Physics of Incandescent Light bulbs

Physics of Incandescent Light bulbs

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The incandescent light bulb, since its fairly recent invention, has quickly become a basic essential of modern technological life as we know it. It took many years to create an practical bulb despite the simplicity of its structure. I believe a majority of us take them completely for granted as a normal part of life.

Early man knew the sun as his lightsource and when the sun set, he knew the moon and the stars. As his intelligence increased and he learned about the world in which he lived he became associated with fire. Fire could be used for warmth, cooking, protection, and light. Man lived with this for years, elaborating and improving the way the fire was created and burned for light, until the year of 1809 when one man, an English chemist by the name of Humphrey Davy began the search for a usable incandescent light source using electricity. Using a high powered battery to induce a current between two high powered strips he produced an intense incandescent light, which became known as the first arc lamp.

Although it was a first step it was not yet a practical light source. The first known attempt to make a actual bulb didn't come until 1920 when Warren De la Rue enclosed a coil of platinum wire in an evacuated tube and passed an electrical current through it. Although a platinum light bulb was not practical the idea behind his design was. A metal with a high melting point to achieve high temperature and thus bright light, as well as an evacuated tube that contained less particles to react with the metal and thus an elongated bulb life.

Throughout the next few decades scientists labored to create their "efficient" light bulb. Their main hurdle was finding a low cost, long lived, high temperature filament material that would glow with high intensity.

In 1879 two scientist, Joseph Wilson Swan and Thomas A Edison, had independent breakthroughs for a longer lasting incandecent bulb with their use of a carbon fiber filament derived from cotton. It lasted a maximum of 13.5 hours. In 1880 Edison also developed a filament derived from bamboo which lasted up to 1200 hours. This was good, but to create a truly efficient bulb something different was need to creae a filament with very high temperatures but without degeneration and loss of heat.

Many elements were experimented with, a few of the most popular which were carbon, osmium, and tantalum.

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But the first of the light bulbs as we know them today was not created until between 1906-1910 with the invention of of ductile tungsten. The General Electric Company, along with William Coolidge realized the many favorable properties of tungsten such as its high melting temperature, its low deterioration (less than 1/100th that of carbon), its tensile strength greater than steel, as well as the fact that it glows white hot, creating a bright light. These early tungsten filaments still sublimed (or evaporated) too quickly at such high temperatures and as they did they also coated the inside of the bulb with a thin black powder decreasing light output.

Later, such inert gasses as nitrogen and argon were added inside bulb to decrease tungsten sublimation. Although this reduced sublimation and increasing bulb life, the inert gas also carried heat away from the filament, decreasing temperature and brightness. It was found that winding the tungsten filament into a finely wound coil reduced heat loss, thus allowing the bulb to operate as desired and giving us our modern day incandescent light bulb.

The structure of a lightbulb is very simple, considering the trouble it gave scientist for so many years, and really has not changed much at all from the basic structure of bulb with which they worked.

The structure begins with a glass bulb filled with an inert gas. At the bottom of this bulb are two metal electrical contacts each of which is connected to its own stiff metal wire. These metal wires extend into the glass bulb and are each connected to an end of a tungsten metal coiled filament that is supported within the bulb by a glass support that raises up through the center.



When an electric current is passed into the bulb the current flows from the negative contact, through the tungsten filament, to the positive contact. This electric current that moves through the solid metal conducting components of the bulb are simply the "mass movement" of free electrons from the negative charge to the positive charge.

As these free electron move through the filament at high speeds they are constantly bumping into the atoms that make up the filament, the impact energy vibrating and heating these atoms. Bounded electrons in the atoms of the filament are temporarily boosted to a higher energy level. When the electron returns to its original energy level they release the extra energy in the form of photons. Metal atoms release primarily infrared light photons which happen to be invisible to the human eye, but if heated to a high enough temperature (around 2,200 C) will emit the visible light seen from a bulb.

Light is simply a form of energy (or electromagnetic radiation) made up of many small particle-like packets, with enery and momentum but no mass, that can be released by an atom. These particles are the basic components of light and are known as light photons.

Electrons orbiting the nucleus within atoms are said to be at various "energy levels". This energy level depends on many things such as speed and distance from nucleus. As well, electrons of different energy levels are said to be in different orbitals around the atom's nucleus.When electrons become excited their energy level increases and they move to a higher level orbital. Generally the higher the energy level, the higher the orbital, and the further away the electron moves from the nucleus. When energy is passed into an atom the electrons may become temporarily excited and move to a higher orbital. This excited position is held for only a small fraction of a second until it is drawn back by the nucleus and returns to its original energy level. When it does this it has to release its extra energy, which it does in the form of a photon, and in some cases a light photon.

The wavelength of the light emmited depends on the amount of energy released by the electron, and thus the type of atom as well. The wavelength of the light determines the color of light we see.

The spectrum of electromagnetic energy is very large, ranging from gamma rays up to AM radio waves. The type of wave depends on its wavelength, with gamma rays as low as 10e-14 meters to AM waves with a wavelength up to 100,000 meters.

The visible part of the electromagnetic sprectrum is very small and ranges between wavelengths of 400 to just over 700 nanometers.

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