13 March 2014
Raw Materials in Neon Lighting
A chemical element and noble gas, neon was discovered by William Ramsay and Morris Travers in 1898. Because of its scarcity however, it was not until Georges Claude’s French company Air Liquide, an air liquefaction business, started producing industrial amounts of neon as a byproduct around 1902. It was after Claude presented two large neon tubes at the Paris Motor Show in 1910 when the brilliance of neon lighting was introduced on a mass scale; its presence soon became prevalent due to its huge popularity. In 1915, Claude received a U.S. patent for the design of the electrodes for gas – discharge lighting, and the technology officially took hold in the United States in 1923 when the owner of a Packard car dealership in Los Angles, California put up two of the signs. Neon tube lighting consists of electrified glass tubes or bulbs that are sealed with a metal electrode at each end, and “primarily rely on [the] excitation of gas molecules to emit light”. This lighting is a form of a cold cathode gas discharge light. Gas discharge lighting is “an arrangement of electrodes in a gas within an insulat[ed], temperature resistant envelope”. An electrode that emits electrons, a cold cathode is not electrically heated by a filament. The sealed glass tubing is filled with the original bright red component, neon, but many gases produce the other colors we observe in neon signs. The discovery of the powerful potential neon signs hold in the advertising make them an important part of the field still today. This essay breaks down the parts that make up neon lighting, explores the primary and secondary raw materials used in producing these products, and tracks the raw materials used in transporting the materials and in the processing of their disposal.
Possible periodic elements present in a neon sign include neon, helium, carbon dioxide, mercury and argon. Although similar extraction methods are practiced in obtaining these for the exception of mercury, they each attribute specific functions to the chemical process that creates the light that we see. Neon, the original noble gas responsible for the glow of this lighting, produces the red hue present in neon signs. An element extracted from dry air, neon is what remains “after nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide are removed”. Neon, as well as carbon dioxide, and argon, is extracted through the fractional distillation of liquid air, or air that has been “cooled to very low temperatures” into a blue liquid. Fractional distillation is a specific type of distillation that separates “chemical compounds by their boiling point by heating them to a temperature at which one or more of the fractions of the compound will vaporize”. Commercially, fractional distillation is referred to as Industrial distillation. These facilities are found all over the world. Coal is the primary energy source for running these operations. Noble gas argon produces a violet to lavender blue color. Argon is used along with mercury “used due to its low cost, high efficiency, and very low striking voltage”. Carbon Dioxide produces the white light we see in Neon signage. Helium, the gas responsible for the yellow light in neon signs, is extracted through the distillation of natural gas. Helium is extracted as a natural gas from the ground, the United States being the world leader in its production.
Mercury is a metallic element that is liquid at standard temperature and pressure. Responsible for the emitted blue hue in neon signs, mercury is commonly added among noble gases within a tube to intensify the light that is produced. Mercury vapor is produced within the glass tubing during electrification, a process that……. Although rare, mercury can be found as a native metal. Mercury is found in Livingstonite, Corderoite and Cinnabar ores, the Cinnabar ore being the most common. Mercury is mined from ores usually found in hot springs or volcanic regions. Quicksilver, or liquid mercury, is produced by roasting crushed Cinnabar ore in a rotary furnace. Roasting is “a metallurgical process involving gas–solid reactions at elevated temperatures with the goal of purifying the metal component(s)”.
It is possible, however to create the various colors we observe in neon lighting through the use of a phosphorescent coating applied to the inside of the glass tubing. It is the ultraviolet light produced from mercury vapor and the electrification process that “excites the phosphorescent coatings designed to produce different colors”. Phosphorescent coatings come from phosphor, “transition metal compounds or rare earth compounds of various types”. The purity of the gases involved is also important. The slightest impurities can drastically change desired effects. The “presence of non – inert gases generally increases the breakdown and burning voltages”, and the introduction of oxygen “makes the discharge look pale, milky or reddish”.
