Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Where does the energy of a light bulb come from?

Is it from the coil of wire, magnet in the generator, mechanical input to the generator or plug where the generator is connected to the wall?

share|cite|improve this question

Well, that really depends on how far you want to take it. The photons that leave the light bulb are created to 'leak off' the abundant energy that is available in the highly energetic atoms in the coil of wire. The energy in these atoms (usually tungsten) takes on the form of heat. The coil of wire got so hot, because the electrons racing through it have a hard time getting through the tungsten. This means they lose energy, which the tungsten atoms absorb in the form of heat.

We describe these moving electrons as current. This current flows because of a difference in potential between the two ends of the coil. This difference in potential is realized because both ends of the coil are connected to different sides of your plug, which gain their difference in potential from the processes in the power generator.

The power generator itself probably runs on coal, burning it to release its chemical energy in the form of heat. The coal got its chemical energy because it is composed of the leftovers of biological life that lived long ago. This life ultimately got its energy from the sunlight, through photosynthesis. This sunlight takes the form of photons racing through space, originating from the sun, and travelling, among many other places, to the earth.

The photons are created in the sun because they are emitted by highly energetic helium atoms. These helium atoms are so energetic, because they were formed by two hydrogen atoms fusing together under immense temperature and pressure. The energy comes from the fact that the helium atom is just ever so slightly less heavy than the two hydrogen atoms combined. And this difference in mass is converted into pure energy (this is what Einsteins equation $E=mc^2$ means).

So ultimately, the energy that makes your lightbulb shine, comes from the tiny bit of mass that is lost when two hydrogen atoms fuse together in the sun's innards.

But of course, you could take this even further and ask where the hydrogen in the sun ultimately comes from. And how did all that mass come together to form the massive hot ball of plasma that is the sun? And then you get into all sorts of trouble when you start thinking about hugely fascinating things such as stellar evolution and the fundamental forces.

You can now see that no energy is ever lost. It can take on many forms, including that of mass, but it will always end up somewhere.

The only thing that does change, is that the energy as a whole gets increasingly more chaotic. Which means it's less usable. This is what we mean when we say that entropy (or chaos) must always increase. It is the reason that we can't use the heat leaking out of our houses to run a generator which powers our home; it is true that all the energy we put into our house (current, gas) also flows out of it again (in the form of light, heat, sound). But things like light, heat and sound are much more chaotic than the energy neatly stored in molecules of gas or moving electrons. We can't undo this chaos. (Or at least we can't without using even more energy in the process.) And when you start thinking about that you get into things such as thermodynamics, Carnot cycles, and a whole other bunch of interesting stuff.

So yeah, where does the energy come from? It depends on how far you want to look back.

share|cite|improve this answer
Or if it's a hydroelectric plant, the energy comes from the PE of the water, which got to the top of Niagara Falls by being evaporated by the sun from the ocean..., and we're back to stellar evolution... – DJohnM Oct 6 '13 at 18:37
Then there's wind and photo-voltaic; both solar in origin. Geothermal is natural radioactivity and gravitational potential energy. My favorite: tidal. We're extracting the rotational KE of the primordial dustcloud from which the solar system evolved. – DJohnM Oct 6 '13 at 19:08
The fillament of a incandescent light bulb is not copper. Such a bulb would have a very short life. – Olin Lathrop Oct 7 '13 at 12:08
the generator is the one who is giving the energy to the light bulb. I suppose the light bulb here is just a typical light bulb that we use in our homes. – user84466 Oct 7 '13 at 14:03
Usually tungsten. – Olin Lathrop Oct 7 '13 at 16:14

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.