How Electroluminescent (EL) Wire Works

By: Joanna Burgess

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.