Lava Lamp Substitutes

Rev. 2009-06-18

Final Warning
My Work
Web Research

Notes by Mike Firth with Internet research below

Rev. 4/16/00, 5/3/2000, other dates noted below

2002-10-29 I have received an e-mail from the author aiming me at this site.  The lamp looks fairly safe, although there is a lot of junk in it.  I can only hope the care in doing the lamp was better than the spelling on the page. Java Lamp with TCE ["Turpentine is a  mixtrue of terpenes and Turpatine is a commercial name brand of a Naphtha solvent product." both shows and example of the spelling problems and reveals that Turpatine is not turpentine as I thought.  I have not heard of it.]

2002-09-19 I like large Snapple bottles for sparkle lamps, although I think the stuff inside is junk.  I finally mixed up some 3:1 (sugar:water) to work with the fine sparkle polyester glitter (while 4:1 works with small rectangles)  I am still adding water, a tablespoon at a time, to get the sparkles to stop floating to the top and making a scum.  Finally tried water alone and found out they float on water, which means no sugar solution will work.

2002-09-08 Recently, as I was comparing the tiny sparkles in the commercial sparkle Lava lamps to the clunkers in my oil sparkle lamps, I realized a simple technique would help with cutting the sparkles: Take a piece of mirror Mylar wrapper and tape one edge to a piece of thin cardboard or other cutting surface, using a straight edge and a razor, cut parallel lines away from the tape, moving the straight edge about 1/16" or 1 mm between cuts to make a comb or fringe effect. Then take the edge and slide it down the fringe till it near the end and cut off the small squares. If you are lucky, you will be able to slide the edge back toward the tape and cut more squares. If the Mylar gets dragged by the edge, lift the edge and set it near the tape again and slide it away until near the fringe. Makes much neater sparkles than with scissors.
2002-09-04 [Tell me how to make a lamp] If you bought aluminum glitter, find some glue, gum up a nearby kid and sprinkle it on her/him. It won't float.
If you bought polyester glitter, mix up 4 parts sugar and one part water and heat briefly in a microwave or sauce pan until it dissolves clear.  The best way to do this for a bottle is to measure the sugar going into the bottle and add 1/4 that amount of water.  While it is hot, add some of the glitter to the bottle, put the cap or cork on the bottle, shake it briefly (hold the cork and use a towel to protect your hand.)   The glitter will either hang in the solution or drift to the top.  If it drifts to the top, the mixture is too heavy.  You will have to add water, hot preferably, a little bit (1 tablespoon maybe) at a time and mix it in until density striations go away.
When you have a reasonable solution (and have kept records so you can make another for the same glitter) take a tin can and mount a socket inside for a 40 watt bulb.  Lava lamps use small appliance lights.  I use cheaper candelabra base torpedo lamps used in chandeliers.  Use a church key can opener to make vent holes in the can, put a piece of screen across the top to support the bottle, and place the whole thing in a bowl big enough to catch everything if the bottle breaks.  If your experience matches mine, the glitter will not move as fast as it does in the Lava glitter lamps.

