How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Fluorescent Lamps
Page 3 of 8 (78 Questions and Answers)

389. Why do fluorescent emissions of light not produce more heat?
When an atom is excited by a collision and then emits energy as light, it converts most of the collision energy into light. Thus the gas in a fluorescent lamp experiences many collisions but emits most of the collision energy as light. The gas becomes slightly hot, but not nearly as hot as the filament of an incandescent bulb. The electrical energy arrives at the fluorescent bulb as a current of charged particles and most of this energy leaves the bulb as light, without ever becoming heat. However the electrical energy arriving at an incandescent bulb becomes heat first and then becomes light. The conversion of electrical energy to heat dramatically reduces the bulb's ability to emit visible light efficiently.

390. Why do fluorescent tubes explode if broken (is it the compression of the gas)?
Fluorescent tubes operate at very low pressure; roughly 1/1000th of an atmosphere. They do not explode when broken; they implode. The atmospheric pressure surrounding the tube crushes it as soon as it begins to crack. The tube shape of a typical fluorescent tube is chosen because it can withstand the enormous compressive forces of the atmosphere better than most other shapes.

391. Why do many fluorescent lamps blink before they come on?
The lamp first heats the filaments in its electrodes red hot so that they begin to emit electrons and then tries to start a discharge across the lamp. If there are not enough electrons leaving the electrodes to sustain a steady discharge, the lamp will blink briefly but will not stay on. The lamp will try again; first heating its filaments and then trying to start the discharge. The lamp may blink several times before the discharge becomes strong enough to keep the electrodes hot and sustain the discharge.

392. Why do mercury lamps without phosphors emit visible light at high pressure? What are the "forbidden" transitions?
At low pressure, a mercury lamp emits mostly 254-nanometer ultraviolet light. That light is created when an electron in the mercury atom goes from its lowest excited orbital to its ground (normal) orbital. The other wavelengths of light emitted by the low-pressure lamp are weak and widely spaced in wavelength. An electron must sent into a very highly excited orbital in order to emit one of these other wavelengths. But at high pressure, mercury atoms have trouble sending their favorite 254 nanometer light out of the lamp. Whenever one of the atoms emits a particle of 254-nanometer light (moving its electron from the first excited orbital to the ground orbital), another nearby atom absorbs that particle of light (moving its electron from the ground orbital to the first excited orbital). As a result the 254-nanometer light cannot escape from the lamp; it becomes trapped in the mercury gas! Instead, the atoms begin to send their energy out of the lamp by concentrating on radiative transitions between highly excited orbitals and that lowest excited orbital. These wavelengths become more common in the light emission from the lamp as its pressure rises. But some radiative transitions that are forbidden at low pressure (that cannot occur because an electron is not able to move from one particular excited orbital to another particular excited orbital) become allowed at high pressure. Collisions break many of the rules that govern atomic behavior, allowing otherwise forbidden events to occur. In the case of the mercury lamp, collisions at high pressure permit the mercury atoms to emit wavelengths of light that they cannot emit a low pressure when collisions are rare.

393. Why does a fluorescent bulb sometimes appear blue, especially right before it burns out?
I'm not aware of any tendency to change colors as it begins to burn out, but many fluorescent bulbs are relatively blue in color. The phosphor coatings used to convert the mercury vapor's ultraviolet emission into visible light don't create pure white. Instead, they create a mixture of different colors that is a close approximation to white light. There are a number of different phosphor mixtures, each with its own characteristic spectrum of light: cool white, deluxe cool white, warm white, deluxe warm white, and others. The cool white bulbs are most energy efficient but emit relatively bluish light. This light gives the bulbs a cold, medicinal look. The warm white bulbs are less energy efficient, but more pleasant to the eye.

516. How does the pressure inside a mercury vapor lamp affect its spectral distribution, particularly as a source of ultraviolet light?
At low pressure, a mercury vapor lamp emits mostly short wavelength ultraviolet light at a wavelength of 254 nanometers. This light comes from the dominant atomic transition in the mercury atom, between its first excited state and its ground state. However, as the pressure and density of mercury atoms inside the lamp increase, two things happen. First, the high density of mercury atoms in the lamp makes it difficult for the 254-nanometer light to escape from the lamp. Each time a 254-nanometer photon (particle of light) is emitted by one mercury atom, a nearby mercury atom absorbs it. As a result, the 254-nanometer light becomes trapped inside the lamp and diminishes in brightness. With so much energy trapped inside the lamp, the mercury atoms are able to reach more highly excited states than at low density. Second, frequent collisions between the now highly excited mercury atoms allow those mercury atoms to emit wavelengths of light that are normally forbidden in the absence of collisions. The mercury atoms begin to emit light at a wide variety of wavelengths, including substantial amounts of visible light. That's why a high-pressure mercury lamp is a brilliant source of visible light—most of the ultraviolet light is trapped by the mercury vapor and a substantial fraction of the light emerging from the lamp is visible light.

