My neon circuit on proto-typing board
My neon circuit on proto-typing board

Neon NE-2 Circuits You Can Build

by Lewis Loflin

The neon lamp has been around for many decades. Largely obsolete today, it's fun to play with and does some remarkable things. My purpose here is to introduce the student of today with an old friend. There are three NE-2s neon lamps being used above on my proto-typing board. One on the left is a power indicator, the two on the right are blinking back and fourth. Let's look at some simple circuits.

neon lamp power indicator with resistor
Neon lamp power indicator with resistor.

Pictured above are two NE-2 neon lamp with 100k dropping resistors attached. A NE-2 is a very low-current device and the resistor limits the current. These could be used for 120 VAC or with a 220K for 240 VAC.

NE-2 neon lamp symbol
Neon lamp symbol.

Neon lamp power indicator schematic
Neon lamp power indicator schematic.

In the above diagram these can be used with a pair of test leads to find the "HOT" side of an AC circuit.

Neon lamps
Neon lamps using AC and DC

How do they work?

A neon lamp is simply a small glass tube filled with a low pressure gas such as neon. Sometimes with additional small amounts of krypton, argon, etc. to change the color from the normal orange.

The NE-2 will fire at around 90-volts AC or DC, then the operating voltage will drop to about 60-volts. This produces an odd effect known as negative resistance. That means once it conducts the resistance will drop and the operating voltage is much lower than the ignition voltage. The lamp will stay on until the voltage drops below 50-volts or so.

This property allows neon lamps to be used with resistor-capacitor charging circuits to creating a relaxation oscillator. All of the schematics below take advantage of that property.

In the picture above shows how the NE-2 will operate with direct current versus alternating current. Like all gas discharge tubes the ignition voltage (about 90 volts) produces positively charged neon ions and free electrons.

Looking at this from the standpoint of DC, the negative electrons flow to the positive side of the circuit while the positive ions move to the negative side.

The neon ion picks up an electron at the negative electrode changing back to normal neon gas. That process produces a photon of light which we see as a glow at the negative pin. Both pins glow with AC because the changing polarity changes the negative electrode 60 times a second.

2 neon lamps blinking
2 neon lamps blinking.

The circuit above is the one illustrated in the photo at the beginning of this page. I used two 2.2 mega-ohm resistors and a 170-volt power supply in my circuit.

NE-2 relaxation oscillator
NE-2 relaxation oscillator makes use of the "negative resistance" property.

Neon lamps triggering a flashtube
Neon lamps triggering a xenon flashtube.
See Flashtube Circuits

NE-2 Ring Counter
NE-2 Ring Counter

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