Another product that is important to neon lighting is the glass tubing that incases the gases. Major suppliers of this tubing is VOLTRAC and EGL, both using lead glass for this product. Lead glass has a high reflective index, shields against radiation and has a significantly lower working temperature; all qualities that make it physically ideal as glass tubing for neon signs. The search for exact components used by these specific manufactures to make the lead glass was unsuccessful, but more generally the components can be broken down. In lead glass, “lead replaces the calcium content of typical potash glass”. The lead used specifically for lead glass production is lead (II) sulfide. Galena, the natural mineral form of lead(II) sulfide, is found in deposits around the world. After it has been mined, galena, or lead(II) sulfide is slightly purified by a process called froth flotation, but the majority of the purification process occurs during roasting like mercury.
The hi-volt connector within a neon sign is made of ceramic. In a modern aspect, ceramics is a broad title, and can include “any inorganic crystalline material” that are “brittle, hard, strong in compression, weak in shearing and tension”. Common materials found in ceramics is silicon carbide and tungsten carbide. Silicon carbide comes a rare earth moissanite, and tungsten carbide is an “inorganic chemical compound (specifically, a carbide) containing equal parts of tungsten and carbon atoms”.
In the transportation of these raw materials and products that make up a neon sign, the raw materials used in the actual transportation of neon sign materials is minimal and straightforward, consisting only of the gasoline that powers the vehicles involved in the transporting. The secondary products supplied by manufacturers such as the glass tubing, electrodes, and hi-volt connectors are transported largely by land by commercial vehicles. The raw oil used in gasoline is processed through a distillation system similar to that of the fractional distillation system that processes gases and liquid air. In the stage of disposal, it was challenging to find information regarding any extra materials used in the process in exception the energy and coal used in common waste facilities.
Many of the resources and processes in producing neon lighting was similar. It was surprising to find that the initial gases used such as neon, carbon dioxide, and argon, are extracted in almost the exact same way to each other, and that this air separation process is very similar to the natural gas extraction of helium, and then also similar to the processing of crude oils for gasoline. Another interesting finding was how many of the materials were ores and minerals, all at least fairly rare, hazardous, and mined using similar processes. The stage of transportation had to be considered in the typical ways that most materials are transported, the important raw material in this stage being the raw forms of fossil fuels for gasoline. Waste and disposal was equally sparse, information only really leading to typical disposal plants. I was unsuccessful in finding information the specific disposal of the mercury involved.
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Unknown. "Phosphor." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 01 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
Unknown. "Roasting (metallurgy)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
Unknown. "Silicon Carbide." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.
Unknown. "STAZON Block Out Paint." Sign-tek.co.uk. Sign-Tec Services Ltd., n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2014.
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Whelan, M., and Rick Delair. "Neon and Argon Lamps." Edisontechcenter.org. Edison Tech Center, 2013. Web. 08 Mar. 2014.
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13 March 2014
Wastes and Emissions of Neon Lights
Neon lighting has always had an allure to it, beginning in the 1920s the seemingly harmless lights lit up big cities with single word advertisements. The neon lamp works by providing a noble gas element such as neon, with activation energy which ionizes the gas and causes it to glow through fluorescence. Its continuous use has become simply aesthetic, although its buyers may not realize the real harm it has on the environment. The neon light is wanted by most advertisers for that “retro” look, the look that has a large carbon monoxide output through the production of the materials that go into its production. The neon light is not beneficial to the environment, and has become more of a craft while its commercial use has died down due to the popularity of much brighter and less harmful lights like the LED bulb.
The neon light bulbs are made by ionizing a noble gas in a sealed vacuum glass tube. Typically the glass is also coated with a phosphorescent that reacts with the gas to produce all different shades of colors from the already colored gas. On top of that, the glass can also be tinted to enhance color or soften color of the emitted light. The original neon lamps used only neon, that emitted a red light. Later it was discovered that noble gases all let off different color lights while being ionized. Argon, Helium, Krypton, and Xenon are all used in neon lighting, with a small amount of mercury added their glow is intensified.
