How do neon lamps work? — TF, Auburn, WA
A neon lamp consists of a neon-filled tube with an electrode (a metal wire) at each end. When you put enough electrons on one of the electrodes and remove enough electrons from the other, electrons will begin to leap off the first electrode and accelerate toward the other electrode. Because the density of neon atoms in the tube is relatively low, only about 1/1000th that of air molecules in normal air, the electrons can travel long distances without colliding with a neon atom. As the electrons accelerate, their kinetic energies increase. However, these electrons occasionally collide with neon atoms and, when they do, they can give up some of their kinetic energies to those atoms. The neon atoms then end up with excess energy and they often emit this energy as light. The color of this light is determined by the structure of a neon atom and tends to be the familiar red of a neon sign.