How Black Lights Work

Black Light Designs
Black lights come in both tube and bulb form.
Black lights come in both tube and bulb form.

The conventional black light design is just a fluorescent lamp with a couple of important modifications. Fluorescent lamps generate light by passing electricity through a tube filled with inert gas and a small amount of mercury. (See How Fluorescent Lamps Work for more information.)

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When energized, mercury atoms emit energy in the form of light photons. They emit some visible light photons, but mostly they emit photons in the ultraviolet (UV) wavelength range. Because UV light waves are invisible to the human eye, fluorescent lamps have to convert this energy into visible light. They do this with a phosphor coating around the outside of the tube.

Phosphors are substances that give off light -- or fluoresce -- when they are exposed to light. When a photon hits a phosphor atom, one of the phosphor's electrons jumps to a higher energy level, causing the atom to vibrate and create heat. When the electron falls back to its normal level, it releases energy in the form of another photon. This photon has less energy than the original photon, because some energy was lost as heat. In a fluorescent lamp, the emitted light is in the visible spectrum -- the phosphor gives off white light we can see.

Black lights work on this same principle. There are actually two different types of black light, but they work in basically the same way.

  • A tube black light is a basically a fluorescent lamp with a different sort of phosphor coating. This coating absorbs harmful shortwave UV-B and UV-C light and emits UV-A light (in the same basic way the phosphor in a fluorescent lamp absorbs UV light and emits visible light). The "black" glass tube itself blocks most visible light, so in the end only benign long-wave UV-A light, along with some blue and violet visible light, passes through.
  • An incandescent black light bulb is similar to a normal household light bulb, but it uses light filters to absorb the light from the heated filament. It absorbs everything except the infrared and UV-A light (and a little bit of visible light).

In both of these light designs, the emitted UV light reacts with various external phosphors in exactly the same way as the UV light inside a fluorescent lamp reacts with the phosphor coating. The external phosphors glow as long as the UV light is shining on them.

In the next section, we'll see what kinds of objects contain phosphors, and we'll look at some interesting uses for black lights.