How Light Bulbs Work

The Filament

As we saw in the last section, a metal must be heated to extreme temperatures before it will emit a useful amount of visible light. Most metals will actually melt before reaching such extreme temperatures -- the vibration will break apart the rigid structural bonds between the atoms so that the material becomes a liquid. Light bulbs are manufactured with tungsten filaments because tungsten has an abnormally high melting temperature.

But tungsten will catch on fire at such high temperatures, if the conditions are right. Combustion is caused by a reaction between two chemicals, which is set off when one of the chemicals has reached its ignition temperature. On Earth, combustion is usually a reaction between oxygen in the atmosphere and some heated material, but other combinations of chemicals will combust as well.


The filament in a light bulb is housed in a sealed, oxygen-free chamber to prevent combustion. In the first light bulbs, all the air was sucked out of the bulb to create a near vacuum -- an area with no matter in it. Since there wasn't any gaseous matter present (or hardly any), the material could not combust.

The problem with this approach was the evaporation of the tungsten atoms. At such extreme temperatures, the occasional tungsten atom vibrates enough to detach from the atoms around it and flies into the air. In a vacuum bulb, free tungsten atoms shoot out in a straight line and collect on the inside of the glass. As more and more atoms evaporate, the filament starts to disintegrate, and the glass starts to get darker. This reduces the life of the bulb considerably.

In a modern light bulb, inert gases, typically argon, greatly reduce this loss of tungsten. When a tungsten atom evaporates, chances are it will collide with an argon atom and bounce right back toward the filament, where it will rejoin the solid structure. Since inert gases normally don't react with other elements, there is no chance of the elements combining in a combustion reaction.

Cheap, effective and easy-to-use, the light bulb has proved a monstrous success. It is still the most popular method of bringing light indoors and extending the day after sundown. But by all indications, it will eventually give way to more advanced technologies, because it isn't very efficient.

Incandescent light bulbs give off most of their energy in the form of heat-carrying infrared light photons -- only about 10 percent of the light produced is in the visible spectrum. This wastes a lot of electricity. Cool light sources, such as fluorescent lamps and LEDs, don't waste a lot of energy generating heat -- they give off mostly visible light. For this reason, they are slowly edging out the old reliable light bulb.

For more information about incandescent light bulbs and other lighting technologies, check out the links below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links