How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 374

Does the size of the bulb affect its intensity?
The intensity of a normal fluorescent light bulb is determined by how many times each second (1) a mercury atom can absorb energy in a collision and emit a photon of ultraviolet light and (2) a phosphor particle can absorb a photon of ultraviolet light and emit a photon of visible light. The first rate depends on how much current and electrical power can flow through the tube, which in turn depends on (A) the geometry of the tube and (B) the density of mercury vapor inside. As for (A), the long, thin tube seems to be the best geometry choice for a low voltage (120V) tube, producing a certain amount of ultraviolet light per cubic centimeter of volume. The longer or fatter the tube, the more electrical power it will require and the more ultraviolet light it will produce. As for (B), at room temperature, the density of mercury vapor is just about right. In very cold weather, the density drops quite low and the bulb becomes dim (thus fluorescents are not recommended for outdoor use in cold climates). Finally, the second rate (conversion to visible light) depends on the coating of phosphors on the inside of the tube. A tube that is too fat will send too much ultraviolet light at the phosphors and they will become inefficient. So a long thin tube is a good choice again. Each region of tube surface converts the light from a relatively small volume of mercury gas. Overall, the intensity of the bulb scales roughly with the volume of the tube. Big tubes emit more light than little tubes. One of the challenges facing fluorescent lamp manufacturers is in making small tubes emit lots of light. To replace an incandescent lamp with a miniaturized fluorescent, that miniaturized fluorescent must emit lots of light for its size. They're getting better every year, but they aren't bright enough yet.

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