field vector will
describe a circle centred on the propagation vector. The field vector will rotate by 360 for
every wavelength travelled. Circularly polarised waves are most commonly used in satellite
communications, since they can be generated and received using antennas which are oriented
in any direction around their axis without loss of power. They may be generated as either
right-hand circularly polarised (RHCP) or left-hand circularly polarised (LHCP); RHCP
describes a wave with the electric field vector rotating clockwise when looking in the
direction of propagation. In the most general case, the component waves could be of unequal
amplitudes or at a phase angle other than 90 . The result is an elliptically polarised wave,
where the electric field vector still rotates at the same rate but varies in amplitude with time,
thereby describing an ellipse. In this case, the wave is characterised by the ratio between the
maximum and minimum values of the instantaneous electric field, known as the axial ratio,
AR ¼ ð2:22Þ

AR is defined to be positive for left-hand polarisation and negative for right-hand polarisation.
These various polarisation states are illustrated in Figure 2.3.

2.4.2 Mathematical Representation of Polarisation

All of the polarisation states illustrated in Figure 2.3 can be represented by a compound
electric field vector E composed of x and y linearly polarised plane waves with amplitudes Ex
and Ey ,

E ¼ Ex ^x þ Ey ^y ð2:23Þ

The relative values of Ex and Ey for the six polarisation states in Figure 2.3 are as shown in
Table 2.2, assuming that the peak amplitude of the wave is E0 in all cases and where the
Properties of Electromagnetic Waves 33

Direction of propagation (z-axis) is out of the page

y y

x x Linear
x-polarised y-polarised

y y
Right Left
hand hand
x x Circular

y Right Left
hand hand
x x

Figure 2.3 Possible polarisation states for a z-directed plane wave

complex constant a depends upon the axial ratio. The axial ratio is given in terms of Ex and Ey
as follows [Siwiak, 1998]:
2  2 3
61 þ E cos½argðEy Þ  argðEx Þ  7

6  7
AR ¼ 6 
4  Ey  7 5
sin½argðE Þ  argðE Þ 
E y x 

The exponent in Eq. (2.24) is chosen such that AR 1:

2.4.3 Random Polarisation

The polarisation states considered in the previous section involved the sum of two linearly
polarised waves whose amplitudes were constant. These waves are said to be completely
polarised, in that they have a definite polarisation state which is fixed for all time. In some
cases, however, the values of Ex and Ey may vary with time in a random fashion. This could

Table 2.2: Relative electric field values for the polarisation states
illustrated in Figure 2.3

Polarisation State Ex Ey
Linear x E0 = 2 0p
Linear y 0p E0 =p2
Right-hand circular E0p = 2 jE0 =p 2
Left-hand circular E0 = p2 jE0 =p 2
Right-hand elliptical aE0p= 2 jE0 =p 2
Left-hand elliptical aE0 = 2 jE0 = 2
34 Antennas and Propagation for Wireless Communication Systems

happen if the fields were created by modulating random noise onto a carrier wave of a given
frequency. If the resultant fields are completely uncorrelated, then the wave is said to be
completely unpolarised, and the following condition holds:

E½Ex Ey  ¼ 0 ð2:25Þ

where E[.] indicates the time-averaged value of the quantity in brackets, or its expectation; see
Appendix A for a definition of correlation. In the most general case, when Ex and Ey are
partially correlated, the wave can be expressed as the sum of an unpolarised wave and a
completely polarised wave. It is then said to be partially polarised.

Propagation of waves in uniform media can conveniently be described by considering the
properties of plane waves, whose interactions with the medium are entirely specified by their
frequency and polarisation and by the constitutive parameters of the medium. Not all waves
are plane, but all waves can be described by a sum of plane waves with appropriate amplitude,
phase, polarisation and Poynting vector. Later chapters will show how the characteristics of
propagation and antennas in a wireless communication system can be described in terms of
the behaviour of plane waves in random media.

[Balanis, 89] C. A. Balanis, Advanced engineering electromagnetics, John Wiley & Sons,
Inc., New York, ISBN 0-471-62194-3, 1989.
[Hayt, 01] W. H. Hayt Jr and J. Buck, Engineering electromagnetics, 6th edn, McGraw-Hill,
New York, ISBN 0-07-230424-3, 2001.
[Kraus, 98] J. D. Kraus and K. Carver, Electromagnetics, McGraw-Hill, New York, ISBN
0-07-289969-7, 1998.
[Maxwell, 1865] J. Clerk Maxwell, A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field, Scientific
Papers, 1865, reprinted by Dover, New York, 1952.
[Siwiak, 98] K. Siwiak, Radiowave propagation and antennas for personal communications,
2nd edn, Artech House, Norwood MA, ISBN 0–89006-975-1, 1998.

2.1 Prove Eq. (2.14).
2.2 How far must a plane wave of frequency 60 GHz travel in order for the phase of the wave
to be retarded by 180 in a lossless medium with r ¼ 1 (a non-magnetic medium) and
"r ¼ 3:5?
2.3 What is the average power density carried in a plane wave with electric field amplitude
10 V m1? What electric and magnetic field strengths are produced when the same
power density is carried by a plane wave in a lossless non-magnetic medium with
"r ¼ 4:0?
Properties of Electromagnetic Waves 35

2.4 By what proportion is a 400 MHz plane wave reduced after travelling 1.5 m through a
non-magnetic material with constants  ¼ 1000, "r ¼ 10?
2.5 A plane wave travels through free space and has an average Poynting vector of
magnitude 10 W m2. What is the peak electric field strength?
2.6 Calculate the distance required for the electric field of a 5 GHz propagating plane wave
to diminish to 13.5% (e2) given "r ¼ 3, r ¼ 2 and  ¼ 100?
2.7 Repeat Example 2.1(e) for the case when  ¼ 10. Compare your answer with the 2.11 m
found in Example 2.1(e), and use this to explain why the surfaces of copper conductors
in high-frequency circuits are often gold-plated.
2.8 Compare the attenuation of a plane wave travelling 1 m through a non-magnetic medium
with  ¼ 104 S m1 and "r ¼ 3 at 100 MHz, 1 GHz and 10 GHz.
2.9 Describe, in your own words, the physical meaning of Maxwell’s equations and why
they are important for wireless communications.
2.10 A vertically polarised plane wave at 1900 MHz travels in the positive z direction in a
medium with constitutive parameters r ¼ 1, "r ¼ 3 and  ¼ 10 S m1 . The electric
field magnitude at z ¼ 0 is 1.5 V m1. Calculate: (a) the wave impedance; (b) the
magnitude of the magnetic field at z ¼ 0; (c) the average power available in a 1.3 m2
area perpendicular to the direction of propagation at z ¼ 0; (d) the time taken for the
wave to travel through 15 cm; (e) the distance travelled by the wave before its field
strength drops to one fifth of its value at z ¼ 0.