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Fluorescent lamp

A compact fluorescent lamp with an integrated electronic
A compact fluorescent lamp with an integrated electronic ballast

A fluorescent lamp is a type of lamp that uses electricity to excite mercury vapor in argon or neon gas, producing short-wave ultraviolet light. This light then causes a phosphor to fluoresce, producing visible light.

Fluorescent lamps are more efficient than incandescent light bulbs of an equivalent brightness. This is because more of the energy input is converted to usable light and less is converted to heat (allowing fluorescent lamps to run cooler). They also have a longer lamp life.

However, unlike incandescent lamps, fluorescent lamps always require auxiliary equipment (a ballast).


The earliest ancestor of the fluorescent lamp is probably the device by Heinrich Geissler who obtained in 1856 a bluish glow from a gas sealed in a tube, excited with an induction coil. Though he is remembered as a physicist, it is interesting to note that Geissler was educated as a glassblower, which was certainly of some value for this earliest realization.

In 1857, French physicist Henri Becquerel had the idea of a tube encapsulating fluorescent gas while leading investigations on fluorescence, phosphorescence and radioactivity.

At the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, Nikola Tesla's fluorescent lights were displayed.

In 1894, D. McFarlane Moore created the Moore lamp, a commercial gas discharge lamp meant to compete with the incandescent light bulb of his former boss Thomas Edison. The gases used were nitrogen and carbon dioxide emitting respectively pink and white light, and had moderate success.

In 1901, Peter Cooper Hewitt demonstrated the mercury-vapor lamp, which was emitting in the blue-green spectrum and thus was unfit for most practical purposes. It was, however, very close to the modern design, and had some applications in photography where color was not yet an issue, thanks to its much higher efficiency than incandescent lamps.

It remained to Edmund Germer and coworkers to propose in 1926 to coat the tube with fluorescent powder which converts ultraviolet light emitted by a rare gas into better spectrally distributed light (also bringing up high pressure of the gas at the same time). Germer is today recognized as the inventor of fluorescent lamp.

General Electric later bought Germer's patent and under the impulsion of George Inman brought the fluorescent lamp to wide commercial use in 1938.


A fluorescent light bulb is filled with a gas containing argon and mercury vapor, sometimes referred to as plasma when electrified. The inner surface of the bulb is coated with a fluorescent paint made of varying blends of metallic and rare-earth phosphor salts. The bulb's cathode emits electrons which ignite the plasma under the influence of the voltage applied to the light bulb. Then plasma electrons bombard the mercury vapor causing it to emit ultraviolet (UV) light at a wavelength of 254 nm. The UV light is absorbed by the bulb's fluorescent coating, which re-radiates the energy at lower frequencies (longer wavelengths) to emit visible light. The blend of phosphors controls the color of the light, and along with the bulb's glass prevents the harmful UV light from escaping.

Fluorescent lamps are negative resistance devices: as more current flows through them and more gas is ionized, the resistance of the fluorescent lamp drops and this would allow even more current to flow through them! Connected directly to a constant-voltage mains power line, a fluorescent lamp would rapidly self-destruct due to the unlimited current flow. Because of this, fluorescent lamps are always used with some sort of auxiliary electronics that regulates the current flow in the tube. This auxiliary device is commonly called a ballast.

While the ballast could be (and occasionally is) as simple as a resistor, substantial power is wasted in a resistive ballast so ballasts usually use a reactance (inductor or capacitor) instead. For operation from mains voltage, the use of simple inductor (a so-called "magnetic ballast") is common. In countries that use 120 V AC mains, the mains voltage is insufficient to light large fluorescent lamps so the ballast for these larger fluorescent lamps is often a step-up autotransformer with substantial leakage inductance (so as to limit the current flow). Either form of inductive ballast may also include a capacitor for power factor correction. More sophisticated ballasts may employ transistors or other semiconductor components to convert mains voltage into high-frequency AC while also regulating the current flow in the lamp. These are referred to as "electronic ballasts".

The mercury atoms in the fluorescent tube must be ionized before the arc can "strike" within the tube. For small lamps, it does not take much voltage to strike the arc and starting the lamp presents no problem, but larger tubes require a substantial voltage (in the range of a thousand volts). In some cases, that is exactly how it is done: "instant start" fluorescent tubes simply use a high enough voltage to break down the gas and mercury column and thereby start arc conduction. These tubes can be identified by the facts that

  1. they have a single pin at each end of the tube and
  2. the lampholders that they fit into have a "disconnect" socket at the low-voltage end to assure that the mains current is automatically removed so that a person replacing the lamp can not receive a high-voltage electric shock.

