Introduction: Carbon Arc Lights

Picture of Carbon Arc Lights

Make your own light with Carbon goodness!

The idea behind a carbon arc light / lamp is that electricity "likes" to jump from one piece of carbon to another, creating an arc of electricity in mid-air. The tips of the carbon rods start to heat up more and more, and eventually to the point where they produce A LOT of light.

For a while, carbon arc lamps competed with your everyday light bulb, but the light bulb won out, and now probably provides most of the light in your home. A lot of people didn't like the harsh white light of the arc lamps, and sometimes the lamps would make a sound around 10,000 Hz that was really annoying. Of course, our good friend Tesla saved the day on that. :P

For a long time, nobody could match the sheer power of arc lamps, (at the time, they were about 200 times more powerful than filament bulbs), and so they were used in spotlights and movie theaters.

And now, you can have your own carbon arc lamp!


I finally found the jumper cables! The car battery-powered light is very impressive, and produced a glowing blob of light about an inch in diameter, which I assume was the electric arc. I'll have to take a few pictures through my welding goggles if I can find them.

Step 1: Gather Up the Materials

Picture of Gather Up the Materials

As of right now, we'll only be building the miniature carbon arc light, and not the full-scale one that uses a car battery. Eventually I'll get around to posting two different designs I have used to easily control the gap between the two rods. In the meantime: Create! Instructableify! Make!

Tools to make the mini-light:

X-Acto Knife
Wire strippers

Other things that we'll need:

A battery (I used a lantern battery because I think that they have more current than smaller ones ((like AA's and D's)), but feel free to try!)
Some latex gloves so you don't get crap all over your hands
A rag for cleaning stuff up
Some insulated wire (nothing fancy here)

Some ZINC-CARBON OR ZINC CHLORIDE BATTERIES!!!111!!! We must NOT use ALKALINE batteries! Alkaline batteries are the ones that have lots of nasty manganese dioxide and other bad stuff. You'll find that Carbon-Zinc batteries are often marketed as "Heavy Duty." I used C batteries, but D's, AA's, and 9 volts are fine. Keep in mind that the size of the carbon rod contained in each of these batteries is different.

So for clarification:

We want this: Zinc Carbon

Not this: Alkaline

Step 2: Caution!

Picture of Caution!

This project involves working with electricity, high temperatures, toxic chemicals, and pointy things. Don't be stupid and plug anything into your wall outlets that shouldn't be there. If you use common sense and don't act like an idiot, you should come out of this all right.

Step 3: Extracting the Carbon Rods

Picture of Extracting the Carbon Rods

Now let's get down to business...

I'm assuming that you got the right kind of batteries, (ie. The kind that won't kill you when you open them, which is NOT ALKALINE BATTERIES!), so now we will take the carbon rods out of them.

First we find the little ridge where the shiny metal plate that was wrapped around the battery to make the casing meets together

First we find the little ridge where the metal casing of the battery meets up with itself. (See picture)

Then, using the pliers, we peel back the metal cover all around the battery's positive terminal. (Or just peel off all of the metal covering if you want.)

Now grasp the metal knob on top of the battery's positive terminal with the pliers and pull it straight off.

I'd make sure that you have a paper plate nearby to put some of this stuff on, as they black paste within the battery stains and is really sticky.

All that's left to do here is just grasp the nub on top and pull it out carefully. This is your carbon rod. Be sure to put it somewhere where you won't lose it.

I'm not sure what the legality is on throwing the remaining husk of the battery out, but I assume it's okay. Ask your local environment nut about this.

Anyway, you will need two carbon rods for this project, so repeat the process on another battery.

Note: You can also use the rods to draw on stuff, and they give a cool shading effect if you slide them along on their sides.

Step 4: Rigging Up the Battery

Picture of Rigging Up the Battery

Go get your lantern battery, wire, pliers, and wire strippers.

Cut your wire into two lengths about a foot and a half long (46 cm).

Strip both ends of the wire, but on one end of each wire, strip an extra-long segment, about 3 inches or so. (8 cm).

Use alligator clips (or just twist them onto the terminals) to secure one of your wires to the positive terminal of the battery. Secure the other one to the negative terminal of the battery. (Use the short-stripped ends of the wires for this).

I'd suggest putting on some gloves and scraping off any gunk that is on your rods at this point. Use an old rag and rub it down, or just scrape some off with a knife.

Take the long-stripped end of one of the wires and wind it around one of the rods. (You could also tape it / glue it / whatever) Do the same for the other wire.

Step 5: Have Fun!

Picture of Have Fun!

Touch the rods together and slowly move them apart to create an electric arc between the them.


