How Everything Works
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1578. I have been told, that incandescent light bulbs are being phased out to be replaced by fluorescent bulbs that use less energy. This will happen I think next year? Is that true? — CD, Abilene, Texas
Incandescent lightbulbs will be phased out beginning with 100-watt bulbs in 2012 and ending with 40-watt bulbs in 2014. The reason for this phase out is simple: incandescent lightbulbs are horribly energy inefficient.

Light is a form of energy, so you can compare the visible light energy emitted by any lamp to the energy that lamp consumes. According to that comparison, an incandescent lightbulb is roughly 5% efficient—a 100-watt incandescent bulb emits about 5 watts of visible light. In contrast, a fluorescent lamp is typically about 20% energy efficient—a 25-watt fluorescent lamp emits about 5 watts of visible light.

fluorescent lamp
incandescent lightbulbs

Another way to compare incandescent and fluorescent lamps is via their lumens per watt. The lumen is a standard unit of usable illumination and it incorporates factors such as how sensitive our eyes are to various colors of light. If you divide a light source's light output in lumens by its power input in watts, you'll obtain its lumens per watt.

For the incandescent lightbulb appearing at the left of the photograph, that calculation yields 16.9 lumens/watt. For the "long life" bulb at the center of the photograph, it give only 15.3 lumens/watt. And for the color-improved bulb on the right of the photograph, the value is only 12.6 lumens/watt. Our grandchildren will look at this photograph of long forgotten incandescent bulbs and be amazed that we could squander so much energy on lighting.

The fluorescent lamp in the other photograph is far more efficient. It produces more useful illumination than any of the three incandescent bulbs, yet it consumes just over a quarter as much power. Dividing its light out in lumens by its power consumption in watts yields 64.6 lumens/watts. It is 4 times as energy efficient as the best of the incandescent lightbulbs. Some fluorescent lamps are even more efficient than that.

Another feature to compare is life expectancy. Even the so-called "long life" incandescent predicts a 1500 hour life, which is only 15% of the predicted life for the fluorescent lamp (10,000 hours). Although the fluorescent costs more, it quickly pays for itself in energy use and less frequent replacement. You should recycle a fluorescent lamp because it does contain a tiny amount of mercury, but overall it's a much more environmentally friendly light source.

1176. How are incandescent light bulbs made? — SU
The glass enclosures are made from a ribbon of hot glass that's first thickened and then blown into molds to form the bulb shapes. These enclosures are then cooled, cut from the ribbon, and their insides are coated with the diffusing material that gives the finished bulb its soft white appearance.

The filament is formed by drawing tungsten metal into a very fine wire. This wire, typically only 42 microns (0.0017 inches) in diameter is first wound into a coil and then this coil is itself wound into a coil. The mandrels used in these two coiling processes are trapped in the coils and must be dissolved away with acids after the filament has been annealed.

The finished filament is clamped or welded to the power leads, which have already been embedded in a glass supporting structure. This glass support is inserted into a bulb and the two glass parts are fused together. A tube in the glass support allows the manufacturer to pump the air out of the bulb and then reintroduce various inert gases. When virtually all of the oxygen has been eliminated from the bulb, the tube is cut off and the opening is sealed. Once the base of the bulb has been attached, the bulb is ready for use.

1131. How would I go about making a camera that's more than just a pinhole camera? — JL, Longview, WA
While a pinhole will project the image of a scene on a piece of film, it doesn't collect very much light. That's why a pinhole camera requires very long exposures. A better camera makes use of a converging lens. If you hold a magnifying glass several inches away from a white sheet of paper, you will see that it forms a real image of anything on the other side of it—particularly bright things such as light bulbs or well-lighted windows. A typical camera uses a converging lens that's not unlike a magnifying glass to form an image of this sort. You could use a magnifying glass to build a camera, but I'd suggest that you start with a camera and rebuild it yourself. Go to a company that processes film and see if they will give you any used disposable cameras. These cameras are of essentially no value to them and they either discard them or recycle them. If you ask around, you should find a photo shop that will give you a couple. You can then disassemble them. You'll find a very nice lens, a shutter system, a film advance mechanism, and so on. You can use a toothpick or small screwdriver to turn the exposure dial backward so that the camera behaves as though it still has film left. You can then "advance the (non-existent) film" by turning the film sensing gears in the back of the camera with your fingers until the shutter cocks. Finally, you can press the shutter release and watch the shutter open the lens to light. Disposable cameras are great because if you break something in your experimenting, you can just throw away your mistake.
1021. What would you hypothesize the effects of black light bulbs to be on the tanning of human skin?
I would expect that certain black light sources would cause tanning with only modest burning while other black light sources would cause burning with only modest tanning. Black light—also known as ultraviolet light—consists of very energetic light particles. The particles or photons of ultraviolet light contain enough energy to break chemical bonds and rearrange molecules. When you're exposed to such energetic light, it causes damage to molecules in your skin cells and your skin may respond by darkening in the process we call "tanning." But ultraviolet light is a general term that covers a broad range of wavelengths and photon energies. Long wavelength/low energy ultraviolet light tends to cause tanning while short wavelength/high energy ultraviolet light tends to cause burning—it directly kills cells. But these differences aren't sharp and any ultraviolet light will cause some amount of skin damage.
971. What types of gas are used in light bulbs and how do their effects differ? — SF, Westfield, NJ
The glass envelope of an incandescent bulb can't contain air because tungsten is flammable when hot and would burn up if there were oxygen present around it. One of Thomas Edison's main contributions to the development of such bulbs was learning how to extract all the air from the bulb. But a bulb that contains no gas won't work well because tungsten sublimes at high temperatures—its atoms evaporate directly from solid to gas. If there were no gas in the bulb, every tungsten atom that left the filament would fly unimpeded all the way to the glass wall of the bulb and then stick there forever. While there are some incandescent bulbs that operate with a vacuum inside, most common incandescent lamps contain a small amount of argon and nitrogen gases.