In other cases, a separate starting aid must be provided. Old fluorescent designs used a combination filament/cathode at each end of the lamp combined with a mechanical or automatic switch that would initially connect the filaments in series and thereby "preheat" the filaments prior to striking the arc. Because of thermionic emission, the filaments would readily emit electrons into the gas column creating a glow discharge near the filaments. Then, when the starting switch opened up, the inductive ballast would create a voltage surge which would (usually) strike the arc. If so, the impinging arc then kept the filament/cathode warm. If not, the starting sequence was repeated. If the starting aid was automatic, this often led to the situation where an old fluorescent lamp would flash time and time again as the starter repeatedly tried to start the worn-out lamp. More advanced starters would "trip out" in this situation and not attempt another start until manually reset.

Newer lamp and ballast designs (known as "rapid start" lamps) provide true filament windings within the ballast; these rapidly and continuously warm the filaments/cathodes using low-voltage AC. Unfortunately, there is no inductive voltage surge produced so the lamps must usually be mounted near a grounded (earthed) reflector to allow the glow discharge to propagate through the tube and initiate the arc discharge. Electronic ballasts often revert to a style in-between the preheat and rapid-start styles: a capacitor or other electronic circuit may join the two filaments, providing a conduction path that preheats the filaments but which is subsequently shorted out by the arc discharge. Generally this capacitor also forms, together with the inductor that provides current limiting in normal operation, a resonant circuit increasing the voltage across the lamp so that it can easily start. Some electronic ballasts use programmed start, the output AC frequency is started above the resonance frequency of the output circuit of the ballast, and after the filaments are heated, the frequency is rapidly decreased. If the frequency approaches the resonant frequency of the ballast, the output voltage will increase so much that the lamp will ignite. If the lamp does not ignite an electronic circuit stops the operation of the ballast.


Fluorescent light bulbs come in many shapes and sizes. An increasingly popular one is the compact fluorescent light bulb (CF). Many compact fluorescent lamps integrate the auxiliary electronics into the base of the lamp allowing them to then screw into a regular light bulb socket.

Unfortunately, many people find the color spectrum produced by some fluorescent lighting to be harsh and displeasing. It is common for a healthy person to appear with a sickly bluish skin tone under fluorescent lighting, and many pigments have a slightly different color when viewed under fluorescent light versus incandescent. This is mainly the case with fluorescent lamps containing the older halophosphate type phosphors (chemical formula Ca5(PO4)3(F,Cl):Sb3+,Mn2+), usually labeled as "cool white". The bad color reproduction is due to the fact that this phosphor mainly emits yellow and blue light, and relatively little green and red. To the eye, this mixture looks white, but light reflected from surfaces has a distorted color. More expensive fluorescent lamps use a triphosphor mixture, based on europium and terbium ions, that have emission bands that are more evenly distributed over the spectrum of visible light and hence lead to more natural color reproduction.

In the US, Residential use of fluorescent lighting remains low (generally limited to kitchens, basements, hallways and other areas), but schools and businesses find the cost savings of fluorescents to be significant and only rarely use incandescent lights. Typical lighting arrangements may include fluorescent tubes sending different tints of white, in order to provide good color reproduction. In other countries, Residential use of fluorescent lighting varies depending on the price of energy and the environmental concerns of the local population as well as the acceptability of the light output.

Because they contain mercury, a toxic material, in quantities of a few milligrams per unit, in many areas throughout the world government regulations require that fluorescent bulbs must be properly disposed of. This generally applies only to large commercial buildings which produce many waste bulbs, though restrictions vary widely.

Tube designations

Note: the information in this section may or may not be applicable outside of North America.

Bulbs are typically identified by a code such as F##T##, where F is for fluorescent, the first number indicates the power in watts (or strangely, length in inches in very long bulbs), the T indicates that the shape of the lamp is tubular, and the last number is diameter in eighths of an inch. Typical diameters are T12 (1" or 38mm) for residential bulbs with old magnetic ballasts, T8 (1" or 25mm) for commercial energy-saving bulbs with electronic ballasts, and T5 (5/8" or 16mm) for very small bulbs which may even operate from a battery-powered device.

High-output bulbs are brighter and draw more electrical current, have different ends on the pins so they cannot be used in the wrong fixture or with the wrong bulb, and are labeled F##T12HO, or F##T12VHO for very high output.

