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Triboluminescence is an optical phenomenon in which light is generated when material is pulled apart, ripped, scratched, crushed, or rubbed (see tribology) through the breaking of chemical bonds in the material. The phenomenon is not fully understood, but appears to be caused by the separation and reunification of electrical charges. The term comes from the Greek τριβείν (to rub) and the Latin lumen (light). Triboluminescence can be observed when breaking sugar crystals (especially Wint-O-Green Life Savers) and peeling adhesive tapes.

Triboluminescence is often used as a synonym for fractoluminescence (a term sometimes used when referring only to light emitted from fractured crystals). Triboluminescence differs from piezoluminescence in that a piezoluminescent material emits light when it is deformed, as opposed to broken. These are examples of mechanoluminescence, which is luminescence resulting from any mechanical action on a solid.



Uncompahgre Ute Indians

The Uncompahgre Ute Indians from Central Colorado are one of the first documented groups of people in the world credited with the application of mechanoluminescence involving the use of quartz crystals to generate light. The Ute constructed special ceremonial rattles made from buffalo rawhide which they filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. When the rattles were shaken at night during ceremonies, the friction and mechanical stress of the quartz crystals impacting together produced flashes of light visible through the translucent buffalo hide.

Later descriptions

The first recorded observation is attributed to English scholar Francis Bacon when he recorded in his 1620 Novum Organum that "It is well known that all sugar, whether candied or plain, if it be hard, will sparkle when broken or scraped in the dark."[1] The scientist Robert Boyle also reported on some of his work on triboluminescence in 1663. In the late 1790s, sugar production began to produce more refined sugar crystals. These crystals were formed into a large solid cone for transport and sale. This solid cone of sugar had to be broken into usable chunks using a device known as sugar nips. People began to notice that as sugar was "nipped" in low light, tiny bursts of light were visible.

A historically important instance of triboluminscene occurred in Paris in 1675. Astronomer Jean-Felix Picard observed that his barometer was glowing in the dark as he carried it. His barometer consisted of a glass tube that was partially filled with mercury. Whenever the mercury slid down the glass tube, the empty space above the mercury would glow. While investigating this phenomenon, researchers discovered that static electricity could cause low-pressure air to glow. This discovery revealed the possibility of electric lighting.[2]

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