Production of the full appliance requires many raw materials and a plenty amount of resources. The glass used for the lamp is either a Borosilicate glass or a pure lead glass, borosilicate glass is made through a process of vitrification, a process for immobilizing potentially hazardous or radioactive waste. The borosilicate glass is tested at extreme temperatures and conditions once the hazardous materials are in its molecular structure to make sure that the glass will not give off any dangerous gases or release its contents that had been packed into its molecular structure while being used commercially. Other processes that use the same idea as vitrification are concrete and plaster production, but are not as useful because more concrete must be used for the amount of material “packed” into it. Lead glass is also produced in a similar fashion, packing a harmful substance into glass. Lead has a very negative impact on animal and plant life, it is found most in water and is expected to be found embedded in most fish scales. Lead is a product of burning fossil fuels, once the element is airborne it remains in the air for about ten days. It is a insoluble and is not decomposable, therefor making it even harder to remove from the environment. The light requires an adequate power source, relying on a small power source known as the electrode. The production of the electrode has probably the most harmful effects on the environment, its main materials are different precious metals which are not only expensive to mine but also release ash and carbon rich dusts into the air when mined and ground. Metals can release lead into the environment, battery manufacturing being the biggest contributor to this, metal and glass manufacturing also rank alongside it. The manufacturing of electrodes produce CO2, ash, slag, and sulfate that can create a material called gypsum, which is used in drywall. The neon lamp is built from many intricately manufactured glasses and metals, all leaving a decent sized carbon foot print.
There are many more components to the neon lamp, to get all the pieces to stick together, and to build the whole neon lamp unit, there is a resin bond used. The resin bond is an organic coating that is made by the reaction between chemicals called BPA and ECH, but it may vary depending on the crafter’s choice of resin. The resin molecule is a very large organic molecule, composed of Carbons, Hydrogens, and Oxygens. During the production process, the glue emits a compound known as table salt, NaCl, which is removed by hot water baths. The resin must not have a notable amount of toxic or hazardous waste materials because of the lack of information on its waste products. The only waste product that was found from the production of the resin was the Na and Cl ions being washed away with water, which is basically salt water. To give the neon light the brightest look, the backs of the glass tubing are painted with a rubber or latex based paint. The production of the paint shows many steps and many waste products and a final waste product called “sludge” that is filtered and dumped, but nothing that specifies what exactly was in the dumped material or what substances are being released as the paint is made. Carbon paper, which is used to line the area where the bulb will be placed was also another material that was very hard to find the exact materials used to make it, but simply put the paper is made using air pressure and petroleum oil. Petroleum oil is also used to power cars, so the cost of this paper, and its effect it has on the environment can only be negative.
The most important part of the neon lamp is the gases that give off different colored light. The gases commonly used for lamps are Noble Gases, also known as Group 18 on the Periodic Table of Elements. These gases are best known for their ability to be un-reactive, making them ideal for a commercially used lamp. Gases ionized for the use in lamps are collected through a process called fractional distillation, the gases that occur naturally; Neon, Krypton, Argon, Helium, and Xenon all emit different colored lights when ionized. When these gases are collected, it is very rare that only one gas is being collected at a time. Because they are naturally occurring, the gases are separated by being put under high temperatures and pressures to get each gas to evaporate at their known boiling or vaporization points, separating a previously homogeneous gas mixture. Another element purified very similarly, Mercury, is added to the lamp to intensify light given off by the Noble Gases. Mercury is triple-distilled because it is not commonly found in its purest state. It is often found mixed with other elements from its periodic table family, Gold and Silver. While it is distilled it also releases acidic gases that are purified before released into the environment. It is very expensive to mine, because it is found alongside such valuable metals. Although t is also a very dangerous metal to handle, “Neon lights are estimated to contain approximately 250 to 600 mg of mercury per bulb, depending on the manufacturer's preference.”9 Mercury is present in a lot of different types of light sources, it improves a light’s life span and makes the bulbs work much more efficiently. Mercury is released into the environment rapidly through the combustion of petroleum, and through releases of materials from precious metal mining.9 Mercury is a dangerous substance to have in the air especially in higher concentrations. Education on disposal of new electronics should be more widespread because of the increasing amounts of green house gases and toxicities being released into the air due to careless disposals.
The disposal of new efficient light bulbs has proven to be a source of accidental pollution, the gases used in newer bulbs may burn a lot brighter and for longer but if disposed of incorrectly can greatly damage the environment. Disposal of Neon lamps can be easily messed up, and leave precious metals and potentially dangerous mixtures of gases in an open environment. Mercury does not only occur in neon bulbs, but in many types of lighting bulbs such as fluorescent lamps, bug zapping bulbs, tanning lamps, black lights, germicidal lamps, cold-cathode lamps, metal halide lamps, ceramic metal halide lamps, high pressure sodium lamps, mercury vapor lighting, mercury short-arc lamps, and many others.
