Ionized-air glow

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Nitrogen glow
Oxygen glow
Electrical discharge in air
Particle beam from a cyclotron

Ionized-air glow is the luminescent emission of characteristic blue–purple–violet light, often of a color called electric blue, by air subjected to an energy flux either directly or indirectly from solar radiation.[1]


When energy is deposited in air, the air molecules become excited. As air is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, excited N2 and O2 molecules are produced. These can react with other molecules, forming mainly ozone and nitrogen(II) oxide. Water vapor, when present, may also play a role; its presence is characterized by the hydrogen emission lines. The reactive species present in the plasma can readily react with other chemicals present in the air or on nearby surfaces.

Deexcitation of nitrogen[edit]

The excited nitrogen deexcites primarily by emission of a photon, with emission lines in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared band:

N2* → N2 +

The blue light observed is produced primarily by this process.[2] The spectrum is dominated by lines of single-ionized nitrogen, with presence of neutral nitrogen lines.

Deexcitation of oxygen[edit]

The excited state of oxygen is somewhat more stable than nitrogen. While deexcitation can occur by emission of photons, the more probable mechanism at atmospheric pressure is a chemical reaction with other oxygen molecules, forming ozone:[2]

O2* + 2 O2 → 2 O3

This reaction is responsible for the production of ozone in the vicinity of strongly radioactive materials and electrical discharges.


Excitation energy can be deposited in air by a number of different mechanisms:

Fireball of Upshot-Knothole Annie nuclear test with several vertical smoke trails from rockets used to gauge shock front progress
Upshot-Knothole Annie nuclear bomb test


Emission spectrum of nitrogen
Emission spectrum of oxygen
Emission spectrum of hydrogen (water vapor is similar but dimmer)

In dry air, the color of produced light (e.g. by lightning) is dominated by the emission lines of nitrogen, yielding the spectrum with primarily blue emission lines. The lines of neutral nitrogen (NI), neutral oxygen (OI), singly ionized nitrogen (NII) and singly ionized oxygen (OII) are the most prominent features of a lightning emission spectrum.[13] Neutral nitrogen radiates primarily at one line in the red part of the spectrum. Ionized nitrogen radiates primarily as a set of lines in the blue part of the spectrum.[14]

A violet hue can occur when the spectrum contains emission lines of atomic hydrogen. This may happen when the air contains high amount of water, e.g. with lightnings in low altitudes passing through rain thunderstorms. Water vapor and small water droplets ionize and dissociate easier than large droplets, therefore have higher impact on color.[citation needed]

The hydrogen emission lines at 656.3 nm (the strong H-alpha line) and at 486.1 nm (H-beta) are characteristic for lightnings.[15] Rydberg atoms, generated by low-frequency lightnings, emit at red to orange color and can give the lightning a yellowish to greenish tint.(confusing?)[citation needed] Generally, the radiant species present in atmospheric plasma are N2, N2+, O2, NO (in dry air) and OH (in humid air). The temperature, electron density, and electron temperature of the plasma can be inferred from the distribution of rotational lines of these species. At higher temperatures, atomic emission lines of N and O, and (in presence of water) H, are present. Other molecular lines, e.g. CO and CN, mark the presence of contaminants in the air.[16]

Ionized air glow vs Cherenkov radiation[edit]

The emission of blue light is often attributed to Cherenkov radiation.[8][verification needed] Cherenkov radiation is produced by charged particles which are traveling through a dielectric substance at a speed greater than the speed of light in that medium. Despite the production of similarity-colored light and an association with high-energy particles, Cherenkov radiation is generated by a fundamentally different mechanism.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Airglow". Retrieved 13 December 2021.
  2. ^ a b Wiberg, Egon; Wiberg, Nils; Holleman, Arnold Frederick (2001). Inorganic chemistry (1st English ed.). San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press. p. 1655. ISBN 0-12-352651-5.
  3. ^ Goodstein, David L.; Goodstein, Judith R. (2013). Robert F. Christy: 1916–2012 (PDF). Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. p. 7.
  4. ^ "A Backward Glance: Eyewitnesses to Trinity" (PDF). Nuclear Weapons Journal. No. 2. Los Alamos National Laboratory. 2005. p. 45. LALP-05-067. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
  5. ^ "Christy, Robert F. Interview by Sara Lippincott. Pasadena, California, June 15, 17, 21, and 22, 1994". Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. 1998. p. 55. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
  6. ^ Christy, Robert (6 July 2017). The Trinity Test: 'An eery and awesome sight' (9/20) (Video). Web of Stories - Life Stories of Remarkable People. Event occurs at 1'47". Archived from the original on 15 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  7. ^ Operation Dominic I: 1962 (PDF) (Report). Defense Nuclear Agency. p. 247. DNA 6040F.
  8. ^ a b Cherokee Field Report Bikini Operations, page 10, quoted in Hansen, Chuck (1995). The swords of Armageddon: U.S. nuclear weapons development since 1945. Sunnyvale, Calif.: Chukelea Publications. 1307. OCLC 1109685186.
  9. ^ Bethge, Philip (25 November 2010). "Mushroom Clouds and Everpresent Danger: Surviving Cameramen Recall Nuclear Test Shots". Der Spiegel. [Photographer George Yoshitake said] 'For several minutes after the blast, you could see this eerie ultraviolet glow high up in the sky. And I thought that was so spectacular, so meaningful.'
  10. ^ Meyer, C. M. (March 2007). "Chernobyl: what happened and why?" (PDF). Energize. Muldersdrift, South Africa. p. 41. ISSN 1818-2127. Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 December 2013.
  11. ^ Bond, Michael (21 August 2004). "Cheating Chernobyl". New Scientist. Vol. 183, no. 2461. p. 46. ISSN 0262-4079.
  12. ^ Strutt, R. J. (2004) [Originally published 1906]. The Becquerel rays and the properties of radium. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 20. ISBN 0-486-43875-9.
  13. ^ Uman, Martin A. (1984). Lightning. Dover Publications. p. 139. ISBN 0-486-64575-4.
  14. ^ Uman, Martin A. (1986). All about lightning. Dover Publications. p. 96. ISBN 0-486-25237-X.
  15. ^ Orville, Richard E. (1980). "Daylight Spectra of Individual Lightning Flashes in the 370–690 nm Region". Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. 19 (4): 470–473. Bibcode:1980JApMe..19..470O. doi:10.1175/1520-0450(1980)019<0470:DSOILF>2.0.CO;2.
  16. ^ Laux, C. O.; Spence, T. G.; Kruger, C. H.; Zare, R. N. (2003). "Optical diagnostics of atmospheric pressure air plasmas" (PDF). Plasma Sources Science and Technology. 12 (2): 125. Bibcode:2003PSST...12..125L. doi:10.1088/0963-0252/12/2/301. S2CID 250824737.