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)



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    141 Discussions


    3 years ago

    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.

    1 reply

    3 years ago

    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


    5 years ago on Step 3

    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

    1 reply
    Varen Greycloak

    3 years ago

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


    4 years ago on Introduction

    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!

    3 replies

    Reply 3 years ago on Introduction

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


    5 years ago on Introduction

    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... :/


    6 years ago on Step 5

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


    7 years ago on Step 3

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


    7 years ago on Step 3

    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.


    7 years ago on Step 2

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

    mad magoo

    11 years ago on Introduction

    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!

    2 replies