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I read that the mercury vapour inside a fluorescent lamp is pressurized at 0.2% of atmospheric pressure.

Can mercury escape undectably through a small crack in the glass yet still light up? Or will the pressure difference cause it to explode and/or stop working?

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If there were a crack in the glass, then the pressure difference would first cause air to flow into the lamp, which would cause it to stop working (both the mercury and the low pressure are necessary).

If there were a way for mercury to escape from the lamp while it still worked, it would most likely be at the glass-to-metal seal around the filament/electrode terminals. But if that were a problem then lots of bulbs would be leaky and it would be fixed by design.


It is possible for a fluorescent lamp to break (and therefore eventually lose its mercury) without “exploding”. I once witnessed just such an event, which might be of interest:

The lamp was a spiral-style CFL lamp pointing sideways (in an above-the-mirror bathroom fixture).

I don't remember at what point it stopped lighting or if the failure happened when it was switched on. But in any case, the filament at one end glowed brightly and broke. The hot filament fell down against the glass, which then cracked at that point, with a distinct sound, making a small hole. The rest of the glass remained intact.

(The overheated filament would have been caused by a failure in the starting circuit.)

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  • $\begingroup$ There may be nothing wrong with the circuit. All filaments burn out, sooner or later. I had a similar failure: i.stack.imgur.com/0vk6j.jpg $\endgroup$ – igorinov Apr 12 '17 at 7:44
  • $\begingroup$ @igorinov That doesn't sound plausible to me. An incandescent filament, at least, fails by the wire gradually evaporating and becoming too thin, then failing mechanically. This was the entire filament (or a large part of it) becoming a visible incandescent line, which is not normal for a CFL. It seems obvious that more current was being put through the wire (or the same current for a longer time). I suppose it could be not a failure of the circuit per se but the bulb failing to strike the arc and it remaining in starting mode for too long because of that. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Reid Apr 12 '17 at 14:45

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