How Everything Works
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Fluorescent Lamps
Page 2 of 8 (78 Questions and Answers)

379. How does radiation trapping work?
Each atom has certain wavelengths of light that it is particularly capable of absorbing and emitting. For mercury, that special wavelength is about 254 nanometer (ultraviolet). For sodium, it is about 590 nanometer (orange-yellow). If you send a photon of the right 590 nanometer light at a sodium atom, there is a good chance that that atom will absorb it, hold it for a few billionths of a second, and then reemit it. The newly reemitted light will probably not be traveling in the same direction as before. Now if you have a dense gas of sodium vapor and send in your special photon of light, that photon will find itself bouncing from one sodium atom to another, like the metal ball in a huge pinball game. The photon will eventually emerge from the gas, but not before it has traveled a very long distance and spent a long time in the gas. It was "trapped" in the sodium vapor. This radiation trapping makes it hard for high-pressure gas discharges to emit their special wavelengths because those wavelengths of light become trapped in the gas.

380. Is a neon light actually a mercury/phosphor tube?
Most "neon" lamps are mercury lamps with a colored phosphor coating on the inside. However the true neon lamp (that special red glow) is really neon gas glowing directly. Take a close look at an advertising lamp that contains a variety of colors. The mercury/phosphor ones will seem to emit light from their frosted glass walls. You are seeing the phosphors glowing. But the real neon lamp will emit light from its inside. The glass will be clear and you will see the glow originate in the gas itself.

381. Is having a black light in your room dangerous?
It depends on how bright the light is an how long you are exposed to it. If it is simply a normal lamp, coated with some filter that absorbs all the visible light, then it is no worse than having the visible light around. It will be a very dim ultraviolet light. However, if it is a serious ultraviolet lamp, emitting several watts or even tens of watts of ultraviolet light, then it is not a great toy. Long wavelength UV is less dangerous than short wavelength UV, but neither is great. Sunlight itself contains a far amount of both long and short ultraviolet. Fortunately for us, the small amount of ozone gas in the earth's upper atmosphere absorbs much of the short wavelength UV. But long exposure to sunlight is dangerous, too.

382. I've heard (from observations recorded in an office environment) that fluorescent light bulbs "emit" their energy at a certain frequency. If this frequency is at or below the rate at which our eyes blink/scan, this will cause eye fatigue and other health "problems." What would be the best light system for the office environment?
Fluorescent light bulbs flicker rapidly because they operate directly from the alternating current in the power line. The light that you see is emitted by a coating of phosphors on the inside surface of the glass tube. These phosphors receive power as ultraviolet light and emit a good fraction of that power as visible light. The ultraviolet light comes from an electric discharge that takes place in the mercury vapor inside the tube. Since this electric discharge only functions while current is passing through the tube, it stops each time the current in the power line reverses. Thus, with each reversal of the power line, the discharge ceases, the ultraviolet light disappears, and the phosphors stop emitting visible light. So the tube flickers on and off. However, the alternating current in the United States reverses 120 times a second in order to complete 60 full cycles each second. The fluorescent lamps flicker 120 times a second. Even the very best computer monitors don't refresh their images that frequently because our eyes just don't respond to such rapid fluctuations in light intensity. In short, you can't see this flicker with your eyes. If you get eye fatigue from fluorescent lamps, it's the color or intensity of the light that's bothering you, not the flicker. It's just too fast to affect you.

383. We have some problems with a "fluorescent lamp igniter", the device that turns on the lamp. I would like to know what is necessary for the fluorescent lamp to turn on?
A fluorescent lamp produces light as the result of an electric discharge that takes place inside the lamp tube. Electrons, emitted from hot filaments at each end of the tube, are pulled through the tube by electric fields and collide violently with mercury atoms inside the tube. These mercury atoms then emit ultraviolet light, which is converted to the visible light you see by the phosphor coating inside the glass tube.

