Sunlight and ice crystals dance in the sky
Sunlight and ice crystals dance in a winter's deep blue sky...

Some links explaining the phenomenon of light, especially as it manifests itself beautifully in Earth's sky...

Causes of Color - Why are things colored?
A nice set of pages on light & color and optics with JAVA demos
Arizona State University: a good workshop on the nature of light
Weather Photography - lots of info here on phenomena of the sky
A good set of pages on the nature of atmospheric optics (halos, rainbows, crepescular rays, etc)
Glows, Bows, and Haloes
More tutorials on the nature of atmospheric optics, and properties of light

Lots of pretty pictures of phenomena in the daytime sky
And yet another set of pages from the University of Illinois
USA Today's links to resources on sky color and phenomena
My set of links on aurorae can be found here.
A great set of pages dedicated to understanding the "Green Flash" phenomenon, and here's one that explains their origin and those of mirages
A more technical discussion, yet excellently illustrated, of the physics of rainbows.
A set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) about rainbows
A colorful presentation of atmospheric visibility and its impact upon the vistas at our National Parks can be found here.

A more technical discussion of atmospheric optics by Craig Bohren may be found here, and another less technical one about the colors of the sky. Craig Bohren also published two wonderful, often humorous, and eye-opening books in experiments in atmospheric science for the average guy or gal: Clouds in a Glass of Beer, and What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks?  Two additional, excellent textbooks (advanced level):  An Introduction to Atmospheric Radiation (Grant W. Petty) and Fundamentals of Atmospheric Radiation: 400 Problems (Craig Bohren and Eugene Clothiaux). 
Philip Laven's excellent technical pages on the optics of water drops, and a link to some freely available technical papers on the topic (formation of rainbows, coronae, glories).
On-line Mie Scattering calculators: 1, 2
Experts and advanced students only - a webpage of Electromagnetic Scattering codes and other resources; another scattering code repository here.

A colourful discussion of color in astronomy
Pages discussing the colors of stars, and of our Sun
The spectrum of our Sun - its intrinsic one, and that which gets through our atmosphere
Links to more technical pages on how we perceive color, here
The meaning of color in astronomical images, and a nice discussion of color rendering of spectra.
My page discussing color and blackbody (thermal) radiation is found here
Color Science - information and links
FRIZION - where art, color, and physics meet in frozen water


Commonly asked Questions about the essential properties of light, its interactions with matter, how it is that we see colors in the sky (rainbows, blue skies, red sunsets, white clouds, etc), how various man-made light sources work and their Answers, courtesy of the webpage, How Things Work, by Louis Bloomfield (professor of Physics, University of Virginia).


Exactly what is light? Is it a wave or particles?
Light is an electromagnetic wave - an excitation of the electric and magnetic fields that can exist even in "empty" space. Light's electric field creates its magnetic field and its magnetic field creates its electric field and this self-perpetuating arrangement zips off through space at a phenomenal speed - the speed of light. Light is created by moving electric charges, which first excite the electromagnetic fields. Light is also absorbed by electric charges, which obtain energy from the light's electromagnetic fields. Like everything else in the universe, light exhibits both wave and particle behaviors. When it is traveling through space, light behaves as a wave. That means that its location is generally not well defined and that it can simultaneously pass through more than one opening (the way a water wave can when it encounters a piece of screening). But when light is emitted or absorbed, it behaves as a particle. It's created all at once when it's emitted from a particular location and it disappears all at once when it's absorbed somewhere else. This wave/particle arrangement is true of everything, including objects such as electrons or atoms: while they are traveling unobserved, they behave as waves but when you go looking for them, they behave as particles.