U-shaped tubes are FB##T##, with the B meaning "bent". Most commonly, these have the same designations as linear tubes. Circular bulbs are FC##T#, with the diameter of the circle (not circumference or watts) being the first number, and the second number usually being 9 (29mm) for standard fixtures.

Color is usually indicated by WW for whar white, EW for enhanced (neutral) white, CW for cool white (the most common), and DW for the bluish daylight white. BL is often used for blacklight (commonly used in bug zappers), and BLB for the common blacklight-blue bulbs which are dark purple. Other non-standard designations apply for plant lights or grow lights.

Odd lengths are usually added after the color. One example is an F25T12/CW/33, meaning 25 watts, 1.5" diameter, cool white, 33" or 84cm long. Without the 33, it would be assumed that an F25T12 is the more-common 30" long.

Compact fluorescents do not have such a designation system.

Blacklights, sun lamps, and germicidal lamps

Blacklights are a subset of fluorescent lamps that are used to provide long-wave ultraviolet light (at about 360nm wavelength). They are built in the same fashion as conventional fluorescent lamps but the glass tube is coated with a phosphor that converts the short-wave UV within the tube to long-wave UV rather than to visible light.

Most blacklights (so-called "BLB" or "BlackLight-Blue" lamps) are also made from more-expensive deep blue glass rather than clear glass. The deep blue glass filters out most of the visible colors of light directly emitted by the mercury vapor discharge, producing proportionally more UV light and less visible light so your blacklight posters look better. The blacklight lamps used in bug zappers does not require this refinement so it is usually omitted in the interest of low cost.

Sun lamps contain a different phosphor that emits more strongly in medium-wave UV, provoking a tanning response in human skin.

Finally, germicidal lamps contain no phosphor at all and their tubes are made of fused quartz that is transparent to the short-wave UV directly emitted by the mercury discharge. The UV emitted by these tubes will kill germs, ionize oxygen to ozone, and cause eye and skin damage. Besides their uses to kill germs and create ozone, they are sometimes used by geologists to identify certain species of minerals by the color of their fluorescence. When used in this fashion, they are fitted with filters in the same way as Blacklight-Blue lamps are; the filter passes the short-wave UV and blocks the visible light produced by the mercury discharge.

Induction lamps

It is possible to build a fluorescent lamp without any internal electrodes. Instead, a current is induced into the gas column using electromagnetic induction. Because the electrodes are usually the life-limiting element of fluorescent lamps, such electrode-less lamps can have a very long service life (although they also have a higher purchase price). For more details, see induction lighting.

Fluorescent fun

If you live in a dry cold climate with lots of static electricity, try this: Put on your best static gathering socks and take hold of a short fluorescent tube. Then shuffle about on the carpet to gather a robust static charge. Now discharge by gently touching the lamp electrodes to anything electrically grounded. Instead of the usual little spark the entire tube will flash as the electrons course (painlessly) out of your body. This also applies with Van de Graaff generators; simply touch the light to the sphere or touch the sphere while holding the light. Warning: This may produce a rather "jolty" shock.

Alternatively, if you happen to have a Tesla coil handy, you can fully illuminate the fluorescent lamp at quite a distance from the Tesla coil simply by holding the detached lamp in your hand and possibly touching one of its terminals. Do not touch the lamp to the coil, as this may result in injury and/or burning out the lamp (a hobbyist Tesla coil may operate at several kilowatts).

If you live near high voltage power lines you might try standing underneath them at night while holding a fluorescent tube. The strong electric field created by power lines will cause a very small (harmless) current flow through the tube and it should give off at least a feeble glow.[1] (http://www.richardbox.com/) Obviously you should never do this during stormy weather and no attempt should ever be made to get closer to the lines using, for instance, a ladder.

External links

Sources of light / lighting
Natural/Prehistoric light sources:
bioluminescence (Fireflies, Foxfire, et cetera) | Celestial objects | Lightning
Combustion-based light sources:
Acetylene/Carbide lamps | Candle | Davy lamps | Fire | Gas lighting | Kerosene lamp | Limelight | Oil lamp | Rushlight
Nuclear/direct chemical light sources:
Betalights | Chemoluminescence/Lightsticks
Electric light sources:
Arc lamp | Incandescent | Fluorescent
High-intensity discharge:
HMI lamps | Mercury-vapor lamps | Metal halide lamps | Sodium vapor lamps | Xenon arc lamps
Other electric:
Electroluminescent (EL) lamps | Inductive lighting | LEDs | Neon and argon lamps | Sulfur lamp | Xenon flash lamps | Yablochkov candle



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