To emit the electrons needed to sustain the discharge, the filaments at each end of the fluorescent tube must be heated. In the "preheat" style of fluorescent lamp, these filaments are heated red-hot for a few seconds by sending current directly through them. There are two pins at each end of the tube and current is sent to the filament through one pin and extracted through the other pin. Once the filaments are hot enough, the lamp turns off this current flow and tries to send current through the tube itself. If the discharge starts, the discharge is able to keep the filaments hot enough to emit electrons continuously. But if the discharge fails to start, the filaments are heated some more to try to release enough electrons to initiate the discharge.

The "igniter's" job is to preheat the filaments for a few seconds and then to test the main discharge. If you see no red glow from the filaments at each end of the tube or you see no attempt by the igniter to start the main discharge, then the igniter should be replaced. It could also be that the tube itself is bad—that its filaments have burned out. If you see only one end of the tube glowing red or you see the igniter trying repeatedly to start the discharge, the tube is probably bad. I'd suggest replacing both the igniter and the tube and seeing if that fixes the problem. The only other component of the lamp, other than wiring, is the ballast—the device that controls the amount of current flowing through the discharge. It, too, could be bad.

384. What actually causes a fluorescent bulb to burn out?
The electrodes age, particularly during start up. The endless bombardment of charged particles gradually chips or "sputters" material off of the electrodes until they are no longer able to sustain a steady discharge. The final blow usually occurs when the heater filament breaks and the lamp cannot be started at all.

385. What happens when a fluorescent lamp flickers during start-up but doesn't fully light?
Sustaining the discharge in a gas lamp requires the steady production of charged particles. Even if a lamp contains many negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions, these particles will quickly migrate to the electrodes once electric fields are present in the tube. If they don't produce more charged particles as they fly across the tube, these charged particles will quickly disappear and the discharge will stop. It takes a critical number of charged particles in the tube to ensure a steady production of new charged particles. Thus the tube may not always start, even if it has a brief flicker of light.

386. What is the correct way to dispose of fluorescent lamps? Do they really have mercury inside them? Is the powder that covers the inside of them dangerous? Is there a simple way to get rid of a burned fluorescent lamp without pollution? - Augusto
While there is mercury in a fluorescent lamp, the amount of mercury is relatively small. There are only about 0.5 milligrams of mercury in each kilogram of lamp, or 0.5 parts per million. In fact, because fluorescent lamps use so much less energy than incandescent lamps, they actually reduce the amount of mercury introduced into our environment. That's because fossil fuels contain mercury and burning fossil fuels to obtain energy releases substantial amounts of mercury into the environment. If you replace your incandescent lamps with fluorescent lamps, the power company will burn less fuel and release less mercury. That's one reason to switch to fluorescent lamps, even if you must simply throw those lamps away when they burn out. Nonetheless, there are programs to recycle the mercury in fluorescent lamps. Last year, the University of Virginia recycled 31 miles of fluorescent lamps. They distilled the mercury out of the white phosphor powder on the inner walls of the tubes. Once the mercury has been removed from that powder, the powder is not hazardous. The university also recycled the glass. One last note: the mercury is an essential component of the fluorescent lamp—mercury atoms inside the tube are what create ultraviolet light that is then converted to visible light by the white phosphor powder that covers the inside of the tube.

387. When the temperature is sub-zero (e.g., -40°), is it necessary to heat the electrodes or the gas or both for the tube to light? What is the optimum tube temperature with respect to efficiency?
Fluorescent lamps do not operate well in extreme cold. Below about 15° C (59° F), the density of mercury atoms in the tube's vapor is too low to produce efficient light. While the tube also contains inert gases that allow it to start at almost any temperature, the scarcity of mercury atoms leads to a reduced light output. In any case, the electrodes must be heated to make them emit electrons to sustain the discharge.

The optimal internal temperature for a fluorescent lamp is about 60° C (140° F). The tube reaches this internal temperature when its outside is about 40° C (104° F). When the surrounding temperature exceeds 40° C, the tube begins to waste energy again because the density of mercury atoms in the vapor becomes too large.

388. Where does the extra energy go after ultraviolet light goes through the phosphor coating? Is it lost as heat?
Yes. The extra energy is converted into heat by the phosphors. Their electrons absorb the light energy, convert some of that energy into heat, and then reemit the light. Since the new light contains less energy per particle (per photon) than the old light, it appears as visible rather than ultraviolet light.
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