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  • Writer's pictureShiri Hershkovitz Bartur

How does glow-in-the-dark stuff work?

Glow-in-the-dark materials, also known as phosphorescent materials, work by absorbing and storing energy from a light source and then releasing that energy as visible light over time.


The underlying principle is called phosphorescence, which is a type of luminescence that occurs when a substance emits light after being exposed to a source of energy.


The process generally involves the following steps:

1. Absorption: When a phosphorescent material is exposed to a light source, it absorbs energy in the form of photons. This causes the electrons within the atoms of the material to become excited and jump to a higher energy state, known as the "excited state."


2. Energy storage: Unlike fluorescence, where the absorbed energy is quickly re-emitted as light, phosphorescent materials have a unique property that allows them to store the absorbed energy for a longer time. This is due to the presence of "forbidden energy levels" or "metastable states," where the excited electrons are trapped and prevented from returning to their original energy state quickly.


3. Emission: Over time, the excited electrons gradually transition back to their original energy state, known as the "ground state." When this happens, the stored energy is released as light, which is the glow that we see. The transition can be slow, causing the material to emit light for minutes, hours, or even days, depending on the specific phosphor and the conditions.


Commonly used phosphorescent materials include inorganic compounds like strontium aluminate doped with europium or zinc sulfide doped with copper.

These materials can be incorporated into various products like toys, safety signs, watch dials, and paint to create a glow-in-the-dark effect.


It's important to note that phosphorescent materials need to be "charged" by exposure to light periodically to maintain their glow. The brightness and duration of the glow depend on factors such as the type and intensity of the light source, the duration of exposure, and the properties of the phosphorescent material itself.

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