Argon and nitrogen are chemically inert, so that the tungsten filament can't burn in the argon and nitrogen, and each argon atom or nitrogen molecule is massive enough that when a tungsten atom that's trying to leave the filament hits it, that tungsten atom may rebound back onto the filament. The argon and nitrogen gases thus prolong the life of the filament. Unfortunately, these gases also convey heat away from the filament via convection. You can see evidence of this convection as a dark spot of tungsten atoms that accumulate at the top of the bulb. That black smudge consists of tungsten atoms that didn't return to the filament and were swept upward as the hot argon and nitrogen gases rose.

However, some premium light bulbs contain krypton gas rather than argon gas. Like argon, krypton is chemically inert. But a krypton atom is more massive than an argon atom, making it more effective at bouncing tungsten atoms back toward the filament after they sublime. Krypton gas is also a poorer conductor of heat than argon gas, so that it allows the filament to convert its power more efficiently into visible light. Unfortunately, krypton is a rare constituent of our atmosphere and very expensive. That's why it's only used in premium light bulbs, together with some nitrogen gas.

Incidentally, the filament in many incandescent bulbs is treated with a small amount of a phosphorus-based "getter" that reacts with any residual oxygen that may be in the bulb the first time the filament becomes hot. That's how the manufacturer ensures that there will be no oxygen in the bulb for the tungsten filament to react with.

970. How can one be fire safe while dealing with incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs? — TJ, Woodbridge, VA
Fluorescent tubes produce relatively little heat, so they're relatively fire safe already. However, incandescent light bulbs become very hot and you have to be careful with them to avoid fires. First, make sure that the bulb can get rid of its waste heat. That means that you shouldn't wrap the bulb in insulation because it needs to transfer its waste heat to the air. Second, keep flammable materials away from the bulb, particularly above the bulb since hot air from the bulb rises upward.
897. If increasing the power demand on a generator that is turning at a steady rate simply increases the torque needed to keep that generator turning, why do brownouts occur?
As long as the generator continues to turn steadily, it will produce its normal voltage rise and the frequency of its alternating current won't change. When the homes powered by the generator draw more current, then the generator simply becomes more difficult to turn and the steam turbine that spins it has to exert more torque on it. But suppose that the turbine can't exert any more torque on the generator. In that case, the power company can either shut down the generator or it can reduce the strength of the generator's rotating magnet. This rotating magnet is actually an electromagnet and its strength determines the voltage rise across the generator. During a period of excessive current demand, the power company may choose to weaken the rotating electromagnet to prevent the steam turbine from becoming overloaded. When they weaken the electromagnet, the generator becomes easier to spin but it produces less voltage. The electricity leaving the generator still has the right frequency alternating current, but it voltage is somewhat lower than normal and the light bulbs it powers glow relatively dimly—a brown-out.
783. How do flashing lights, chasing lights, and any type of Christmas lights work? - N
Years ago, many strings of Christmas lights consisted of about 20 or 30 light bulbs in series. In this series, electric current passed from one bulb to the next and deposited a small fraction of its energy in each bulb. The result was that each bulb glowed brightly so long as every bulb was working. If a single bulb burned out, the entire string went dark because no current could flow through the open circuit. If you replaced one of the bulbs in a working string with a special blinker bulb, the whole string would blink. The blinker bulb contained a tiny bimetallic switch thermostat that turned it off whenever the temperature rose above a certain point. At first, the bulb would glow and the whole string would glow with it. Then the thermostat would overheat and turn the bulb and string off. Then the thermostat would cool off enough to turn the bulb and string back on. This pattern would repeat endlessly.

But modern electronics has replaced the blinker bulbs with computers and transistor switches. Transistorized switches determine which bulbs or groups of bulbs receive current and glow at any given time and carefully timed switching can make patterns of light that appear to move or "chase." As for the problem with one failed bulb spoiling the string, a reader has informed me that the bulbs are now designed with a fail-safe feature. If a bulb's filament breaks, the sudden surge in voltage across that bulb activates this fail-safe mechanism. Wires inside the bulb connect to allow current to bypass that bulb completely. The remaining bulbs in the string glow a little more brightly than normal and their lives are shortened slightly as a result.