2002-07-28 After some thought (always a good procedure) it occurred to me to check whether the glitter was also heavier than water, which it turned out to be, so a denser oil would not be the answer. I made heavy sugar solution - eventually close to 4 parts sugar to 1 part water, and found the glitter stayed in suspension when unheated and moved well in the light.
2001-11-15 I thought I had found a marvelous solution - 3 kinds of plastic glitter at Hobby Lobby. It has a glorious effect when shaken in cold oil. Unfortunately it is too dense as both mineral oil and vegetable oil are thinned by heat and just sit on the bottom of the container. I wonder how one increases the density of mineral oil?
2001-11-08 I bought a couple of bottles of mineral oil which produces a clearer effect. The oil is apparently more dense, so while the Mylar bits remain floating in the vegetable oil when the heat is off, in the mineral oil they clot up at the bottom. Still trying to figure out how to get little tiny sparkles without going buggy and having little tiny sparkles stuck to everything. Maybe collecting them on aluminum foil would dilute the static - paper doesn't work.
2001-07-29 I added some very very tiny sliced up Mylar to the other stuff and it does sparkle more, but cutting the tiny squares is tedious and they stick to everything.
2001-07-09 The lava lamp people have come out with sparkly flecks in bottles* shaped like the original. They may be using aluminum glitter in a heavy liquid, but I found, fairly quickly, a substitute that I like: silvery Mylar plastic cut into tiny squares. York peppermint patty is one source, Hershey's Cookies and Cream another. Nabisco 'Nilla Wafers turn out to have an inner Mylar bag that is silver on both sides.  I found a wrapper for something, maybe flowers - clear plastic adhered at edge to aluminized stuff. It would sink in water, so I tried vegetable oil and it suspends nicely in it. I bought the clearest white oil I found on the store shelf - Wesson Oil - to replace the yellowish (cheaper) corn oil I tested with and use for cooking. It is working nicely on my light source. I have many sizes of chips; I think smaller is better, catches more light.
2001-07-12 When off, the oil gets foggy, perhaps because of water in it or solids, but it clears up when the light is turned back on. The oil expands somewhat when heated, so it is probably important to leave an air space at the top. I have looked again at the lamps at the store and the glitter is much smaller than my cutting, perhaps 1/32" (1 mm). I find it tedious to cut small squares carefully, so I fold layers, cut in from the edge of the layers to make narrow strips and then cut small square ends off the narrow strips. I tried chopping the plastic in water in a blender and nothing much happened.
LIGHT SOURCE - Both for the experiments below and above, I used a simple light source: I took a standard tin can, like for vegetables, and used a church key to punch triangular holes just above the base. I bent a short piece of sheet metal (1x6" about) into a U and mounted a plastic candelabra base socket on it. I wired the socket and ran the cord through one of the holes. I used a flame shaped 40 watt bulb (also available in 10, 15, 25, and 60 watt) used for decorative lighting. I trimmed the U to bring top of the bulb just below the top of the can. I cut a square of 1/4" hardware cloth to sit on top of the can and set the bottle on that. I think the effect is best when the bottom of the bottle about the size of the can - when all of the light goes through the bottle instead of around it.

* When the top cap of a Lava Lamp (R) is taken off, it turns out to have the neck of a bottle with a threaded cap.

 I have not pursued the lava lamp after giving up on the flammability of the isopropyl.  Your notes are very good.  I would like to add them to the page, may I?  I will give them a try.   Mike Firth
  Furnace Glass Web Site/Hot Glass Bits
start.htm -----Original Message-----
From: P.i.x.l.F.u.x.a <
Date: Tuesday, April 10, 2001 6:27 AM
Subject: lava lamps

hi mike,

have you got a lamp working properly by now?
well - i have. i used benzylbenzoate to make the paraffin wax (candleworks supply) heavier, and added a good few drops of benzine. the whole operates perfectly (!) in dist. water with a little drop of 'joy' or the like.

full original lava lamp operation, not very toxic (unless you drink the bottle...), not too flammable, as 85% is water.

i do not believe in the isoprop. recipes myself.

i use my wax white (looks like living milk), but the best colourants would be sudan-red, sudan-blue, sudan-yellow by BASF. these are used in the petrochemical industry, but at least sudan-red (a few crystals are enough) isn't too difficult to get.

hope this helps - tell me your findings, if you like



The information way below is fairly complete. My purpose is to discuss my experiments with one method - the mineral oil and alcohol method, which produced a different result than a Lava Lamp, but one I found interesting.

WARNING: This stuff is flamable. Since this is a glassblowing site, I will assume you are going to put this stuff in hand blown pieces. Strongly recommend that any hand blown piece be tested over the lamp/heat with water inside rather than alcohol to check for thermal shock breakage. Pick pieces with little punty indentation and look carefully for cracks.

FINAL WARNING: Having written the paragraph above at the start of this project, I now (6/9/2000) am stopping any work on the alcohol/mineral oil version of this. What I had done is gradually gotten into a more and more hazardous position, without realizing quite how far I had gone. I FEEL VERY STRONGLY THAT THE ALCOHOL BASED LAVA LAMP IS TOO DANGEROUS TO HAVE AROUND. The reason I have come to feel that way is the heat that is being applied to the mix simply gets everything too hot when it is close to performing "properly" and a spill is far too easy (which is what happened to me - a spill of most of a bottle, without a fire, fortunately.)

I have been (4/16/2000) working with supplies I bought at an Eckerd Drug Store. Down below, you will see mention that 70% Isopropyl (ISP) Alcohol is Rubbing Alcohol and a drug store can order 90%. That last part had always put be off because I didn't think of it when I was at the store, etc. So I went over to pick up a prescription and meant to ask and found that right there on the shelf was 91% Isopropyl in modest bottles not far from mineral oil. So I got both. [Later I found 99% Isopropyl at the grocery store!]

