A phosphor is a substance that exhibits the phenomenon of luminescence; it emits light when exposed to some type of radiant energy. The term is used both for fluorescent or phosphorescent substances which glow on exposure to ultraviolet or visible light, and cathodoluminescent substances which glow when struck by an electron beam (cathode rays) in a cathode-ray tube.
When a phosphor is exposed to radiation, the orbital electrons in its molecules are excited to a higher energy level; when they return to their former level they emit the energy as light of a certain color. Phosphors can be classified into two categories: fluorescent substances which emit the energy immediately and stop glowing when the exciting radiation is turned off, and phosphorescent substances which emit the energy after a delay, so they keep glowing after the radiation is turned off, decaying in brightness over a period of milliseconds to days.
Fluorescent materials are used in applications in which the phosphor is excited continuously: cathode-ray tubes (CRT) and plasma video display screens, fluoroscope screens, fluorescent lights, scintillation sensors, and white LEDs, and luminous paints for black light art. Phosphorescent materials are used where a persistent light is needed, such as glow-in-the-dark watch faces and aircraft instruments, and in radar screens to allow the target 'blips' to remain visible as the radar beam rotates. CRT phosphors were standardized beginning around World War II and designated by the letter "P" followed by a number.
Phosphorus, the light-emitting chemical element for which phosphors are named, emits light due to chemiluminescence, not phosphorescence.