Ways to Produce Light

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

This lesson will discuss the various ways that we are able to produce light, from campfires to LED bulbs, and how this ability has shaped human society. Take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Producing Light

In the course of human history, the day we first produced artificial light was an important one. Rather than only being able to work during daylight, humans could be active into the night, at potentially more convenient times. Larger buildings could be built, without having to worry about finding ways to bring in natural light, including huge factories during the Industrial Revolution. Today it is hard to imagine living without artificial light, as we have become reliant on it.

Light by Fire

The campfire was one of the first man-made sources of light, though it took time to move this indoors in a way that was practical. The process of combustion, which is a chemical reaction that happens when a spark ignites a fuel in the presence of oxygen, produces light. Early indoor lights used fuel like natural gas, and were lit with a match. This lighting is still used today for activities like camping.

Incandescent Lights

Incandescent lights are one of the most basic kinds of electric light, which work by passing electricity through a wire filament, until it gets so hot that it glows. It is like a hot coal in a campfire. That filament is protected by glass or quartz. These are the cheapest, and least energy-efficient kinds of lightbulbs available, and can work from both batteries and wall sockets.


Fluorescent Lights

Fluorescent lights are the long, thin tube bulbs you find in kitchens and garages. Electric current is passed through these tubes, which contain gases like mercury vapor. This excites the vapor, producing shortwave ultraviolet light. This light in turn causes a phosphorus coating on the tube to glow. Fluorescent lights are more expensive to make, but don't use as much energy. They're also dangerous because of what they contain, and are considered hazardous waste. By 1904, fluorescent tubes became widely produced.

A special kind of fluorescent light, called compact fluorescent light (or CFLs for short), uses a similar technology. However CFLs are much smaller, and fit into a regular household light-bulb socket. CFLs use as little as 1/5 of the amount of electric power than an incandescent, for a given amount of light. They're more efficient than fluorescent tubes, mostly because less heat energy is lost due to their shape. CFLs are the most basic kind of energy saving lightbulb you can buy.

CFL Bulb
CFL Bulb

LED Lights

LED lights (light-emitting diodes) came out of the electronic age. They contain semiconductor materials that are used as a light source. When a voltage is applied, the movement of electrons produces light. The process is called electroluminescence. LEDs are tiny, considering the amount of light they produce. They are the most efficient type of light currently available, and are the best choice for those who care about the environment. They have been used for a long time in aviation, advertising (electronic billboards and signs), traffic signals, and camera flashes. Today, LEDs are even found in good-quality televisions.

LED Bulb
LED Bulb


Unlike the other light sources we've discussed, lasers don't have as many applications for producing light in the home, though they can be found in DVD players and laser printers. This technology is more often found outside the home: transferring data through fiber-optic cables, scanning objects to create 3-D images, cutting materials in an industry, and laser surgery.

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