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  • Sara Thompson

What Makes Glow Sticks Glow?

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Glow Sticks; Image credit is User Pixelmaniac, from Wikimedia Commons

Glow sticks are a fun accessory to have when in the dark. Glow sticks now are typically associated with celebrations and having fun, usually during Halloween, New Years, and other get togethers that occur after dark. Found in a variety of colors and sizes, most glow sticks have the same mechanism to make the fun glow.

There have been a number of patents of products similar to glow sticks as early as 1965, but the one that is most reminiscent of our modern-day glow sticks came about in 1976 with the Chemiluminescent Signal Device. It was designed to replace road flares in emergency situations, as the Chemiluminescent Signal Devices were safer to deploy, were not fire hazards, waterproof, and would not snuff out if run over by other passing vehicles.

The mechanism for the Chemiluminescent Signal Device and our current glow stick models works much the same. There is a plastic outer casing and an inner glass capsule. Both sections contain a different solution. Bending the flexible, plastic outer case will break the inner glass one and cause the solutions to mix. Shaking the capsule will aid in the mixing but is not always necessary. The two solutions react to create the glowing light. The intensity of the light and the length of time is dependent on which chemicals are used, and different brands use different mixes.

Glow sticks have a variety of uses that span numerous industries. They are used by some trucking companies to signal a vehicle pulled over after dark. Some mining operations use glow sticks as a light source in emergencies when an electric light would ignite a gas leak. Divers use them as a softer light source when diving to not disturb the sea life accustomed to the dark. Campers and backpackers use them at their campsites or on equipment when doing overnight expeditions.

Even though they have almost countless uses, one of the biggest critiques is that they are made of single use plastic and are not recyclable due to the chemicals being used. Manufacturers are working with environmental groups to come up with a safe glow stick alternative. Some suggestions are to use a biodegradable outer shell, are researching bioluminescent or phosphorescence for the glow effect.


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