I understand that light waves cause electrically charged particles in matter to vibrate so that these particles can absorb and reemit light, even in transparent materials. But doesn't that explanation contradict quantum theory, which states that only specific photons corresponding to allowed electronic transitions can be absorbed?
When a light wave passes through matter, the charged particles in thatmatter do respond - the light wave contains an electric field that pushes on electrically charged particles. But how a particular charged particle responds to the light wave depends on the frequency of the light wave and on the quantum states available to the charged particle. While the charged particle will begin to vibrate back and forth at the light wave's frequency and will begin to take energy from the light wave, the charged particle can only retain this energy permanently if doing so will promote it to another permanent quantum state. Since light energy comes in discrete quanta known as photons and the energy of a photon depends on the light's frequency, it's quite possible that the charged particle will be unable to absorb the light permanently. In that case, the charged particle will soon reemit the light. In effect, the charged particle "plays" with the photon of light, trying to see if it can absorb that photon. As it plays, the charged particle begins to shift into a new quantum state - a "virtual" state. This virtual state may or may not be permanently allowed. If it is, it'scalled a real state and the charged particle may remain in it indefinitely. In that case, the charged particle can truly absorb the photon and may never reemit it at all. But if the virtual state turns out not to be a permanently allowed quantum state, the charged particle can't remain in it long and must quickly return to its original state. In doing so, this charged particle reemits the photon it was playing with. The closer the photon is to one that it can absorb permanently, meaning the closer the virtual quantum state is to one of the real quantum states, the longer the charged particle can play with the photon before recognizing that it must give the photon up.

A colored material is one in which the charged particles can permanently absorb certain photons of visible light. Because this material only absorbs certain photons of light, it separates the components of white light and gives that material a colored appearance. A transparent material is one in which the charged particles can't permanently absorb any photons of visible light. While these charged particles all try to absorb the visible light photons, they find that there are no permanent quantum states available to them when they do. Instead, they play with the photons briefly and then let them continue on their way. This playing process slows the light down. In general blue light slows down more than red light in a transparent material because blue light photons contain more energy than red light photons. The charged particles in the transparent material do have real permanent states available to them, but to reach those states, the charged particles would have to absorb high-energy photons of ultraviolet light. While blue photons don't have as much energy as ultraviolet photons, they have more energy than red photons do. As a result, the charged particles in a transparent material can play with a blue photon longer than they can play with a red photon - the virtual state produced by a blue photon is closer to the real states than is the virtual state produced by a red photon. Because of this effect, the speed at which blue light passes through a transparent material is significantly less than the speed at which red light passes through that material.

Finally, about quantum states: you can think of the real states of one of these charged particles the way you think about the possible pitches of a guitar string. While you can jiggle the guitar string back and forth at any frequency you like with your fingers, it will only vibrate naturally at certain specific frequencies. You can hear these frequencies by plucking the string. If you whistle at the string and choose one of these specific frequencies for your pitch, you can set the string vibrating. In effect, the string is absorbing the sound wave from your whistle. But if you whistle at some other frequency, the string will only play briefly with your sound wave and then send it on its way. The string playing with your sound waves is just like a charged particle in a transparent material playing with a light wave. The physics of these two situations is remarkably similar.


Why does light travel slower in some media than in a vacuum? For example, in glass or other transparent media, visible light is not absorbed and yet it slows down. What's going on?
When a light wave enters matter, the light wave's electric field causes charged particles in the matter to accelerate back and forth. That's because an electric field exerts forces on charged particles. The light wave gives up some of its energy to these charged particles and is partially absorbed in the process. However, the charged particles don't retain the light's energy very long. They are accelerating and accelerating charged particles emit electromagnetic waves. In fact, they reemit the very same light wave that they absorbed moments earlier. Overall, the light wave is partially absorbed and then reemitted by each electrically charged particle it encounters, so that the light continues on its way as though nothing had happened. However, something has happened - the light wave has been delayed ever so slightly. This absorption and re-emission process holds the light wave back so that it travels at less than its full speed. If the charged particles in the matter are few and far between, this slowing effect is almost insignificant. But in dense materials such as glass or diamond, the light wave can be slowed substantially. Actually, higher frequency violet light is slowed more than lower frequency red light because violet light is more effectively absorbed and reemitted by the atoms in most transparent materials. That's because when a high frequency light wave encounters the electrons in an atom, the jiggling motion is so rapid and the electrons' motions are so small that the electrons never reach the boundaries of the atom. As a result, those electrons are able to jiggle back and forth as though they were free electrons and they do a good job of slowing the light wave down. But when a low frequency light wave encounters the electrons in an atom, the jiggling motion is slower and the electrons' motions are so large that they quickly reach the boundaries of the atom. As a result, those electrons aren't able to jiggle back and forth as far as they should and they don't slow the light wave down as well.


Why are any materials transparent?
Because light is an electromagnetic wave, it is emitted and absorbed by electric charges. For an electric charge to emit light it must move - in fact, the charge must accelerate. For an electric charge to absorb light it must also move - it must also accelerate. However, there are many materials that do not have mobile electric charges. For example, while all electric insulators have electric charges in them, those electric charges can't move long distances. The electric charges in many electric insulators can't even move enough to absorb light and the light simply passes right through them. They are transparent.


