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Germicidal lamps are simple low pressure mercury vapor discharges in a fused quartz envelope.

Gas-discharge lamps are a family of artificial light sources that generate light by sending an electrical discharge through an ionized gas, i.e. a plasma. The character of the gas discharge critically depends on the frequency or modulation of the current: see the entry on a frequency classification of plasmas. Typically, such lamps use a noble gas (argon, neon, krypton and xenon) or a mixture of these gases. Most lamps are filled with additional materials, like mercury, sodium, and/or metal halides. In operation the gas is ionized, and free electrons, accelerated by the electrical field in the tube, collide with gas and metal atoms. Some electrons circling around the gas and metal atoms are excited by these collisions, bringing them to a higher energy state. When the electron falls back to its original state, it emits a photon, resulting in visible light or ultraviolet radiation. Ultraviolet radiation is converted to visible light by a fluorescent coating on the inside of the lamp's glass surface for some lamp types. The fluorescent lamp is perhaps the best known gas-discharge lamp.

Gas-discharge lamps offer long life and high light efficiency, but are more complicated to manufacture, and they require electronics to provide the correct current flow through the gas.



Francis Hauksbee first demonstrated a gas-discharge lamp in 1705. He showed that an evacuated or partially evacuated glass globe, while charged by static electricity could produce a light bright enough to read by. The phenomenon of electric arc was first described by Vasily V. Petrov, a Russian scientist, in 1802; Sir Humphry Davy demonstrated in the same year the electric arc at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Since then, discharge light sources have been researched because they create light from electricity considerably more efficiently than incandescent light bulbs.

Later it was discovered that the arc discharge could be optimized by using an inert gas instead of air as a medium. Therefore noble gases neon, argon, krypton or xenon were used, as well as carbon dioxide historically.

The introduction of the metal vapor lamp, including various metals within the discharge tube, was a later advance. The heat of the gas discharge vaporized some of the metal and the discharge is then produced almost exclusively by the metal vapor. The usual metals are sodium and mercury owing to their high vapor pressures that increase efficiency of visible spectrum emission.

One hundred years of research later led to lamps without electrodes which are instead energized by microwave or radio frequency sources. In addition, light sources of much lower output have been created, extending the applications of discharge lighting to home or indoor use.


Each gas, depending on its atomic structure emits certain wavelengths which translates in different colors of the lamp. As a way of evaluating the ability of a light source to reproduce the colors of various objects being lit by the source, the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) introduced the color rendering index. Some gas-discharge lamps have a relatively low CRI, which means colors they illuminate appear substantially different than they do under sunlight or other high-CRI illumination.

Gas Color Notes Image
Helium White to orange; under some conditions may be gray, blue, or green-blue. Used by artists for special purpose lighting. Helium-glow.jpg
Neon Red-orange Intense light. Used frequently in neon signs and neon bulbs. Neon-glow.jpg
Argon Violet to pale lavender blue Often used together with mercury vapor. Argon-glow.jpg
Krypton Gray off-white to green. At high peak currents, bright blue-white. Used by artists for special purpose lighting. Krypton-glow.jpg
Xenon Gray or blue-gray dim white. At high peak currents, very bright green-blue. Used in xenon flash lamps, xenon HID headlamps, and xenon arc lamps, and by artists for special purpose lighting. Xenon-glow.jpg
Nitrogen Similar to argon but duller, more pink; at high peak currents bright blue-white. Nitrogen-glow.jpg
Oxygen Violet to lavender, dimmer than argon Oxygenglow.jpg
Hydrogen Lavender at low currents, pink to magenta over 10 mA Hydrogenglow.jpg
Water vapor Similar to hydrogen, dimmer
Carbon dioxide Blue-white, in lower currents brighter than xenon
Mercury vapor Light blue, intense ultraviolet In combination with phosphors used to generate many colors of light. Widely used in mercury-vapor lamps and hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamps. Often used together with argon.
Sodium vapor (low pressure) Bright orange-yellow Widely used in sodium vapor lamps. Na-lamp-2.jpg

Most common gas-discharge lamps

Ballasts for discharge lamps

Low pressure discharge lamps

  • Fluorescent lamps, the most common lamp in office lighting and many other applications, produces up to 100 lumens per watt
  • Low pressure sodium lamps, the most efficient gas-discharge lamp type, producing up to 200 lumens per watt, but at the expense of very poor color rendering. The almost monochromatic yellow light is only acceptable for street lighting and similar applications.

