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Glow-in-the-dark products contain phosphors. A phosphor is a substance that radiates visible light after being energized. The two places where we most commonly see phosphors are in a TV screen or computer monitor and in fluorescent lights. In a TV screen, an electron beam strikes the phosphor to energize it (see How Television Works for details). In a fluorescent light, ultraviolet light energizes the phosphor. In both cases, what we see is visible light. A color TV screen actually contains thousands of tiny phosphor picture elements that emit three different colors (red, green and blue). In the case of a fluorescent light, there is normally a mixture of phosphors that together create light that looks white to us.
Chemists have created thousands of chemical substances that behave like a phosphor. Phosphors have three characteristics:
The type of energy they require to be energized
The color of the visible light that they produce
The length of time that they glow after being energized (known as the persistence of the phosphor)
To make a glow-in-the-dark toy, what you want is a phosphor that is energized by normal light and that has a very long persistence. Two phosphors that have these properties are Zinc Sulfide and Strontium Aluminate. Strontium Aluminate is newer -- it's what you see in the "super" glow-in-the-dark toys. It has a much longer persistence than Zinc Sulfide does. The phosphor is mixed into a plastic and molded to make most glow-in-the-dark stuff.
Occasionally you will see something glowing but it does not need charging. The most common place is on the hands of expensive watches. In these products, the phosphor is mixed with a radioactive element, and the radioactive emissions (see How Nuclear Radiation Works) energize the phosphor continuously. In the past, the radioactive element was radium, which has a half-life of 1600 years. Today, most glowing watches use a radioactive isotope of hydrogen called tritium (which has a half-life of 12 years) or promethium, a man-made radioactive element with a half-life of around three years.