From the hardware store where I work, I got 70% Isopropyl Alcohol, a couple of glass bottles with screw on lids, a small socket with cord and a 15 watt lamp. From the kitchen I got some medium sized wire, a largish tin can and food coloring. Using my pocket knife, I worked a hole in the side of the can to mount the small lamp socket and made small holes near the rim to install the wire to make a net to set the bottles on.

I did a bunch of fooling around. I think the method described below is somewhat better. I found it confusing that 90% ISP is lighter than 70% and kept making the wrong choice. I would mark the bottles, "To float oil" on the 70% ISP and water and "To sink oil" on the 90% ISP. I would make more notes than I did. But the first test would be to pour some 70% ISP in a bottle and add some of the mineral oil. The Specific Gravity of mineral oil and 70% are so close



Mineral Oil 0.86
70% ISP 0.8669
100% ISP 0.79
Water 1.00

that I would expect that manufacturing variations could result in the oil sinking in one batch combination and floating in the next. I would then add water or 90% to get the jumping effect described.

So far I have not been able to reproduce the Lava effect - large flowing blobs - although I get an effect I rather like, when there are a lot of spherical bubbles moving up and down and around. I probably have too short bottles, so the overall temperature of the liquid is too even, so that will be my next experiment.

4/17/2000 As I spend more time watching my second draft experiment with a glass soda bottle to hold the mix, I suspect that part of the lava behavior is tied to having a blob of oil at least as big as the bottom of the glassware. Mine is currently considerably smaller, about half the diameter.

4/19/2000 Made up a new bottle, different shape, pouring in about 1/2" of oil in the bottom and then adding pure 70%. The oil floats. I added some artists oil paint, a bit of a blob to color the oil, which it did, slightly. However, the alcohol is very foggy, probably from some water or alcohol soluable component of the vermillion paint. Still working with it.

5/3/2000 As I have been working with this stuff, one huge variable is the temperature of the alcohol, as it gets warm it expands, as much as 1/2" at the top of the bottle, and thus gets less dense. A blob of oil that will be floating in the room temp liquid will be on the bottom of the bottle when the unit gets hot. I am beginning to wonder how much the shape of the bottle affects the behavior, since all the Lava Lamp bottles are a wide about 1/4-1/3 up, with a base about half the wide part and then taper to a tall tip. I am using aluminum foil and to limit the direct application of heat to the bottle and now think I need to further limit it to a smaller spot [which I did with cardboard.] Experiment on.

5/11/2000 I have yet to see any blob in action like the Lava Lamps, that is a big blob with a heated neck pulling up and away to the top. When I have big blobs, they form almost perfect spheres and float a short distance from the bottom (after the alcohol is warm.) I rather like the result when I shake the bottle up, because many different sized bubbles of oil are formed and move constantly in the convection, catching the light. If these coalesce into a bigger bubble, sometimes there are bubbles of alcohol in the oil.

See Cancellation of project comments above.


Lava Lamp Substitutes

found on the net several years ago when I was less careful about recording sources.

From: (Stormoen MD) Newsgroups: alt.drugs
Subject: Lava Lamp Plans Here.
Date: 13 Jan 1995 08:08:15 GMT Message-ID: <3f5cdf$

I've had SEVERAL requests for the plans, so here they are. Sorry, I guess I lost the name of the guy who gave 'em to me. (I received two versions, and I liked this one best).

WARNING!! This electronic document deals with and involves subject matter and the use of materials and substances that may be hazardous to health and life. Do not attempt to implement or use the information contained herein unless you are experienced and skilled with respect to such subject matter, materials and substances. The author makes no representations as for the completeness or the accuracy of the information contained herein and disclaim any liability for damages or injuries, whether caused by or arising from the lack of completeness, inaccuracies of the information, misinterpretation of the directions, misapplication of the information or otherwise.

Please note: The information contained in this electronic document can be found in the 1992 Edition of Popular Electronics Electronics Hobbyists handbook, published annually by Gernsback Publications Inc., USA.

Inside a lava lamp are two immiscible fluids. If it is assumed that fluid 1 is water, then fluid 2 must be:
1) insoluble in water;
2) heavier than water;
3) non-flammable (for safety);
4) non-reactive with water or air;
5) more viscous than water;
6) reasonably priced.

Furthermore, fluid 2 must not be:
1) very poisonous (for safety);
2) chlorinated;
3) emulsifiable in water (for rapid separation).
In addition, fluid 2 must have a greater coefficient of expansion than water. Check a Perry's handbook of Chemical Engineering, and the above list eliminates quite a few possibilities.

