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.

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BambiB12 days ago

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!

marine2.01 year ago
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
ThatCatMan1 year ago
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... :/
pwnag32 years ago
why does "I really hope my dad doesn't notice the burn on the carpet" sound familiar XD
jpoopdog3 years ago
carbon rods are most easily pulled out of the rod when the battery is fresh
bgoldberg13 years ago
Wouldn't it be simpler to use a graphite rod from a mechanical pencil?
msammons3 years ago
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.
AllenInks3 years ago
so why have you used a radioactive symbol? no nuclear radiation or contamination involved... Maybe a lightening bolt?

mad magoo7 years ago
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!
im not sure but i like you have the base knowlege so try it!!!
bowmaster3 years ago
Cool, this would make a really good bike lamp.
pyro228 years ago
here is a scan from one of my popsci. watch out 6 MB. right click and save
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)  pyro228 years ago
Or...not? Would someone please explain to the idiot {me} how to download the whole picture?
here it is, all i did was modfy the url to say "LARGE"
insted of "SMALL" or "MEDIUM"
carbon (author)  pyro228 years ago
You are my hero! Thanks a bunch!
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
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.
grenadier4 years ago
I hope you know that the main ingredient in carbon/zinc cells is maganese dioxide.

Nonetheless, it's not very harmful.
mysterio775 years ago
 rinse the rods under water to get rid of the poison
good idea
jpoopdog4 years ago
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
bombmaker24 years ago
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?
Articas5 years ago
can you use pencil lead
Articas5 years ago


mattcaron5 years ago
backup, backup pliers ftw!
could you use old, dead batteries instead?
:O Nikola Tesla ;)
mysterio775 years ago
 zinc carbon batteries actually have a ton of manganese dioxide in them. as well as ammonium chloride. so be careful
Edgar5 years ago
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."

Arbitror6 years ago
Ha ha! LOL! I love the "magnifying glass" macro mode!
electronman6 years ago
that thing can melt glass. but i think just a thin glass. It's very very HOT...!!!
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!
rick69va6 years ago
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-train7 years ago
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.
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.
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 Kid8 years ago
Can someone translate this?
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