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Art of Electric Fields

Art of Electric Fields

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Published by gcschmit

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Published by: gcschmit on Apr 25, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Art of Electric Fields and Fluorescent Tubes
In 2004, Richard Box, artist-in-residence at Bristol University’s physics department create theabove-pictured art installation. His piece consists of 1301 fluorescent tubes placed over 3600square meters below high-voltage power lines.
Box says that he was inspired to create the installation because of “the amazement of takingsomething that’s invisible and making it visible.”Why do the 1301 fluorescent tubes glow when simply placed in the ground beneath the powerlines?The invisible source of the energy for the 1301 fluorescent tubes is the electric field betweenthe high-voltage power lines and the Earth. These high-voltage power lines have a voltage(electric pressure) of 400,000 V relative to the ground. This voltage creates an electric fieldbetween the power lines and the ground. Between any two vertical points in that region, thereis a voltage. Between the top of the fluorescent tube and the ground, there is a sufficientvoltage to illuminate the tube as if it were plugged into a socket.The voltage applied to the fluorescent tubesdoes not simply produce a current through aresistive filament that then glows as thepower is dissipated as it does in anincandescent bulb. The physics thatproduces visible light in a fluorescent tube ismuch more interesting.The voltage is applied to the fluorescent tubeand, more specifically, the cathode in thetube, the cathode is heated and, whensufficient voltage is applied, emits electrons
into the tube. These emittedelectrons have a greatdeal of kinetic energy. Thefluorescent tubes are filledwith a combination ofmercury vapor and one ofthe noble gases, such asargon. The pressure insideof a fluorescent tube isless than 1% ofatmospheric pressure.Some of these high-energy electrons collidewith atoms of the gasinside of the tube. If theelectrons have sufficientenergy when they collidewith an atom of the gas,they can transfer some oftheir energy to excite anelectron to a higher energylevel. After a very shortperiod of time, theseexcited electrons will “fallback” to their originalenergy levels and, in theprocess, emit a photon, aparticle of light.However, the story doesn’t end here. These emitted photons from the mercury gas have agreat of energy. The greater the energy of a photon, the higher the frequency. These photonsare not in the visible spectrum but are in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum and, therefore,invisible to human eyes. We now get to the reason why fluorescent tubes are called“fluorescent.” The inside of the tube is coated with a fluorescent material. When one of theultraviolet photons collide with the fluorescent material on the inside of the tube, some of theenergy is transferred to the electrons in the fluorescent material, elevating them to a higherenergy level. The rest of the energy is absorbed by the fluorescent material. The fluorescentmaterial is chosen such that the energy absorbed by the electron in that material is such thatwhen that electron “falls back” to its original energy level, it emits a lower energy photon, aphoton in the visible part of the spectrum. The fluorescent material may be a combination ofdifferent elements and compounds such that a variety of photons of different wavelengths inthe visible spectrum are emitted.

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