How do some paints and stickers glow in the dark?

How do some paints and stickers glow in the dark? — DD, Sandy, UT

Glow in the dark paints and materials contain molecules that are able to store energy for long periods of time and then release that energy as light. To understand how this delayed emission works, let’s examine the interactions of molecules and light. The electrons in any molecule are normally arranged in what is called the “electronic ground state,” an arrangement that gives those electrons the least possible energy. However, the electrons in a molecule can also be arranged in one of many “electronically excited state,” in which they have more than the minimum energy. Whenever a molecule is exposed to light, its electrons may rearrange and the molecule may find itself in one of the electronically excited states. If that occurs, the molecule will have absorbed a particle of the light, a “photon,” and used the photon’s energy to rearrange its electrons.

In a typical molecule, the extra energy is released almost immediately, either as light or as the vibrational energy that we associate with heat. But in a few special molecules, this extra energy can become trapped in the molecule. When an electron shifts from one arrangement to another and the total energy of that molecule decreases, the missing energy may leave as a photon of light. But electrons behave as though they were spinning objects and in shifting between arrangements, the electron normally can’t change the direction of its spin. In most rearrangements that lead to the emission of light, the electron spins remain unchanged.

However, a glow in the dark molecule is one in which there is an electronically excited state that can only shift to the ground state if one of the electrons changes its direction of spin as the photon of light is being produced. In some molecules, this process is almost totally forbidden by the laws of physics and proceeds so slowly that the molecule may wait for minutes, hours, or even days before it emits the photon and returns to its ground state. When you expose a material containing these molecules to light, its molecules become trapped in these special electronically excited states and they then glow in the dark for a long while afterward.

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