Light bulb blowing

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From the FAQ, By Matthew Marks and Andrew Gabriel 12/1/1998

An ordinary incandescent "light bulb" consists of a thin tungsten filament in a glass envelope containing an inert gas. The filament has a relatively high resistance, and thus gets hot - hot enough to give out useful amounts of light as well as lots of heat - when current is flowing through it. The inert gas prevents the hot tungsten rapidly oxidising, as it would in air, or rapidly evaporating, as it would in a vacuum. It does, however, reduce efficiency, by conducting heat away from the filament. (Different gases and pressures are selected for different applications: for example, krypton and xenon are advantageous because they convect less and prevent evaporation better than argon/nitrogen, and therefore allow a hotter, more efficient, filament to be used while maintaining lamp life. Note that quartz halogen bulbs are different again: here, evaporated tungsten is re-deposited on the filament, thus allowing it to be hotter still while maintaining its life.)

Tungsten, being a metal, has a resistivity which increases as its temperature rises. Therefore, when you switch on a lamp, it presents a much lower resistance than normal to the passage of electricity, and so your beefy electricity supply will drive through a great deal more current than normal while the filament heats up, putting it under thermal stress as it expands. This on its own encourages the filament to give up and break, but it is exacerbated by the fact that any thinned section will incur extra stress, as it will heat up more quickly than the rest of the filament (being thinner), present a higher resistance, and thus dissipate even more than its fair share of the (increased) power. This will tend to thin it further, rapidly, and hence lead to a point of failure.

How do you deal with it? Well, using a rotary on/off dimmer, where you always have to switch on the lamp at its lowest brightness, will help a lot. A dimmer will reduce the maximum available light output slightly. You can also fit negative temperature coefficient thermistors in series with the bulb. These have a resistance/temperature characteristic with the opposite slope to that of the filament, so give a "soft start" until they themselves warm up. Again, you will lose a little brightness, and waste a little energy in the hot thermistors. I am not aware of any "off the shelf" products containing thermistors, probably because they need to be selected for the wattage of lamp required.

It should be noted, however, that it is probably counterproductive to try to keep a light bulb alive for too long. This is because the thinned filament will be taking less current, so the light output will be reduced, and the tungsten that has evaporated from it will be deposited on the inside of the glass, reducing efficiency by blocking some of the light.

As regards blowing the fuse, this is never directly due to a broken filament falling onto the lead-out wires, and thus presenting a much lower resistance, but is due to the gas or vaporised filament in the bulb becoming ionised. The high temperature and large electric field (full mains voltage across a very small gap) which occurs when the filament breaks can cause the gas to go into a conducting state, and the plasma will "spread" until it shorts out the lead-out wires, because it presents a much lower resistance than the filament. This causes a "pop" due to rapid heating, and has been known to cause the envelope to explode. Light bulbs usually have built-in fuses to deal with this, but as they are built down to a price, they aren't always effective.

If you plug in a new light bulb and it only lasts a few seconds, leaving a white pattern on the glass, this is because it has cracked at some point, letting air in. When energised, the filament has oxidised to white tungsten oxide, which condenses on the glass in a pattern corresponding to the flow of air inside as the lamp is switched on.

Oh, by the way, "extra-long life" bulbs seem to be a con. They just run at a lower temperature than normal bulbs, thus lasting longer, but being a lot less efficient. There is no justification for the extortionate prices charged for them.

See also

Lamp Life