How does a fluorescent light work?
A fluorescent lamp consists of a gas-filled glass tube with an electrode at each end. This lamp emits light when a current of electrons passes through it from one electrode to the other and excites mercury atoms in the tube’s vapor. The electrons are able to leave the electrodes because those electrodes are heated to high temperatures and an electric field, powered by the electric company, propels them through the tube. However, the light that the mercury atoms emit is actually in the ultraviolet, where it can’t be seen. To convert this ultraviolet light to visible light, the inside surface of the glass tube is coated with a fluorescent powder. When this fluorescent powder is exposed to ultraviolet light, it absorbs the light energy and reemits some of it as visible light, a process called “fluorescence.” The missing light energy is converted to thermal energy, making the tube slightly hot. By carefully selecting the fluorescent powders (called “phosphors”), the manufacturer of the light can tailor the light’s coloration. The most common phosphor mixtures these days are warm white, cool white, deluxe warm white, and deluxe cool white.
The only other significant component of the fluorescent lamp is its ballast. This device is needed to control the current flow through the tube. Gas discharges such as the one that occurs inside the lamp are notoriously unstable—they’re hard to start and, once they do start, tend to become too intense. To regulate the discharge, the ballast controls the amount of current flowing through the tube. In most older lamps, this control is done by an electromagnetic device called an inductor. An inductor opposes current changes and keeps a relatively constant current flowing through the tube (although that current does stop and reverse directions each time the power line current reverses directions — 120 times a second or 60 full cycles, over and back, in the United States). Some modern fluorescent lamps use electronic ballasts—sophisticated electronic controls that regulate current with the help of transistor-like components.