How to Make Your Own Homemade Glow Sticks

The first glow sticks were patented by the US Navy in the 70s, but back then, they were called "Chemiluminescent Signal Devices." Today, glow sticks are still used by the military, emergency services, campers, divers and, of course, ravers.

Image via staticflickr.com

I may be done with the glow-in-the-dark parties from my college days, but I still think glow sticks are pretty legit, and always thought it would be awesome to make some for myself. Talk about a cool application for all those boring chemistry lectures.

There are several different ways to make your own homemade glow sticks, some much more complicated than others, so let's get down to it.

Chemically Accurate Glow Sticks

Unfortunately, real glow sticks are pretty complicated. To make glow sticks like a chemist, you need several supplies that aren't exactly cheap, or easy to come by. Unless you have unfettered access to a fully stocked science lab, you'll probably need to buy some of them online.

How Glow Sticks Work

Obviously, glow sticks aren't already glowing in the pack when you buy them. You have to snap the plastic outer tube, which has a small glass tube inside containing a bunch of chemicals. When these chemicals are released, they react with the hydrogen peroxide and dye in the outer tube, making them glow.

Image via whstatic.com

There's one chemical in particular that causes this reaction to have such a cool effect—bis(2,4,6-trichlorophenyl) oxalate, or TCPO.

Image via wikimedia.org

Hooray for chemical structures!

To make TCPO, you dissolve 2,4,6-trichlorophenol in a solution of dry toluene, which reacts with oxalyl chloride when added to a weak base and hydrogen peroxide. This creates a chemiluminescent reaction, which produces the glow.

Image via staticflickr.com

Dr. Lithium of NurdRage put together a great detailed guide on how to make your own TCPO for all your homemade glow stick endeavors. Check out the video below to see how it's done.

Once you've made some TCPO, you'll need even more chemicals to make your glow sticks. Diethyl Phthalate is used as the solvent, and you'll also need some fluorescent dye, sodium acetate, and of course, hydrogen peroxide.

Dr. Lithium also wrote a tutorial on how to combine everything to create the reaction, and you can watch him go through the process step by step in this video.

As stated in the video, different dyes can be added to the standard mixture for different colors, and some may be brighter than others. The length and intensity of the glow depends on the amount of TCPO you use.

Be sure to check out Dr. Lithium's tutorial for more details.

Mega Glow Stick

In a follow-up video to the guide featured above, Dr. Lithium and a few members of the NurdRage crew decided to create a 100-foot glow stick using polyethylene tubing, which is the same casing that's used for the ones you buy in stores.

The ingredients are pretty much the same as the ones in his other guides, you'll just need a lot more of them. Check out the video to see how it's made (or you can skip to the four minute mark if you just want to see what a 100-foot glow stick looks like).

Pretty awesome, right? Who knew science was so cool. You can find the full list of supplies and a detailed tutorial here.

"Solar-Powered" Reusable Glow Stick

C For Chemistry created a tutorial on how to make a reusable glow stick you can recharge. It's technically not a real glow stick since it doesn't bend and you don't have to snap it, but this version is much easier to make because it uses phosphorescence rather than chemiluminescence to produce the glow.

All you need is some copper-doped zinc sulfide (sold as "glow-in-the-dark powder"), a tube of epoxy resin, a plastic syringe, and a piece of heat-shrink tubing or a straw for the outer tube.

All you have to do is mix together the zinc sulfide and epoxy resin, then use the syringe to inject it into the tube. Once the resin hardens, you trim off the excess tubing and you have a permanent reusable glow stick that recharges with exposure to light.

Easy Alternatives

If you don't want to mess with all those dangerous chemicals or go through the trouble of tracking down some of the materials, there are a few workarounds you can use to cheat your way to a fake glow stick...or faux stick, if you will. After all, we can't all be Walter White.

Glow in the dark paint is a super easy alternative that could be cheaper in the long run if you need a lot of glow sticks. You could mix it with water and fill lengths of polyethylene tubing, or if you'd rather wear your glow sticks, just buy glow in the dark body paint and paint them on yourself.

Image via hybridlava.com

Glow in the dark tape is another great option and requires a lot less work. You can just tape your wrists or create cool designs on your clothing or sneakers.

Not enough glow for ya? Turn your bike into an awesome glowing night bike, or liven up your party with some delicious glow in the dark cocktails.

Multiglow stick photo via Shutterstock, other images via Matthew Loberg, wikiHow, Edgar181, Luke Saagi, Guillaume Kayacan

1 Comment

My daughter made this with luminal for a science project. How should we dispose of the mixture when we are done?

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