525. Can the light from a fluorescent lamp be collimated into a beam of parallel rays?
While a converging lens or a concave mirror can always direct light from a bright source in a particular direction, the degree of collimation (the extent to which the rays become parallel) depends on how large the light source is. The smaller the light source, the better the collimation. Spotlights and movie projects use extremely bright, very small light sources to create their highly collimated beams. Since fluorescent lamps tend to be rather large and have modest surface brightnesses, I'm afraid that you would be disappointed with the best beam that you could create from that light. The ultimate collimated light source is a laser beam. In effect, the identical photons of light in a laser beam all originate from the same point in space, so that the collimated beam is as close to perfectly collimated as the nature of light waves will allow.

526. What is the difference between the magnetic and electric ballasts used in fluorescent lights?
Fluorescent lights work by sending an electric current through a vapor of mercury atoms in what is known as an electric discharge. Unfortunately, electric discharges are very unstable—they are hard to start and, once started, tend to draw more and more current until they overheat and damage their containers and power sources. Thus a fluorescent light needs some device to control the flow of current through its discharge. Since normal fluorescent lamps are powered by alternating current—that is, the current passing through the discharge stops briefly and then reverses direction 120 times each second in the United States and 100 times each second in many other countries (60 or 50 full cycles of reversal, over and back, each second respectively)—the current control device only needs to keep the current under control for about 1/120 of a second. After that the current will reverse and everything will start over.

Older style fluorescent lights use a magnetic ballast to control the current. This ballast consists essentially of a coil of wire around a core of iron. As current flows through the wire, it magnetizes the iron. Because energy is required to magnetize the iron, the presence of the iron inside the coil of wire slows down the current when it first appears in the wire by drawing energy out of that current. This effect, typical of devices known to scientists and engineers as "inductors", prevents the current passing through the ballast and then through the discharge from increasing too rapidly once it starts. The magnetic ballast is able to slow the current rise through the fluorescent lamp long enough for the alternating current to begin reversing directions. In fact, as the current in the power line begins to reverse, the ballast begins to get rid of the energy stored in its magnetized core. This energy is used to keep the discharge going longer than it would on its own. The ballast thus smoothes out the discharge so that it stays under control and emits an almost steady amount of light.

Modern electronic ballasts still control the current through the discharge, but they use electronic components to achieve this control. Just as an electronic dimmer switch can control the current through an incandescent light bulb in order to adjust the bulb's brightness, such electronic devices can control the current passing through the discharge in a fluorescent lamp to keep that current from growing dangerously large.

538. What's the difference between fluorescent, phosphorescent, and triboluminescent? - DS
Fluorescence is the prompt emission of light from an atom, molecule, or solid that has extra energy. For example, when some of the dyes used in modern swimwear and clothing are exposed to ultraviolet light, they absorb the light energy and promptly reemit part of that energy as visible light—typically brilliant greens and oranges. In contrast, phosphorescence is the delayed emission of light by an atom, molecule, or solid that has extra energy. Glow-in-the-dark objects are phosphorescent—they are able to store the extra energy they obtain during exposure to light for remarkably long times before they finally release that stored energy as visible light. Systems that exhibit phosphorescence rather than fluorescent are those that have special high-energy states that have enormous difficulty radiating away energy as light. Finally, triboluminescence is the emission of light from a surface experiencing sliding friction. Since sliding friction introduces energy into the surfaces that are sliding across one another, it's possible for that energy to be emitted as light.

547. How do light sticks work? - AE
When you bend a plastic light stick, you break a small glass ampoule and allow two chemicals that are contained inside the stick to mix. One of these chemicals is a powerful oxidizing agent and the other is a chemical that when oxidized ("burned") is left in an electronically excited state. In other words, the chemical reaction between the molecules of the two chemicals creates a new molecule that has excess energy in it. The molecule releases this energy as a particle of light, a photon. Although I am not certain exactly which chemicals are used in a modern light stick, I believe that one is hydrogen peroxide (the oxidizer) and the other is luminol (the chemical that is oxidized). Upon oxidization, luminol emits a photon of blue or ultraviolet light. The green light that you see emerging from a typical light stick is actually a second photon that is emitted by a fluorescent dye contained in the light stick. This dye absorbs the blue or ultraviolet photon emitted by the luminol and then reemits a new photon with somewhat less energy and a green color.
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