600. What are the most important energy-efficient household appliances? How do their efficiencies compare with those of standard appliances? — LM, Klong Luang, Pathumthani, Thailand
I can think of three important energy-efficient household electric devices: (1) heat pumps, (2) electric discharge lamps (including fluorescent lamps), and (3) microwave ovens.

A heat pump is a device that transfers heat against its natural direction of flow. If you use one to heat your home, the heat pump uses electricity to transfer heat from the colder outside air to the hotter inside air, so that the inside air becomes even hotter and the outside air becomes even colder. The electricity that the heat pump uses also becomes thermal energy inside your home. Since both the electric energy and the thermal energy pumped from the air outside end up inside your home, a heat pump provides more heat than a simple space heater can provide with the same electricity. The energy efficiency of a heat pump decreases as the temperature difference between inside and outside becomes greater, but it typically provides 4 or more times as much heat to your home as a normal electric space heater would provide with the same amount of electricity. Incidentally, when the heat pump is reversed, so that it pumps heat out of your home, it is then an air conditioner.

Electric discharge lamps are between 2 and 5 times as energy efficient as normal incandescent light bulbs. The hot filament of an incandescent lamp delivers only about 10% of its electric power as visible light. In contrast, a fluorescent lamp delivers about 25% of its electric power as visible light and some gas discharge lamps (particularly low-pressure sodium vapor) deliver as much as 50% of their electric powers as visible light.

A microwave oven transfers about 50% of its electric power directly into the water molecules of the food that you are cooking. Cooking occurs quickly and because the cooking chamber doesn't get hot, there is no power wasted in heating the oven itself or the room surrounding the oven. Depending on how large an object you are cooking, a microwave oven probably uses between 5 and 20 percent of the electricity it would take you to cook the same food in a standard oven.

587. What is the composition of the phosphors used in fluorescent light bulbs? - M
The exact composition depends on the color type of the bulb, with the most common color types being cool white, warm white, deluxe cool white, and deluxe warm white. In each case, the phosphors are a mixture of crystals that may include: calcium halophosphate, calcium silicate, strontium magnesium phosphate, calcium strontium phosphate, and magnesium fluorogermanate. These crystals contain impurities that allow them to fluoresce visible light. These impurities include: antimony, manganese, tin, and lead.
577. What are the different types of light bulbs and how do they work? - BS
An incandescent light bulb works by heating a solid filament so hot that the filament's thermal radiation spectrum includes large amounts of visible light. A fluorescent tube uses an electric discharge in mercury vapor to produce ultraviolet light, which is then transformed into visible light by fluorescent phosphors on the inner surface of the tube. A gas discharge lamp uses an electric discharge in a gas inside that lamp (often high pressure mercury, or sodium vapor, or even neon) to produce visible light directly.
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.
186. Why do regular light bulbs have different effects on plants than fluorescent lights?
Regular (incandescent) light bulbs create light with a hot filament. This light is relatively reddish and contains very little blue, violet, or ultraviolet light. Since it comes from a hot, thermal source, this light covers all the wavelengths from infrared to the green and blue range of the spectrum continuously and smoothly, although its intensity peaks in the red and orange range of the spectrum. Fluorescent lights, on the other hand, create light through the fluorescence of atoms, molecules, and solids. The light is not created by hot materials so it contains certain regions of the spectrum, often including blue and violet light. Depending on the exact make-up of the fluorescent lamp, this light may include wavelengths that are particularly important to a plant's metabolic processes.
184. Which electric light bulb is best for the money, i.e. uses least electricity and has greatest light. I remember my high school physics teacher saying something like 50 watts -> 100 watts doesn't double the light, just eats electricity.
For a given type of light bulb, the higher wattage bulbs are more energy efficient. Each light bulb has some "overhead" of wasted power that goes into heating the supporting structure and glass envelope. The higher wattage bulbs produce a little more light per watt of power. But not all types of bulbs are equally efficient. Long life bulbs are the least energy efficient because they run cooler than normal bulbs. The filament lasts a long time, but wastes more power producing infrared light. Some "energy miser" bulbs aren't as good as normal bulbs. They may have lower wattages (typically 55 W instead of 60 W or 90 W instead of 100 W), but they actually produce significantly less light and thus consume more watts of power for each unit of light they produce. The most efficient incandescent bulbs are halogen lamps. These lamps, with their chemical recycling process, run substantially hotter than normal bulbs and produce more light per watt. They also last longer than normal light bulbs. They also produce whiter light (less red) and are just plain better bulbs than normal light bulbs. They cost more money up front, but it's worth it in most cases.

Last Updated on Tuesday, September 26, 2017 at 17:34:35 EDT
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