A phosphor, most generally, is a substance that exhibits the phenomenon of luminescence. Somewhat confusingly, this includes both phosphorescent materials, which show a slow decay in brightness (>1ms), and fluorescent materials, where the emission decay takes place over tens of nanoseconds. Phosphorescent materials are known for their use in radar screens and glow-in-the-dark toys, whereas fluorescent materials are common in CRT screens, sensors, and white LEDs.
Phosphors are transition metal compounds or rare earth compounds of various types. The most common uses of phosphors are in CRT displays and fluorescent lights. CRT phosphors were standardized beginning around World War II and designated by the letter "P" followed by a number.
Note: Phosphorus, the chemical element from the phenomenon draws its name from, emits light under certain conditions, but this is due to chemiluminescence, not phosphorescence.
A material can emit light either through incandescence, where all atoms radiate, or by luminescence, where only a small fraction of atoms, called emission centers or luminescence centers, emit light. In inorganic phosphors, these inhomogeneities in the crystal structure are created usually by addition of a trace amount of dopants, impurities called activators. (In rare cases dislocations or other crystal defects can play the role of the impurity.) The wavelength emitted by the emission center is dependent on the atom itself, and on the surrounding crystal structure.
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