Be a Scientist: Learn About Triboluminescence (or, Lightning in Your Mouth) *Updated*

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Introduction: Be a Scientist: Learn About Triboluminescence (or, Lightning in Your Mouth) *Updated*

This is my entry into the Science Fair contest. This Instructable might be a bit elementary for some of you, but it is a lot of fun for those who have never tried it. Kids love it. If you like it (or if you don't) please tell me about your experience and please, rate my Instructable! Thank you.

Just a quick note: I was not able to capture photographs or videos of the reaction, so I am using images found on this interesting site. Lewis Kozlosky runs the site and has given me permission to use his photo. Thank you, Lewis!

Step 1: The Scoop on Triboluminescence

Below is a bit of history scraped from a few sites.

The word Triboluminescence comes from the Greek word tribein, which means to rub, and the Latin word lumen, which means light. Triboluminescence occurs whenever asymmetrical bonds in a crystal are scratched or rubbed. The light we see is the energy from the friction occurring on the crystal being absorbed by the electrons in the atoms, which is then put off as light. This is the same thing that happens when you see lightning, so triboluminescence is basically extremely small lightning. There are many ways to create triboluminescence, but we will focus on one of the easier and more productive and fun ways.

Triboluminescence was first reported in 1620 by Francis Bacon, who wrote: "It is well known that all sugar, whether candied or plain, if it be hard, will sparkle when broken or scraped in the dark." Sucrose, or sugar, is a crystal. By itself it is possible for triboluminescence to occur, but the sparks will be tiny and only slightly visible.

By adding a certain chemical, C8H8O3, which is 8 parts Carbon, 8 parts Hydrogen, and only 3 parts Oxygen. This chemical has a few names, such as methyl salicylate, but it is generally know by it's more common name, oil of wintergreen. The oil of wintergreen, when mixed with the sugar, will absorb the light put off by the sugar, which then is put off by the electrons as blue light. Blue is a highly visible color in our spectrum, which means that the light generated will be a lot brighter.

Though in the last paragraph I said that the flash was a lot brighter due to the oil of wintergreen, the flash was still too quick and small for me to capture on film or video. Another person who captured the flash had to use ISO 3200 film to capture it. Since I do not have that kind of technology, I was forced to use images off of the web. Another reason my camera might not be picking up the flash is because the light given off is a type my camera doesn't pick up. I like to see any pictures that y'all take.

Well, I'd say that's enough background. Let's get to the fun.

Step 2: Materials Needed

For this experiment, if you will, you need:

A couple WintOGreen LifeSavers - Price: A couple bucks or so for a bag. Note: We need the sugar variety, not the sugar free. The sugar free type uses aspartame, which doesn't spark.

A set of good teeth.

A mirror or a friend.


A hammer or channel locks - this is the other method.

Safety goggles

If you don't think you can chew the LifeSavers due to your teeth, use the hammer or pliers instead.

Step 3: How to Create Triboluminescence

First, I'll offer this warning - If you have bad teeth (loose ones, rotten ones, cavities, fillings, caps, etc.) try not to chew on those teeth. Don't worry - there's another way that works just as good.

Before you use any of these methods, however, you need a bit of preparation. You should go into the dark (I used my bathroom, any dark place will work, however) and wait for around 10 minutes, though I have seen the sparks instantaneously, without my eyes getting adjusted, though I try to avoid staring at bright lights, also.

The first method, which by far is my favorite, is: Take a WintOGreen LifeSaver out of the package. Feel free to break it into small pieces if you wish, I do because they are easier to chew. Pop it in your mouth and chew. Watch as your mouth sparks and lights up!

Another way, which is possibly a bit dangerous for you and bystanders, is to find a good solid surface (such as concrete) and hit the LifeSaver with a hammer. It works on the same principle, but you have to be careful about the shrapnel. If you want to use a pliers, it should be pretty straight-forward. Just place the LifeSaver in between the two "pinchers" and squeeze.

Step 4: If I Won a Prize in the Science Fair Contest....

If I won a prize in the Science Fair Contest, what would I do with it? I personally, judging by the quality of the other entries, don't think my Instructable is up to par to win a prize, let alone the Grand Prize, but if I happened to win $25, here are some things I would do with it:

  • Buy a micrometer. I've been wanting one for a while now.
  • Buy some LEDs or capacitors for my electronics projects that are on hold currently.
  • Put it together with some of my own hard-earned money to buy an MP3 player.
  • Buy a birthday present for my nephews and niece.
  • Give it to my parents - they need it more than I do.

There really isn't that much I'd do with it. If I won the $250, well, yeah, I'd probably buy a few more things, but I wouldn't waste it all.

Good luck to all others who have taken the time to write about their passions and hope y'all win.



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Now my breath smells very strong of mint lol. Neat that I seen the effect in a handheld mirror in the bathroom, while standing in the shower!

I know it has been a long time since you posted this but just for future reference, put a camera in the dark very close to the reaction and put the camera on extended or long exposure. I will allow you to pick up miniscule amounts of light. Use a tripod though.

This effect can also be done by taking two pieces of quartz and rubbing or striking them together. Best done in very dark situation, such as outside camping or a totally darkened room, also the more adjusted your eyes are to the dark, the better. Stones seem to spark and if the quartz is fairly transparent, the entire stone glows.

This is also a property of piezoelectrics, one of the reasons electrons jump anywhere...

Sucrose happens to be on the list of peizo materials.

I just tried that and it is awsome!!!!! Mine were slightly whitish and they gave yellow sparks, but you had to kind of strike them kinda hard. Left a weird smell in the air too. kinda like the taste of a 9 volt battery on your tongue mixed with the smell of mineral rich rocks.

can u use any quartz(could u use rose quartz)

I don't see why not. I have found that the more transparent the stone is, the effect is better, with the whole stone glowing if it is glassy/transparent to more of a surface "spark" when the stones are milky or whitish. Either way make sure your eyes have gotten adjusted to the dark, this isn't a super bright effect unless you are in total darkness and your night vision is full on.

Isn't that how lighters work? Many of then create sparks with quartz.


Yes, this was also one I had heard of. I've never been able to find two pieces of quartz (or have been a bit too lazy to try) but I've heard that bits and pieces of quartz fly off, potentially causing a small cut. Isn't wonderful how nature has so many "special" attributes, you know, more than what meets the eye?

You may just have to risk bodily injury to see them XD