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How Does Glow in the Dark Work?

Updated on April 19, 2013

Fun Science: How does stuff glow in the dark?

How does glow in the dark work? Glow in the dark stuff fascinates everyone from kids to grandparents and even hard to impress tweens and teen! But how do you make stuff glow in the dark?

Actually there are a few different kinds of glow in the dark. We'll take a look at the common ones on this fun science page.

Image: Dinosaur 3D Jigsaw Glow In The Dark Construction Kit

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Photoluminescence

Used for glow in the dark plastic toys

One of the most familiar glow in the dark products is glow in the dark stars for a bedroom ceiling. I had them on my ceiling as a kid and they're very popular with kids today.

These glow star decorations are typically made from a milky-colored plastic that contains a photoluminescent phosphor. Simply put, photoluminescence is the release of stored energy as light. Unlike most materials, photoluminescent materials can store the photon energy they absorb. This energy is released slowly and in the dark we see a glow effect.

Photoluminescent products need to be charged up by exposure to light. UV rays are needed to charge photoluminescent materials. Sunlight contains lots of UV rays and works best. A UV light or blacklight is also a good way to charge glow in the dark toys. These products will charge in normal indoor condition with fluorescent or tungsten electric light bulbs, but it will take longer.

Until recently the photoluminescent phosphor used in glow in the dark toys and decorations was Zinc Sulfide, and this is still commonly used. But in the last few years the more effective Strontium Aluminate has become more common.

Star Explosion Glow In The Dark

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These glow in the dark stars are made from a safe phosphorescent material called Glominite.

Green Glow Pigment Powder 1oz- Green Glow in the Dark

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Glow in the Dark pigment powder is a phosphorescent powder that you can mix with oil paint or resin for fun glow in the dark projects. It's non-toxic and can be used for supervised projects with kids.

How to Make Glow in the Dark Powder

I'm including a couple of videos that show how to make glow in the dark powder - Zinc Sulfide. But this does require training and expertise to do safely. It is interesting to watch it being made though. Commericial glow in the dark powder works much better.

Chemiluminescence

Chemiluminescence is the emission of light, and not much heat, as the result of a chemical reaction.

A fluorescent dye is needed to actually generate light from the energy released by the chemical reaction.

This is the technology used in the glow sticks that you can often buy at festivals and other events that go on until after dark.

Glow sticks work by keeping two chemicals separate until you are ready to use them. One chemical (hydrogen peroxide) is kept in a small tube which is broken when you snap the glow stick in mixes with the other chemical (usually a phenyl oxalate ester) to create the reaction.

Glow sticks typically glow brightly for a couple hours and then get gradually dimmer for a few more hours.

100 8" Premium Glow Stick Bracelets (10 Color Mixed Assortment)

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How to Make Glow Sticks

This video shows how a glow stick chemiluminescent reaction can be created. Only for experienced chemists to attempt, but interesting to watch.

Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence is when a living organism, such as a fish or a firefly, produces light.

Many sea creatures are bioluminescent and create amazing underwater displays with their lights. Fireflies are also well known for glowing in the dark.

Bioluminescence is thought to have various functions in animals including attracting mates and camouflage.

A Bioluminescent Comb Jelly Photographic Poster Print, 18x24

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Watch Bioluminescent Sea Creatures

SciEd Demonstrating Biotechnology Using Bioluminescent Proteins Lab Investigation; w/ Proteins

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Thanks for Visiting

How Does Glow in the Dark Work?

Comments about Glow in the Dark Stuff

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    • ismeedee profile image

      ismeedee 5 years ago

      My Six year-old future scientist went crazy over this lens!! He's quite happy though to wait until he's older to try out the dangerous stuff! (phew!) But good lens- he's very inspired!