Of course, while that isn't the main light source, the arc is still pretty bright. Remember that in an actual carbon lamp, it is also the rods that get really bright. I forgot about this and let the two rods arc for a while: I hadn't cleaned these off so I had molten something drip everywhere, yay! Pretty soon that stopped and the rods began to glow! And then my wires melted. Not yay! I really hope my dad doesn't notice the burn on the carpet :P

Later I'll build something that will let us take this project all of the way...

Have fun with your arc lamp!

Step 6: Going Further...

Picture of Going Further...

It's likely that I'll update this a few times before I'm done.
I might add how...
to build a little mechanism to keep the distance between the two rods stable,
to safely hook up a car battery, (Much, much more fantastic than this dinky little thing. I'm tempted to place it as as bright as the Sun!)
to make a reflector to direct the light in one direction (Ow! My eyes!)

If anyone gets Popular Science at their house, I'd would greatly appreciate it if they could send me an article they had a few months back that told you how to build one of these. (I think it was in How 2.0)


RichardH75 (author)2015-10-01

A carbon arc lamp running off AC mains will NOT produce a 10,000 Hz sound, but an annoying 60 Hz hum (mains hum). Tesla resolved this by designing a frequency converter to deliver a 10,000 Hz AC current to the arc, bringing the resulting hum out of the range of human hearing. Or you could provide DC current to the arc (such as from a battery or dynamo). In the early days of electricity this was what was most carbon arc lamps were fed off of, as AC didn't win out over DC in the War of the Currents until the 1890s.

iansd1950 (author)RichardH752016-02-08

yes Tesla was a genius

iansd1950 (author)2016-02-08

i made mine from air gouging rods and home made parabolic dish lined with alfoil

fired by a 500Amp dc welder Man dont look with out welding helmet on its bright as

RedstoneM (author)2015-09-27

Hey, mine doesnt work (12v on a 2 ohm resistor)

marine2.0 (author)2013-11-03

or you could go to your local welding supply shop and purchase two quite large carbon rods designed to strike an arc for cutting and gouging metal for $0.50 each

RedstoneM (author)marine2.02015-09-27

I didnt found any

Varen Greycloak (author)2015-09-20

Man, I hate to say it but "Heavy Duty" 6V lantern batteries are made up of 4 Zinc-Manganese Dioxide-Carbon Rod cells.

BambiB (author)2015-05-09

Remember that a large portion of the light coming from the arc is ultraviolet. You can't see it, but it's there. UV does things like cook your corneas, so be sure to stare directly at the light... NOT!

graham641 (author)BambiB2015-08-16

You forgot about the polluting smoke :) burn carbon and watch the smoke. It is oil.

graham641 (author)graham6412015-08-16

He needed jumper cables to make it work? 30 or 40 Amps?

graham641 (author)graham6412015-08-16

Most welders die early from lung problems

ThatCatMan (author)2013-06-04

Nice one :D I hooked mine to a 30v Printer Powerbox, and it works nicely. Not to bright but it at least worked better than a 9v... :/

pwnag3 (author)2012-11-26

why does "I really hope my dad doesn't notice the burn on the carpet" sound familiar XD

oldmanbeefjerky (author)2012-03-11

carbon rods are most easily pulled out of the rod when the battery is fresh

bgoldberg1 (author)2012-01-21

Wouldn't it be simpler to use a graphite rod from a mechanical pencil?

msammons (author)2011-11-11

I wash my old plastic containers from foods like cottage cheese and such and keep them just for these projects. Do not put these chemicals down your drains. Put them in a plastic container and look up your local household hazardous waste disposal center if you do not have a use for the other materials in the battery. Please do not put these heavy metals into the sewer system.

AllenInks (author)2011-08-18

so why have you used a radioactive symbol? no nuclear radiation or contamination involved... Maybe a lightening bolt?

mad magoo (author)2008-02-18

I'm just curious, but could you use this to make a plasma spewing/cutting/welding device? What if you put this at the end of a small tube with high pressure compressed air running through it? I have a basic understanding of how plasma works and would like to know if my idea is possible. Thanks!

stuffman366 (author)mad magoo2008-05-29

im not sure but i like you have the base knowlege so try it!!!

banggerled (author)stuffman3662011-06-23

banggerled (author)stuffman3662011-06-23


bowmaster (author)2011-05-29

Cool, this would make a really good bike lamp.

pyro22 (author)2007-02-18

here is a scan from one of my popsci. watch out 6 MB. right click and save

balloondoggle (author)pyro222011-05-11

I can't believe they tell you haw to do this and then, down at the bottom: "Don't try this at home." Who let the lawyers in the copy room?

carbon (author)pyro222007-02-18

Or...not? Would someone please explain to the idiot {me} how to download the whole picture?

