Radio frequency (RF) is the oscillation rate of an alternating electric current or voltage or of a magnetic, electric or electromagnetic field or mechanical system in the frequency range from around twenty thousand times per second (7004200000000000000♠20 kHz) to around three hundred billion times per second (7011300000000000000♠300 GHz). This is roughly between the upper limit of audio frequencies and the lower limit of infrared frequencies; these are the frequencies at which energy from an oscillating current can radiate off a conductor into space as radio waves. Different sources specify different upper and lower bounds for the frequency range.
RF current does not penetrate deeply into electrical conductors but tends to flow along their surfaces; this is known as the skin effect.
RF currents applied to the body often do not cause the painful sensation and muscular contraction of electric shock that lower frequency currents produce. This is because the current changes direction too quickly to trigger depolarization of nerve membranes. However this does not mean RF currents are harmless; they can cause internal injury as well as serious superficial burns called RF burns.
RF current can easily ionize air, creating a conductive path through it. This property is exploited by "high frequency" units used in electric arc welding, which use currents at higher frequencies than power distribution uses.
Another property is the ability to appear to flow through paths that contain insulating material, like the dielectric insulator of a capacitor. This is because capacitive reactance in a circuit decreases with frequency.
In contrast, RF current can be blocked by a coil of wire, or even a single turn or bend in a wire. This is because the inductive reactance of a circuit increases with frequency.
When conducted by an ordinary electric cable, RF current has a tendency to reflect from discontinuities in the cable such as connectors and travel back down the cable toward the source, causing a condition called standing waves. Therefore, RF current must be carried by specialized types of cable called transmission line, such as coaxial cables.
Frequencies of 1 GHz and above are conventionally called microwave, while frequencies of 30 GHz and above are designated millimeter wave.
More detailed band designations are given by the standard IEEE letter- band frequency designations and the EU/NATO frequency designations.
Radio frequencies are generated and processed within very many functional units such as transmitters, receivers, computers, and televisions to name a few. Radio frequencies are also applied in carrier current systems including telephony and control circuits.
Radio frequency (RF) energy, in the form of radiating waves or electrical currents, has been used in medical treatments for over 75 years, generally for minimally invasive surgeries using radiofrequency ablation including the treatment of sleep apnea.
Effects on the human body
Radio frequency current through tissue will generate heat in the tissue and can cause burns.
Test apparatus for radio frequencies can include standard instruments at the lower end of the range, but at higher frequencies the test equipment becomes more specialized.
While RF usually refers to electrical oscillations, mechanical RF systems are not uncommon: see mechanical filter and RF MEMS.