How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1495

Why do things such as sneakers, T-shirts, and nailpolish change color in the sun? The only explanations I've found simple state that the molecules get excited in the sun.
Sunlight consists not only of light across the entire visible spectrum, but of invisible infrared and ultraviolet lights as well. The latter is probably what is causing the color-changing effects you mention.

Ultraviolet light is high-energy light, meaning that whenever it is emitted or absorbed, the amount of energy involved in the process is relatively large. Although light travels through space as waves, it is emitted and absorbed as particles known as photons. The energy in a photon of ultraviolet light is larger than in a photon of visible light and that leads to interesting effects.

First, some molecules can't tolerate the energy in an ultraviolet photon. When these molecules absorb such an energetic photon, their electrons rearrange so dramatically that the entire molecule changes its structure forever. Among the organic molecules that are most vulnerable to these ultraviolet-light-induced chemical rearrangements are the molecules that are responsible for colors. The same electronic structural characteristics that make these organic molecules colorful also make them fragile and susceptible to ultraviolet damage. As a result, they tend to bleach white in the sun.

Second, some molecules can tolerate high-energy photons by reemitting part of the photon's energy as new light. Such molecules absorb ultraviolet or other high-energy photons and use that energy to emit blue, green, or even red photons. The leftover energy is converted into thermal energy. These fluorescent molecules are the basis for the "neon" colors that are so popular on swimwear, in colored markers, and on poster boards. When you expose something dyed with fluorescent molecules to sunlight, the dye molecules absorbs the invisible ultraviolet light and then emit brilliant visible light.


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