How Electroluminescent (EL) Wire Works

Suenos Del Agave performers dance while wearing EL wire costumes during the 2008 Burning Man project.
Suenos Del Agave performers dance while wearing EL wire costumes during the 2008 Burning Man project.
AP Photo/Brad Horn


Electroluminescent wire, also known as EL wire, has been around since its invention in 1936 by Frenchman Georges Destriau. Its function -- creating a neon-like light -- isn't new, yet people are developing ever more creative ways to capitalize on its unique qualities. Electroluminescent material is available in sheet and wire form, and both varieties have become more suited to consumer use since their invention. The first EL products were made of thick, inflexible and fragile materials. Electroluminescent wire, for example, first hit the scene encased in glass or ceramic. There was a significant problem with this design. Neither glass nor ceramic is malleable: you can't coil, wrap or stretch it into new and interesting shapes. This significantly reduces EL wire's usefulness. Encasing the wire in a pliable, plastic coating easily solved the problem by making EL wire flexible, waterproof and therefore ideal for both indoor and outdoor use.

EL wire's popularity stems from its versatility and efficiency. It's widely used by artists and hackers to illuminate clothing (think glowing suits), bicycle spokes and turntables. It's ubiquitous at festivals such as Burning Man, where people create towering structures adorned with colorful strands soldered together. World-renowned lighting artist Marcus Tremento uses EL wire as a means to blend modern design and art. EL wire also has a decorative safety function when it comes to stairs, walkways and bike helmets. Emergency responders have even used EL wire tape to illuminate accident areas. Whether you buy it or make it yourself, use it for safety lighting or bright clothing, EL wire is a great choice for creative lighting projects large and small.

Exactly how does EL wire work? Let's start by looking at how it's made.

Components of EL Wire

Electroluminescent (EL) wire has a fairly simple structure with only five components.
Electroluminescent (EL) wire has a fairly simple structure with only five components.
©2010 HowStuffWorks

The beauty of electroluminescent wire is its relative simplicity. It consists of several components:

  • Copper core
  • Phosphor lubricant
  • 2 Copper wires
  • 2 PVC sleeves
  • AC Power Source

The production of EL wire begins with a solid copper core, which acts as a conductor. A conductor is a material through which electricity -- a flow of electrons -- easily moves. The entire copper core is coated with an even layer of phosphor lubricant. Phosphor -- like the kind in light sticks and other glow-in-the-dark products -- is the key to electroluminescent wire. Phosphor is a solid material that gives off light when exposed to an energy source, like electricity.

Next, two very thin copper wires are twined together to make one long strand. This wire is coiled around the phosphor-coated, copper core. You now have a layered unit. You can think of its core as a sandwich -- two conductors with electricity following through them provide the energy needed for the phosphor to illuminate.

EL wire can break if exposed to moisture. This is where the two PVC sleeves come into play. These sleeves protect the EL wire from the elements -- this is especially important when you're using EL wire outdoors -- and gives it its pliancy. The first PVC sleeve, which is fairly thin and lightweight, is pulled over the entire conducting unit. This inner sleeve is made from a clear, waterproof plastic. The second PVC sleeve, which is often chemically dyed to produce a vast array of colors, is laid over the entire strand. It provides an extra layer of protection and is often variegated to give the illusion of texture.

Lastly, no EL wire is complete without an AC power source. The addition of electricity to your EL wire begins a reaction on the atomic level that allows the wire to glow.

Now that we know what EL wire is composed of, let's see what makes it illuminate so beautifully.

Why EL Wire Glows

EL wire is powered by alternating current (AC), not direct current (DC). When electricity is applied to an electroluminescent wire, electrons in the wire's phosphor coating are knocked to a higher energy level or orbital. When these electrons move back to their original energy level, they emit light particles called photons. Only at the point when the electrons release their extra energy and return to their previous state will they release photons, causing the phosphor to glow. So, why is AC better than DC for electroluminescent wire? If direct current (DC) were applied to the EL wire, light emission would stop as soon as the current stops exciting the electrons. As DC moves in only one direction, the glowing would begin and end very quickly as the current passed.

For EL wire to continuously glow, it needs a constant supply of electrical current. With alternating current (AC), the electrical current moves back and forth between the positive and negative poles of the circuit. This alternating polarity means that electricity constantly flows through the circuit, giving the EL wire a constant electrical supply. Consequently, the phosphor atoms are continuously being ionized, or having their electrons change energy level. Since these ions are always having their electrons jump from one energy level to another -- the process by which they emit light -- they will glow continuously. Additionally, AC can provide higher voltages than DC because alternating current can be stepped up or down by using transformers. This is key for determining how brightly your EL wire will shine. Higher voltages cause more electron excitation, which in turn leads to a brighter light [source: PBS].

