How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 894

What causes things to glow in the dark? Why does phosphorus glow? Why does the glow die? — DB & EB
Most glow-in-the-dark materials store energy when they are exposed to visible light and then glow dimly as this stored energy is gradually converted back into light. In such a material, exposure to light promotes some of the electrons in the atoms or molecules to excited states and these electrons become trapped in lower-energy excited states from which they have trouble escaping. It takes a very long time for each of these trapped electrons to return to their original states by emitting light. Since that return is a random process, a glow-in-the-dark object glows with an ever diminishing light as the excited electrons return at random moments to their original states. Eventually almost all the electrons have returned and the glow weakens to essentially nothing.

White phosphorus also glows in the dark, but not for the same reason. You don't need to expose white phosphorus to light to make it glow; you need to expose it to air. The chemical reaction between phosphorus and oxygen causes the phosphorus to emit light. This reaction can also cause the white phosphorus to burst into flames. Because of its dangerous flammability and its toxicity, white phosphorus isn't something you want to have around.


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