The main contributor to the growing amount of green house gases is the pollution of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere is from car emissions. Neon lighting is produced at an expense to the environment, utilizing industrial production of the materials it requires for its creation. "Examples of industrial plants that produce carbon monoxide include: metals (iron, steel, non-ferrous) manufacturing, electricity supply, mining (metal ore, coal), food manufacturing, oil and gas extraction, chemical manufacturing, cement lime, plaster and concrete manufacturing and petroleum refining.” Neon lights are not made for lighting purposes but made for decoration and advertisement, therefor their production is not completely industrialized. Their definite carbon monoxide emissions are not completely measurable because their production is made almost purely by artisans. Based on collected information in 2001 by NEMA companies, a total of 1,103 pounds of Mercury were used in the making of neon lamps and their parts.11 Many of the videos I found online about neon lighting showed the production of simple signs, and how the act of making one is actually a craft that also involves serious knowledge of the chemicals used. The true amount of emissions the bulb does produce to effect the environment might as well be unknown because the amounts of gases and other materials used in making the signs by hand were only estimates made by the craftsmen.
The area I found least information in was the actual production places of neon lamps, many sites advertised production of specific branding signs and other personalized signs but none specified their material sources or their locations. Much more accurate carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emission measurements could have been made had they shared their sources for the materials they bought. Many companies try to mask the amount of emissions they produce due to the popularity of “green energy.” The main source of materials came from a file posted by the Hart Supply Company, where they listed every single material used for the manufacturing of a neon lamp. This source was especially useful because it specified the technical name for each material, and even the glass company they use. Hart Supply failed to mention their shipping methods, but at the end of the file a photo of shipping trucks with their logo was attached. Each material listed in their document also provided a short explanation of that part’s place and function in the neon lamp appliance. The neon light crafting business is a small business indefinitely, because of their personalization they cannot be mass produced. Many small artisans and craftspeople buy the parts in bulk and cater to the small amount of clients they do get.
The wastes and emissions from the manufacturing or crafting of the neon lamp are mostly hazardous and do not have a positive effect on the environment. Carbon monoxide emission is its largest emission, also known to be the main contributor to green house gases. Also, the production and purification of metals used in its production also produce a large carbon footprint. The neon light is not necessarily made for providing efficiently bright light, but to advertise a brand or to simply decorate a commercial area or business. The neon light can definitely be considered obsolete due to the recent rise of much more efficient, less dangerous lighting sources such as the LED light, but the neon lamp’s use is continued because of its originality and “retro” look. The use of neon lamps will soon become a novelty or a souvenir of the past because of its harsh effects on the environment. Although it does create an aesthetically pleasing store front for businesses, it will soon be replaced by the LED and other more efficient lighting sources.
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"Mercury Use in Lighting." NEWMOA. Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association, Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
"National Pollutant Inventory" National Pollutant Inventory. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
 "IMERC Fact Sheet." NEWMOA. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.
 Glass as a Waste Form and Vitrification Technology: Summary of an International Workshop., 1996. 3-9. Print.
 "National Pollutant Inventory." National Pollutant Inventory. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
 "National Pollutant Inventory - Lead." National Pollutant Inventory. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
 "Lead: Environmental Aspects (EHC 85, 1989)." Lead: Environmental Aspects (EHC 85, 1989). N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
 Zeno W. Wicks, Jr., Frank N. Jones, S. Peter Pappas, Douglas A. Wicks, “Organic Coatings: Science and Technology
 Moscoso, Alexander. "27 November 2010: Tom Sachs, Selected Works & Interview | FARTiculate." FARTiculate. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2014.
 "Fractional Distillation of Ideal Mixtures." ChemGuide.Co.Uk. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014.
 "IMERC Fact Sheet - Mercury." NEWMOA. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
 "Mercury Use in Lighting." NEWMOA. Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association, Aug. 2008. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.
 "National Pollutant Inventory" National Pollutant Inventory. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2014