Why does purple bend more in a prism than, say, red?
Purple (or violet) light travels slower in most materials than does red light. That occurs because violet light is higher in frequency than red light and gives the charged particles that it jiggles about less time to move up and down. With very little time to move, these charged particles barely notice that they are parts of atoms and molecules and respond easily to the passing electromagnetic wave. But when red light pushes and pulls on charged particles, there is more time for them to find the limits of their freedom. These charged particles are not able to move so easily when pushed on by a passing wave of red light so they do not interact with that passing wave as well as with one of violet light. Thus red light passes by with less effect andit behaves more like it would in empty space. Violet light, which interacts relatively strongly with the atoms it passes, slows down more than red light. Since red light travels more quickly than violet light, it bends less in passing through a prism. Violet light slows down more and bends more than red light.


What is the scientific explanation of a rainbow?

A rainbow is caused by three important optical effects: reflection, refraction, and dispersion, all working together. The rainbow forms when sunlight passes over your head and illuminates falling raindrops in the sky in front of you. This sunlight enters each spherical raindrop, partially reflects from the back surfaces of the raindrop, and then leaves the raindrop and heads toward you. The raindrop helps some of the sunlight make a near U-turn. But the path that the light follows after it enters the raindrop depends on its color. Light bends or "refracts" as it changes speed upon entering water from air and the amount it bends depends on how much its speed changes. Since violet light slows more than red light, a phenomenon called "dispersion," the violet light bends more than the red light and the two colors begin to follow different paths through the drop. All the other colors are spread out between these two extremes.

The colored rays of light then partially reflect from the back surface of the raindrop because any change in light's speed also causes partial reflection. Now the various colors are on their way back toward you and the sun. The light bends again as it emerges from the raindrop and the various colors leave it traveling in different directions. Only one color of light will be aimed properly to reach your eyes. But there are other raindrops above and below it that will also send light backward and some of that light will also reach your eyes. But this light will be a different color. What you see when you observe the rainbow is the lights that many different raindrops send back toward your eyes. The upper raindrops send their red light toward your eyes while the lower raindrops send their violet light toward your eyes. You see a series of colored bows from these different raindrops.


Why is the sky blue?

As it passes through the atmosphere, sunlight can be deflected by a process known as Rayleigh scattering. When sunlight passes through any material, its light waves cause electric charges in the material to jiggle back and forth. That's because light waves contain electric fields and electric fields exert forces on electric charges. When the charges in a material jiggle back and forth, they may emit light. In this case, the material can absorb the sunlight for an instant and reemit it in a new direction. This process, whereby jiggling electric charges in a material absorb a light wave and reemit it in a new direction, is Rayleigh scattering.

Rayleigh scattering is extremely inefficient in particles that are much smaller than the wavelength of the light, so that visible light can travel through miles of molecules in the atmosphere before it experiences significant Rayleigh scattering. But blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light and thus experiences Rayleigh scattering more often than red light. As a result, the atmosphere tends to send the blue portion of sunlight off in every direction. Thus when you look at the atmosphere, it appears blue.


Why isn't the sky bright blue when the sun is red?

During the day, the sky is blue because the air and dust in the air scatter mainly blue light toward your eyes. They also scatter some red light, but the blue light dominates. But at sunset, things change. The setting sun approaches the earth's atmosphere at a very shallow angle so that it must travel many kilometers through the air before reaching your eyes. During this long trip, most of the blue light is scattered away and the sun appears very red. If the path is long enough, the blue light is scattered away many kilometers to your west so that there isn't much of it left. When this occurs, even the sky around you appears somewhat reddish because there just isn't any more blue to scatter. The missing blue light is visible to people living 50 or 100 kilometers to the west as their blue sky.


I understand now why the sky is blue, but why are sunsets red and orange?