For EL wire applications that won't work with standard electrical outlets, battery power is the way to go. Because batteries provide direct current (DC), your battery-powered EL wires require an inverter, which converts DC into the AC you need. When it comes to inverters, two factors will help you determine what you need: the project you have in mind and the power you'll need to make it work. Your EL wire's length determines how much power you'll need, and the power you use determines how bright your EL wire will appear. Using an inverter that's too small in relation to the length of the wire will hinder its ability to produce bright light. An inverter that's correctly sized will dramatically increase EL wire's brightness.

Continue to the next page to learn about EL wire's uses and cost.

EL Wire Safety, Efficiency and Cost

Electroluminescent wire is becoming a popular decoration or accent on clothing -- but is it safe to have an electrical source so close to your skin? No matter where or how you use EL wire, take precautions with high voltage, and use a fuse with your inverter to prevent short circuits. Additionally, avoid over-bending the wire, as this is a common cause of such shorts. Battery packs with inverters are usually the power source for those who want to glow on the go. If you're wearing EL wire in clothing or costumes and don't fancy getting a small shock, you should also be sure the area where the wire connects to the inverter is well insulated. Though EL wire never gets hot, when electricity's involved, safety is always a concern.

How does EL wire compare with other lighting in terms of efficiency and cost? Given its common uses, it's one of the most efficient forms of lighting on the market. It burns very little energy, glows cool to the touch and costs relatively little. If you're a savvy shopper, you can often find good deals on pricing. Some retailers sell EL kits -- which can be a great value -- while others sell EL wire by the foot. In addition to being affordable, EL wire is also durable. Unlike neon or fluorescent light, EL has no filament that can break. Though some consumers prefer longer-lasting, custom-made neon signs, EL wire costs less, breaks less and allows your own creativity to shine. You can safely bend, loop and wrap it to create any design you want, much as you can do with rope lights. While rope lights may cost less than EL wire, rope lights generate heat. Also, many common brands of rope light do not allow users to cut the string of lights to their desired length. What's more, EL wire costs up to 500 times less to operate than neon or rope lights, and you can use EL wire over and over again[source: LiveWire] .

Although EL wire has great staying power, its color will eventually fade from sun exposure. Keeping your EL wire outdoors in direct sunlight will cut the life span to one to two years. When kept indoors or with limited outdoor exposure, your EL wire's color will last as long as three years. The voltage being applied to your EL wire also affects its lifespan. Although a more powerful inverter delivers higher voltage to your EL wire and makes it brighter, the higher voltage causes the EL wire to lose its luminosity, or brightness, sooner. Much as ordinary incandescent light bulbs burn out more quickly when too much voltage is applied, so does EL wire. In order to get the most for your money, you should follow the guidelines given by your EL wire's manufacturer [source: Solution Industries].

Read on to learn some creative uses for EL wire.

Lighting Displays and Crafting with EL Wire

The forty-foot sculpture of the Burning Man stands wrapped in EL wire at the Twelfth Annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada.
The forty-foot sculpture of the Burning Man stands wrapped in EL wire at the Twelfth Annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada.
Stephen Ferry/Liaison/Getty Images

EL wire is so popular because it's fairly easy to create interesting effects such as pulsing light, circles or specific patterns that match a tempo. In order to produce such effects, you'll need to use a sequencer. Sequencers are programmable, letting you control your lighting pattern and the speed at which it moves [source: Sparkfun Electronics]. Many people use EL wire for holiday displays, and a sequencer will come in handy if you like to create ambitious outdoor décor. For example, if you have a Halloween display in your yard with witches and ghosts wrapped in colorful EL wires, a sequencer will allow you to set a repeating lighting pattern. Sequencers also allow you to program music, which means you can add eerie sound effects to complete your spooky display.

In addition to holiday decorations, EL wire is used in costumes to create interesting, one-of-a-kind effects. Sunglasses, jewelry, coats and pet collars are all available for EL wire upgrades, and EL wire now provides unlimited lighting options for clubs. When used with sequencers, EL club lighting can even pulse with the music. Budget-conscious consumers have turned to EL wire as a novel solution for personalized home and auto lighting, and EL wire's low cost makes it a great alternative to storefronts' neon signage. Whether you want to save on your holiday electricity bill or make a statement on the dance floor, EL wire's versatility and low cost give you endless possibilities for invention.

A far cry from its inflexible, brittle beginnings, EL wire has made its mark as a durable, adaptable product with myriad uses. You can assemble it yourself, and now that it's available in many colors, thicknesses and lengths, EL wire is sure to bring a little light into your life.

Now that you know how EL wire is made, how it works and what can be done with it, you might find the following articles illuminating.

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More Great Links


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