High pressure discharge lamps

  • Metal halide lamps. These lamps produce almost white light, and attain 100 lumen per watt light output. Applications include indoor lighting of high buildings, parking lots, shops, sport terrains.
  • High pressure sodium lamps, producing up to 150 lumens per watt. These lamps produce a broader light spectrum than the low pressure sodium lamps. Also used for street lighting, and for artificial photoassimilation for growing plants
  • High pressure mercury-vapor lamps. This lamp type is the oldest high pressure lamp type, being replaced in most applications by the metal halide lamp and the high pressure sodium lamp.

High-intensity discharge lamps

15 kW xenon short-arc lamp used in IMAX projectors

A high-intensity discharge (HID) lamp is a type of electrical lamp which produces light by means of an electric arc between tungsten electrodes housed inside a translucent or transparent fused quartz or fused alumina arc tube. This tube is filled with both gas and metal salts. The gas facilitates the arc's initial strike. Once the arc is started, it heats and evaporates the metal salts forming a plasma, which greatly increases the intensity of light produced by the arc and reduces its power consumption. High-intensity discharge lamps are a type of arc lamp.

Compared with fluorescent and incandescent lamps, HID lamps have higher luminous efficacy since a greater proportion of their radiation is in visible light as opposed to heat. Their overall luminous efficacy is also much higher: they give a greater amount of light output per watt of electricity input.


Diagram of a high pressure sodium lamp.
Example of a high pressure sodium lamp Philips SON-T Master 600W

Various different types of chemistry are used in the arc tubes of HID lamps, depending on the desired characteristics of light intensity, correlated color temperature, color rendering index (CRI), energy efficiency, and lifespan. Varieties of HID lamp include:

The light-producing element of these lamp types is a well-stabilized arc discharge contained within a refractory envelope arc tube with wall loading in excess of 3 W/cm² (19.4 W/in²).

Mercury vapor lamps were the first commercially available HID lamps. Originally they produced a bluish-green light, but more recent versions can produce light with a less pronounced color tint. However, mercury vapor lamps are falling out of favor and being replaced by sodium vapor and metal halide lamps.

Metal halide and ceramic metal halide lamps can be made to give off neutral white light useful for applications where normal color appearance is critical, such as TV and movie production, indoor or nighttime sports games, automotive headlamps, and aquarium lighting.

Low-pressure sodium vapor lamps are extremely efficient. They produce a deep yellow-orange light and have an effective CRI of nearly zero; items viewed under their light appear monochromatic. This makes them particularly effective as photographic safe lights. High-pressure sodium lamps tend to produce a much whiter light, but still with a characteristic orange-pink cast. New color-corrected versions producing a whiter light are now available, but some efficiency is sacrificed for the improved color.

Like fluorescent lamps, HID lamps require a ballast to start and maintain their arcs. The method used to initially strike the arc varies: mercury vapor lamps and some metal halide lamps are usually started using a third electrode near one of the main electrodes while other lamp styles are usually started using pulses of high voltage.


Commercial use of high-intensity discharge lamps.
High-intensity discharge arc lamps used as headlamps in a motor vehicle.