As I discussed previously, the sky is blue because tiny particles in the atmosphere (dust, clumps of air molecules, microscopic water droplets) are better at deflecting shorter wavelength blue light than they are at deflecting longer wavelength red light. As sunlight passes through the atmosphere, enough blue light is deflected (or more technically Rayleigh scattered) by these particles to give the atmosphere an overall blue glow. The sun itself is slightly reddened by this process because a fraction of its blue light is deflected away before it reaches our eyes. But at sunrise and sunset, sunlight enters our atmosphere at a shallow angle and travels a long distance before reaching our eyes. During this long passage, most of the blue light is deflected away and virtually all that we see coming to us from the sun is its red and orange wavelengths. The missing blue light illuminates the skies far to our east during sunrise and to our west during sunset. When the loss of blue light is extreme enough, as it is after a volcanic eruption, so little blue light may reach your location at times that even the sky itself appears deep red. The particles in air aren't good at deflecting red wavelengths, but if that's all the light there is they will give the sky a dim, red glow.


Why do the earth's oceans appear blue to an observer on the moon?

The earth's oceans and sky both appear blue to everyone who observes them. They do this because water absorbs blue light less strongly than it absorbs other colors. When ocean water is exposed to sunlight (white light), it absorbs most of the red light quickly and a good fraction of the green light. But the blue light penetrates to considerable depth in the water and there is a reasonable chance that this light will be scattered back upward to an observer on the shore, in the air, or even on the moon.


What makes the clouds white - or having colors at sunset and why is the sky gray on a cloudy day?
The water droplets in clouds are quite large; large enough to be good antennas for all colors of light. As light passes by those droplets, some of it scatters (is absorbed by the antenna/water droplets and is reemitted by the antenna/water droplets). Since there is no color preference in this scattering from large droplets, the scattered light has the same color as the light that illuminated the cloud. In the daytime, the sunlight is white so the clouds appear white. But at sunrise or sunset, the sun's light is mostly red (the blue light has been scattered away by the atmosphere before it reached the clouds) so the clouds appear red, too. If the clouds are very thick, they may absorb enough light (or scatter enough upward into space) to appear gray rather than white. Another way to see why the clouds are white is to realized that light reflects from every surface of the water droplets. As the light works its way through the random maze of droplets, it reflects here and there and eventually finds itself traveling in millions of random directions. When you look at a cloud, you see light coming toward you from countless droplets, traveling in countless different directions. You interpret this type of light, having the sun's spectrum of wavelengths but coming uniformly from a broad swath of space, as being white. These two views of how light travels in a cloud (absorption and reemission from droplets or reflections from droplet surfaces) turn out to be exactly equivalent to one another. They are not different physical phenomena, but rather two different ways to describe the same physical phenomena.


What path does sunlight follow for you to see a mirage? 

The first step in explaining a mirage is to understand why the sky is blue, or why it has any color at all. If it weren't for the earth's atmosphere, the sky would be black and dotted with stars. That's how the moon's sky appears. But the earth's atmosphere deflects some of the sunlight that passes through it, particularly short-wavelength light such as blue and violet, and this scattered light (Rayleigh scattering) gives the sky its bluish cast. When you look at the blue sky, you're seeing particles of light that have been scattered away from their original paths into new paths so that they reach your eyes from all directions.

The blue light from the sky normally travels directly toward your eyes so that you see it coming from the sky. But when there is a layer of very hot air near the ground in the distance, some of the blue light from the sky in front of you bends upward toward your eyes. This light was traveling toward the ground in front of you at a very shallow angle but it didn't hit the ground. Instead, its entry into the hot air layer bent it upward so that it arced away from the ground and toward your eyes. When you look at the ground far in front of you, you see this deflected light from the blue sky turned up at you by the air and it looks as though it has reflected from a layer of water in front of you. This bending of light that occurs when light goes from higher-density cold air to lower-density hot air is called refraction, the same effect that bends light as light enters a camera lens or a raindrop or a glass of water. Whenever light changes speeds, it can experience refraction and light speeds up in going from cold air to hot air. In this case, the light bends upward, missing the ground and eventually reaching your eyes.


What are the different types of light bulbs and how do they work?
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.


