Introduction: Carbon Arc Lights

About: Adolescent boy (with all that it entails)

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

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!

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

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

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!

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...

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)