Here is a list of possible chemicals to use:
1) benzyl alcohol (sp.g. 1.043, bp 204.7 deg. C, sl. soluble);
2) cinnamyl alcohol (sp. g. 1.04, bp 257.5 deg. C, sl. soluble);
3) diethyl phthalate (sp. g. 1.121, bp 298 deg. C, insoluble);
4) ethyl salicylate (sp. g. 113, bp 233 deg. C, insoluble).

If desired, use a suitable red oil-soluble dye to color fluid 2. A permanent felt-tip pen is a possible source. Break open the pen and put the felt in a beaker with fluid 2.

It is recommended to use benzyl alcohol as fluid 2. (Caution!! Do not come into contact with benzyl alcohol either by ingestion, skin, or inhalation.) In addition to water, the following items will be necessary:
1) sodium chloride (table salt); [MF use rock salt or some other salt as table salt contains a "dryer" to keep it flowing and it fogs the water.]
2) a clear glass bottle, about 10 inches (25.4 cm) high;
3) a 40 watt light bulb and ceramic light fixture;
4) a 1 pint (473 ml) tin can or larger;
5) plywood;
6) 1/4 inch (0.635 cm) thick foam-rubber;
7) AC plug with 16 gauge lamp wire;
8) hardware;
9) light dimmer (optional);
10) small fan (optional).

The performance of the lava lamp will depend on the quality of the water used. A few experiments must be conducted to determine how much sodium chloride is necessary to increase the water's specific gravity. Try a 5% salt concentration first (50 g of salt to 1 liter of water). Pour the red-dyed benzyl alcohol mixture in a Pyrex beaker. Add an equal or greater amount of water and heat slowly on a hot plate. If the benzyl alcohol floats to the top and stays there, decrease the salt concentration. If it stays at the bottom, add more salt.

Construct the lamp by fastening the ceramic lamp fixture to a 5 inch (12.7 cm) diameter piece of plywood. Attach the lamp wire to the fixture. Screw in the 40 watt bulb. Cut one end off the tin can, remove its contents, and clean thoroughly. Drill a hole in the [side of the] tin can for the wire to go through. Invert the can over the bulb (open end down) and affix to the plywood with epoxy. Cut a round gasket from the foam-rubber and fit it into the top lip of the can.

Fill the bottle partially with brine, add about 150 ml of benzyl alcohol, then fill up the bottle with brine. Leave about 1 inch (2.54 cm) of airspace on top for expansion. Bubble size will be influenced by amount of air space. Tightly cap the bottle and place on gasket.

The light dimmer is used to control the amount of heat in the bottle. It is helpful if the bottle is too short and the 40 watt bulb makes the benzyl alcohol accumulate at the top.

The fan can also be used to cool the top of the bottle and help the benzyl alcohol to sink to the bottom.

If desired, add a trace of an antioxidant such as BHA or BHT to the brine to add color and contrast.

Enjoy and good luck.

--- LAVA LAMP MATERIALS -------------------------------------------------------------------------

From TAP-L Listserv, 7/95 Does anyone know what is in a lava lamp? Does anyone know how to make
those wave things that I always see (some blue fluid and yellow or clear
fluid between two sheets of plexi.)?

Regarding Lava Lamps... The stuff inside is (I believe) a trade secret - imagine that.
A pretty good substitute can be found in this:
Benzyl alcohol (probably around 150 - 250 ml)
4.8% salt water solution (48 g per liter)
Benzyl alcohol has a specific gravity of 1.043 g/cc and the brine solution has a s.g. of 1.032 g/cc. When heated, the benzyl alcohol expands enough to become less dense than the brine. Once it cools off, it becomes heavier (denser) and it falls. The cycle hopefully repeats. I've built several of these with students, using a 40 - 60 W light bulb as a heat source. The bulb is in a fixture in a can (small coffee can or such) close to the bottom of the vessel for the mixture. To get the color, find an oil-soluble marker (Magic Marker?) and break it open. Carefully remove the felt ink-soaked thing (technical talk; sorry) and place it in a small bowl with the benzyl alcohol. The longer you leave it in, the darker it will become. A couple of minutes should do the trick. The darker it is, however, the more it will tend to bleed into the brine solution. I've heard from my students that Sharpies bleed too much, so you may want to avoid them as an ink source.

Also, benzyl alcohol is a bit expensive: about $40 per liter (enough for 6-7 lava lamps). Other liquids work too, but may be more dangerous or costly: cinnamyl alcohol diethyl phthalate ethyl salicylate nitrobenzene Experimentation is the key here. Oh, these do work very well if you have a good container. I've not had a chance to try this mixture in an old Lava Lite assembly, though I can't imagine why it wouldn't work well.