How does a regular lamp (light bulb) work?
A normal incandescent lamp contains a double-wound tungsten filament inside a gas-filled glass bulb. By "double-wound", I mean that a very fine wire is first wound into a long, thin spiral and then this spiral is again wound into a wider spiral. While the final filament looks about 1 or 2 centimeters long, it actually contains about 1 meter of fine tungsten wire. When the bulb is on, an electric current flows through the filament from one end to the other. The electrons making up this current carry energy, both in their motion and in the forces that they exert on one another. As they flow through the fine tungsten wire, these electrons collide with the tungsten atoms and transfer some of their energy to those tungsten atoms. The tungsten atoms and the filament become extremely hot, typically about 2500 Celsius. Tungsten wire is used because it tolerates these enormous temperatures without melting and because it resists sublimation longer than any other material. Sublimation is when atoms "evaporate" from the surface of a solid. The gas inside the bulb is there to slow sublimation and extend the life of the filament. Once the filament is hot, it tends to transfer heat to its colder surroundings. While much of its heat leaves the filament via convection and conduction in the gas and glass bulb, a significant fraction of this heat leaves the filament via thermal radiation. For any object that is hotter than about 500 Celsius, some of this thermal radiation is visible light and for an object that is about 2500 Celsius, about 10% is visible light. The light that you see from the bulb is the visible portion of its thermal radiation. However, most of the filament's thermal radiation is invisible infrared light. While you can feel this infrared light warming your hand, you can't see it. Because only about 80% of the electric power delivered to the bulb becomes thermal radiation and only about 12% of that thermal radiation is visible, an incandescent light bulb is only about 10% energy efficient. Other types of lamps, including fluorescent and gas discharge lamps, are much more energy efficient.


What types of gas are used in light bulbs and how do their effects differ?
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 phosphorous-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.

How does a halogen bulb work and is it really better than a regular bulb?
A halogen bulb uses a chemical trick to prolong the life of its filament. In a regular bulb, the filament slowly thins as tungsten atoms evaporate from the white-hot surface. These lost atoms are carried upward by the inert gases inside the bulb and gradually darken the bulb's upper surface. In a halogen bulb, the gases surrounding the filament are chemically active and don't just deposit the lost atoms at the top of the bulb. Instead, they react with those tungsten atoms to form volatile compounds. These compounds float around inside the bulb until they collide with the filament again. The extreme heat of the filament then breaks the compounds apart and the tungsten atoms stick to the filament. This tungsten recycling process dramatically slows the filament's decay. Although the filament gradually develops thin spots that eventually cause it to fail, the filament can operate at a higher temperature and still last two or three times as long as the filament of a regular bulb. The hotter filament of a halogen bulb emits relatively more blue light and relatively less infrared light than a regular bulb, giving it a whiter appearance and making it more energy efficient


What's the difference between fluorescent, phosphorescent, and triboluminescent?

Fluorescence is the prompt emission of light from an atom, molecule, or solid that has extra energy. For example, whensome 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 longtimes 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.


How does a fluorescent light work?
A fluorescent lamp consists of a gas-filled glass tube with an electrode at each end. This lamp emits light when a current of electrons passes through it from one electrode to the other and excites mercury atoms in the tube's vapor. The electrons are able to leave the electrodes because those electrodes are heated to high temperatures and an electric field, powered by the electric company, propels them through the tube. However, the light that the mercury atoms emit is actually in the ultraviolet, where it can't be seen. To convert this ultraviolet light to visible light, the inside surface of the glass tube is coated with a fluorescent powder. When this fluorescent powder is exposed to ultraviolet light, it absorbs the light energy and reemits some of it as visible light, a process called "fluorescence." The missing light energy is converted to thermal energy, making the tube slightly hot. By carefully selecting the fluorescent powders (called "phosphors"), the manufacturer of the light can tailor the light's coloration. The most common phosphor mixtures these days are warm white, cool white, deluxe warm white, and deluxe cool white. The only other significant component of the fluorescent lamp is its ballast. This device is needed to control the current flow through the tube. Gas discharges such as the one that occurs inside the lamp are notoriously unstable - they're hard to start and, once they do start, tend to become too intense. To regulate the discharge, the ballast controls the amount of current flowing through the tube. In most older lamps, this control is done by an electromagnetic device called an inductor. An inductor opposes current changes and keeps a relatively constant current flowing through the tube (although that current does stop and reverse directions each time the power line current reverses directions  - 120 times a second or 60 full cycles, over and back, in the United States). Some modern fluorescent lamps use electronic ballasts - sophisticated electronic controls that regulate current with the help of transistor-like components.


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.


What is the composition of the phosphors used in fluorescent light bulbs? 
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.


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.


