Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quickfire Question: Why are street lamps amber?

We are familiar with the colour of many street lamps, the amber glow of the sodium vapour:

But how do these lamps work, why are they the colour that they are, and why do we use them?

(1) How do Sodium Lamps Work

Inside the tube, there is a small amount of sodium metal, with a little neon and argon gas in there. A voltage is applied across the tube, and this excites the outer electrons in the neon and argon gas warming the sodium and also being responsible for the faint red glow that you can see before the light turns on fully. Eventually the sodium vaporizes and due to the voltage, its outer electrons too are excited. When those electrons spontaneously drop back into their ground state, they emit light at a very particular wavelength - the amber light that we see.

(2) Why are Sodium Lamps that colour?

Only one electron is excited by the electrical discharge, and only with enough energy to jump up one energy level, so when they drop back to the ground state they can only emit a very pure colour of light. The wavelength of sodium light is 589.3nm. (actually there is a little more going on, meaning there are two lines very close to one another at 589.0 and 589.6nm). This is known as monochromatic light, and it is also the reason it is hard to pick out any colour of objects lit by a sodium lamp alone.

(3) Why do we use sodium lamps?

There are a number of reasons, and I will outline a few: Sodium lamps are very efficient, because most of the energy is turned straight into light, unlike incandescent filament lamps, which turn a lot of the energy into heat. That wavelength is also pretty close to the optimal response of the human eye:

This graph (called the scotopic response curve) shows how the eye responds (side axis) to different wavelengths of light (on the bottom axis). We can see the sodium lamp is pretty close to the middle. That means that a lower level of light is needed to see things clearly.

They also use no mercury or dangerous metals, and so are easily disposed of, keeping the cost down even further.

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