Mr. Smart Kid (author)carbon2009-01-09

here it is, all i did was modfy the url to say "LARGE"
insted of "SMALL" or "MEDIUM"

carbon (author)pyro222007-02-18

You are my hero! Thanks a bunch!

nutsandbolts_64 (author)2011-02-02

I remember reading that magazine. They just got a can (and maybe some fiberglass). They lined the wall of the can with fiberglass so that it doesn't melt. At the cover of the page, I thought it was daylight, until I saw some shadows only then did I realize that it's an arc lamp :O

winnerceramics (author)2010-11-18

The manganese carbon paste inside of the battery is very poisons. It is also skin soluble. this means if you get it on your skin some of it will be absorbed into your body. Now it probably wont kill you but manganese is a heavy metal and what you do get in your body will collect in your bran and other tissues like mercury. Heavy metals tend to stay in tissue and build up. So if you do expose your self to it wear gloves and safety glasses.

grenadier (author)2010-11-03

I hope you know that the main ingredient in carbon/zinc cells is maganese dioxide.

Nonetheless, it's not very harmful.

mysterio77 (author)2009-12-27

 rinse the rods under water to get rid of the poison

Terivia (author)mysterio772010-09-28

good idea

oldmanbeefjerky (author)2010-06-01

that molten something is the manganese dioxide/ammonium chloride paste that has seeped into the carbon rod.

please note, anyone planning on doing this, please bake (not break)your carbon rod before use, as mananese dioxide , and the gasses it releases are very poisenous , and it also will stain what ever it touches, and also it will easily be absorbed into  just about anything, so dont touch, or have it land on a sheet of foil

bombmaker2 (author)2010-05-29

I just tried this but I cannot get a stable arc to form. I used everything that you did but it will not work. Could someone please help me?

Articas (author)2010-03-13

can you use pencil lead

Articas (author)2010-03-13


mattcaron (author)2010-02-21

backup, backup pliers ftw!

nutsandbolts_64 (author)2010-02-13

could you use old, dead batteries instead?

brooklynlord (author)2010-01-30

:O Nikola Tesla ;)

mysterio77 (author)2009-12-27

 zinc carbon batteries actually have a ton of manganese dioxide in them. as well as ammonium chloride. so be careful

Edgar (author)2009-11-28
I think you will make a new Instructable out of this:

Note the current limiting reactance Gizmo:

"The difficulty is that a carbon arc, operating on the ordinary 60-cycle, 110-volt current, actually requires only about 35 volts. The difference is wasted in useless heat from the grill or toaster.

You can avoid such troubles by building a current limiting reactance to take the place of the makeshift resistances. The reactance upsets the power factor of the line in such a way that the current flowing through the arc actually is in the neighborhood of 10 amperes although the meter runs only as fast as though 3-1/2 amperes were flowing."

Arbitror (author)2009-01-09

Ha ha! LOL! I love the "magnifying glass" macro mode!

electronman (author)2008-09-20

that thing can melt glass. but i think just a thin glass. It's very very HOT...!!!

solomonhorses (author)2008-09-19

well, if you are thinking of shielding yourself from UV, which is a good idea(I was arc welding without a shirt[yes, I am a pyro, like all the rest of you guys]and I got a mean sunburn on my chest in about 2 minutes of intermittent light) you might want to try experimenting with pieces of magnesium in between 2 pieces of glass pane -- it channels the light like a laser (don't look at it, or *ZZZ* and there goes your eyes!

rick69va (author)2008-09-14

If you are going to play with carbon arc lamps, I would suggest that you read the following link on the "basics of carbon arcs" and especially the part on the dangers involved, (UV, etc).

Just a thought.

Have fun, but play safe.

b-train (author)2008-05-07

cool, are the carbon rods, consumable? do they run out coz i can get massive carbon rods from the mine, the use them for gouging out metal.

ironsmiter (author)b-train2008-09-07

mostly, yes, they are consumable. If it's the rods i've seen before, you'll get plenty of use out of the mine leftovers. you MAY need to mess with voltage/amperage and tip shape to get a stable arc out of rods that big though.

Mr. Smart Kid (author)2007-02-25

here's mine useing a 150w!!!!!!! atx psu arc with 5v line fam used 12v line. p.s. i have not zapped my self with the psu tho i sorrta lostthe cover sine we moved

carbon (author)Mr. Smart Kid2007-02-26

Can someone translate this?

ironsmiter (author)carbon2007-02-27

the translation is, Mr.Smart Kid used a PC powersupply to get his 5 or 12 v to power the lamp, instead of a battery. He has lost the cover to his psu in a domestic relocation, and therefore warns that "although I have not yet fried myself with mains(read 110 or 220 wall current) You may not be so lucky." :-) I like his aligator clip idea though... Provides secure, cheap, and easy mounting. Plus adds thermal mass. they act like low quality heatsinks, alowing for slightly higher current before "the wire melts"

About This Instructable




Bio: Adolescent boy (with all that it entails)
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