Do regular fluorescent lights emit ultraviolet light? If so, how does the ultraviolet level compare to what we would receive if we were outside?
While the electric discharge in the tube's mercury vapor emits large amounts of short wavelength ultraviolet light, virtually all of this ultraviolet light is absorbed by the tube's internal phosphor coating and glass envelope. As a result, a fluorescent lamp emits relatively little ultraviolet light. I think that the ultraviolet light level under fluorescent lighting is far less than that of outdoor sunlight.


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?
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.


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. 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.


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.


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 be 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.


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.


Why are metal-halide lamps so efficient?
Metal-halide lamps are actually high-pressure mercury lamps with small amounts of metal-halides added to improve the color balance. Light in such a lamp is created by an electric arc - electricity is passing through a gas in the lamp and causing violent collisions within the gas. These collisions transfer energy to the mercury and other gaseous atoms in the lamp and these atoms usually emit that energy as light. Overall, an electric current passes through the lamp and gives up most of its energy as light and heat inthe gas. As you'venoted, the lamp is relatively efficient, meaning that it produces more light and less heat than ordinary incandescent or halogen lamps. However, metal-halide lamps aren't quite as energy efficient as fluorescent lamps. What makes a metal-halide lamp so efficient is that there are relatively few ways for the lamp to waste energy as heat. While collisionally excited mercury atoms normally emit most of their stored energy as ultraviolet light - the basis for fluorescent lamps -  they can't do this in a high-pressure environment. A phenomenon called "radiation trapping" makes it almost impossible for this ultraviolet light to escape from a dense vapor of mercury, so a high-pressure mercury lamp emits mostly visible light. Even without the metal-halides, a high-pressure mercury lamp emits a brilliant blue-white glow. The metal-halides boost the reds and other colors in the lamp to make its light "warmer" and more like sunlight. Next time you watch one of these lamps warm up, observe how its colors change. When it first starts up, its pressure is low and it emits mostly invisible ultraviolet light (which is absorbed by the lamp's glass envelope). But as the lamp heats up and its pressure increases, the rich, white light gradually develops. Incidentally, if the power to a hot lamp is interrupted, the lamp has to cool down before it can restart because it only starts well at low pressures.


How do light emitting diodes work and what is responsible for their different colors?
Light emitting diodes are diodes that have been specially designed to emit light rather than heat during their operations. Whenever current is flowing through a diode, electrons are moving from the n-type semiconductor on one side of the diode's p-n junction to the p-type semiconductor on the other side of the junction. Once an electron (which is negatively charged) arrives in the p-type semiconductor, it's attracted toward an electron hole (which is positively charged) and the two move together. The electron soon fills the hole and it releases a small amount of energy when it does. In a normal diode, electrons lose energy at a rate of 0.6 joules of energy per coulomb of charge as they recombine with the electron holes. That means that the current flowing through the normal diode loses 0.6 volts as it flows through the diode. The missing energy becomes thermal energy or heat. But in a light emitting diode (an LED), each electron that arrives in the p-type semiconductor after crossing the p-n junction recombines with an electron hole in a remarkable way. It gives up its extra energy as light! Each time an electron and an electron hole recombine, they emit one particle of light, a photon, and the frequency, wavelength, and color of that light depends on the amount of energy given up by the electron as it falls into the electron hole. The semiconductor material from which an LED is made has a characteristic called its band gap. This band gap measures the energy needed to pull an electron away from an electron hole in the material. If this band gap is small, the LED will emit infrared light. If this band gap is larger, the LED will emit red, orange, yellow, green, or even blue light (the farther to the right in that list, the more energy is required). Because each electron loses more energy in recombining with an electron hole in an LED than it would in a normal diode, the current flowing through an LED loses more voltage (typically 2 volts for red LEDs and as much as 4 volts for blue LEDs) than does the current flowing through a regular diode (typically 0.6 volts). Physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and engineers have been working for years to perfect the materials used in LEDs, making them more and more efficient at turning the electrons' energies into light.

Until recently, there were no suitable materials from which to build blue LEDs, but recent developments of large band gap semiconductors have made blue LEDs possible. In fact, even blue laser diodes are now being made. A laser diode is a specially designed LED in which all of the photons are copies of one another rather than being emitted independently by the individual electrons as they drop into their respective electron holes. One final note: it's now possible to obtain a "white" LED! This device is actually a blue LED, combined with a fluorescent phosphor that converts the blue light into white light.



Compiled by Kirk Korista
Professor of Astronomy
Department of Physics
Western Michigan University
last edited: 21 October 2010