HID lamps are typically used when high levels of light over large areas are required, and when energy efficiency and/or light intensity are desired. These areas include gymnasiums, large public areas, warehouses, movie theaters, football stadiums,[1] outdoor activity areas, roadways, parking lots, and pathways. More recently, HID lamps have been used in small retail and residential environments. HID lamps have made indoor gardening practical, particularly for plants that require high levels of direct sunlight in their natural habitat; HID lamps, specifically metal halide and high-pressure sodium, are a common light source for indoor gardens. They are also used to reproduce tropical intensity sunlight for indoor aquariums. Ultra-High Performance (UHP) HID lamps are used in LCD or DLP projection TV sets or projection displays.

Most HID lamps produce significant UV radiation, and require UV-blocking filters to prevent UV-induced degradation of lamp fixture components and fading of dyed items illuminated by the lamp. Exposure to HID lamps operating with faulty or absent UV-blocking filters causes injury to humans and animals, such as sunburn and arc eye. Many HID lamps are designed so as to quickly extinguish if their outer UV-shielding glass envelope is broken.

Beginning in the early 1990s, HID lamps have been employed in motor vehicle headlamps. This application has met with mixed responses from motorists, who appreciate the improved nighttime visibility from HID headlamps but object to the glare they can cause. Internationalized European vehicle regulations require such headlamps to be equipped with lens cleaners and an automatic self-leveling system to keep the beams aimed correctly regardless of vehicle load and altitude, but no such devices are required in North America, where inherently more glaring beam patterns are also permitted. Retrofitting HID bulbs in headlamps not originally designed to accept them results in extremely high levels of glare, and is illegal throughout most of the world.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

HID lamps are used in high-performance bicycle headlamps as well as flashlights and other portable lights, because they produce a great amount of light per unit of power. As the HID lights use less than half the power of an equivalent tungsten-halogen light, a significantly smaller and lighter-weight power supply can be used.

HID lamps have also become common on many aircraft as replacements for traditional landing and taxi lights.

End of life

Factors of wear come mostly from on/off cycles versus the total on time. The highest wear occurs when the HID burner is ignited while still hot and before the metallic salts have recrystallized.

At the end of life, many types of high-intensity discharge lamps exhibit a phenomenon known as cycling. These lamps can be started at a relatively low voltage. As they heat up during operation, however, the internal gas pressure within the arc tube rises and a higher voltage is required to maintain the arc discharge. As a lamp gets older, the voltage necessary to maintain the arc eventually rises to exceed the voltage provided by the electrical ballast. As the lamp heats to this point, the arc fails and the lamp goes out. Eventually, with the arc extinguished, the lamp cools down again, the gas pressure in the arc tube is reduced, and the ballast can once again cause the arc to strike. The effect of this is that the lamp glows for a while and then goes out, repeatedly.

More sophisticated ballast designs detect cycling and give up attempting to start the lamp after a few cycles. If power is removed and reapplied, the ballast will make a new series of startup attempts.

Sometimes the quartz tube containing mercury can explode in UHP lamps, especially when it is defective or weakened by many on/off cycles, or when pressure is excessive due to high temperature.[9] When that happens, up to 30 mg vaporized mercury is released into atmosphere. It can be potentially toxic when indoors. A typical scenario is a failure of UHP HID lamp in front of rear LCD projection TV sets or computer displays.[10] Some vendors recommend use of a mercury vacuum cleaner or respirator when dealing with bulb rupture due to risks of mercury vapors.[11] They also require a special waste disposal.

Other examples

  • Neon signs may use either direct illumination or, to obtain certain colors, indirect phosphor excitation.
  • Xenon flash lamp. This lamp is commonly found in film and digital cameras, even in single-use cameras. These lamps have produced interesting illumination effects in theatre and dancing. More robust versions of this lamps can produce short intense flashes repeatedly, allowing the stroboscopic examination of repetitive motion (useful in certain balancing applications). These were at one time popular, "freezing" the motion of the actors or dancers. This type of lamp was also used to demonstrate persistence of vision, where an entire room would be illuminated by multiple lamps behind diffusing wall panels. In this otherwise darkened room a periodic flash would cause every detail of the occupants to be imaged on the observer's retina, completely frozen in motion.

See also


Further reading

External links

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