How Glowsticks Work

The simplistic design of the glowstick has kept it practical and inexpensive for many years as it has expanded to different uses.

Glowsticks, sometimes referred to as lightsticks, are often used by campers, hunters and children when trick-or-treating. They can help guide people on a path, be left as warning markers for drivers, or be worn as a colorful decoration. Glowsticks and glow necklaces and bracelets are a common sight at both rave parties and concerts.

These innovative items were originally created for the military over 25 years ago, but have obviously expanded into many other useful applications. A glowstick is composed of nothing more than a small plastic tube containing a smaller glass tube within it. If left alone, there is nothing special about it. However, when the plastic tube is bent enough that the inner glass vial breaks, the activator fluid is released and the glowstick becomes activated. The contents of the glass vial and the contents of the plastic tube are two different chemicals which react by glowing when they interact with each other. The fluid releases energy tinged by fluorescent dye to produce a "cool" light effect.

Any chemical reaction is going to produce energy in one form or another - in a glowstick, of course, the desired form is light. Light created by such a chemical reaction is called chemiluminescence and it has some unique properties. For example, people often store glowsticks in a freezer if they wish to prolong the glowstick's usefulness. This is because even though the reaction producing the light does not create heat, nor is it being caused by heat, temperature affects the rate at which the reaction occurs. As a result, placing the glowstick in a freezer or other cold environment will slow the reaction, allowing it to last longer. It will also cause the glowstick to generate less light while it is cold. Similarly, you can shorten the life of a glowstick by heating it up, causing it to create a brighter light as well. This effect can be observed by placing a glowstick in hot water for a few minutes. Keep in mind never to break the plastic outer tube of a glowstick, for though in recent years they are composed of non-toxic substances, the chemicals used in them can potentially be dangerous if released.

Of course, the two primary chemicals alone are not enough to generate the desired effect. Along with the energy-reacting fluids, glowsticks contain a fluorescent dye which absorbs the energy and converts it into colored light. There are a great deal of substances which create light energy when combined, but the most common of them are solutions of hydrogen peroxide (the activator mentioned above), phenyl oxalate ester, and fluorescent dye. The dye's color will determines the color the chemical reaction will emit. When this event happens, the two chemicals will change form. As the reaction takes place, the electrons of the dye rise to a higher level before falling back down to their normal level. When the electrons fall, the light energy will be released and the electrons will immediately be stimulated again by the reaction occurring around them, producing an ongoing effect of illumination.

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