By the way, more detailed ideas on this can be found in an article called "Build a Lava Lamp," in a back issue of Popular Electronics (March of 1992? 93? I'm not sure) by Ralph Hubscher. It describes pretty much what I just have, but with better graphics and grammar:-)

As for the wave tank, here's a sure fire technique: baby oil and water, and food coloring. Find a good bottle and an old VW wiper motor (JerryCo {American Science and Surplus} or JC Whitney) for your own wave machine.

Hope this helps. Sorry for the delay in responding but I've just moved recently and only now have gotten around to checking my e-mail. Yeesh, where are my priorities? 175 messages!!!

Bye now,

Sean Reply to: Date: Jul 10, 1995

31.2 How does a Lava Lamp work?

Contributed by: Jim Webb
A container filled with clear or dyed liquid contains a non-water-soluble substance (the "lava") that's just a little bit denser (heavier), and has a greater thermal coefficient of expansion, than the liquid around it. Thus, it settles to the bottom of the container. A heat source at the bottom of the container warms the substance, making it expand and become less dense than the liquid around it. Thus, it rises. As it moves away from the heat source, it cools, contracts a bit, and becomes (once again) heavier than the medium. Thus, it falls. Heavy, light, heavy, light. Sounds like a Milan Kundera novel. (Actually, to be more precise: dense, less dense, dense, less dense.)

31.3 How do I make a Lava Lamp?
Contributed by: Jim Webb
Method #1. A new, easy, simple, cheap lava lamp recipe Use mineral oil as the lava. Use 90% isopropyl alcohol (which most drugstores can easily order) and 70% isopropyl alcohol (grocery-store rubbing alcohol) for the other ingredient. In 90% alcohol the mineral oil will sink to the bottom; slowly add the 70% alcohol (gently mixing all the while; take your time) until the oil seems lighter and is about to "jump" off the bottom. Use the two alcohols to adjust the responsiveness of the "lava."

This mixture is placed in a closed container (the "lava lamp shape" is not required, although something fairly tall is good) and situated over a 40-watt bulb. If the "lava" tends to collect at the top, try putting a dimmer on the bulb, or a fan at the top of the container.

To dye the lava, use an oil-based dye like artists' oil paints or a chopped-up sharpie marker. To dye the liquid around it, use food coloring.

Two suggestions for better performance:
1) Agitation will tend to make the mineral oil form small bubbles unlike the large blobs we're all used to. The addition of a hydrophobic solvent to the mixture will help the lava coalesce. Turpentine and other paint solvents work well. To make sure what you use is hydrophobic, put some on your hand (if it's so toxic you can't put it on your hand, do you want to put it in a container that could break all over your room/desk/office?) and run a little water on it. If the water beads, it should work fine.
2) For faster warm-up time, add some antifreeze or (I've not tried it) liquid soap. Too much will cloud the alcohol. Keep in mind that the addition of these chemicals may necessitate your readjusting the 90% to 70% alcohol mixture.

Method #2. The official way. (from US Patent # 3,570,156 March 16, 1971)

The patent itself is not very specific as to proportions of ingredients. The solid component (i.e., the waxy-looking stuff that bubbles) is said to consist of "a mineral oil such as Ondina 17 (R.T.M.) with a light paraffin, carbon tetrachloride, a dye and paraffin wax."

The medium this waxy stuff moves in is roughly 70/30% (by volume) water and a liquid which will raise the coefficient of cubic thermal expansion, and generally make the whole thing work better. The patent recommends propylene glycol for this; however, glycerol, ethylene glycol, and polyethylene glycol (aka PEG) are also mentioned as being sufficient.

This mixture is placed in a closed container (the "lava lamp shape" is not required, although something fairly tall is good) and situated over a 40-watt bulb. If the "lava" tends to collect at the top, try putting a dimmer on the bulb, or a fan at the top of the container.

Method #3. The "less official" way (from Popular Electronics,[3]) How to make a Lava Lamp, by Ralph Hubscher, Popular Electronics magazine, March 1991, p. 31 ((4). Gernsback Publications.)

Several non-water-soluble chemicals fall under the category of being "just a little bit heavier" than water, and are still viscous enough to form bubbles, not be terribly poisonous, and have a great enough coefficient of expansion. Among them: Benzyl alcohol (Specific Gravity 1.043 g/cm3), Cinnamyl Alcohol (SG 1.04), Diethyl phthalate (SG 1.121) and Ethyl Salicylate (SG 1.13). [The specific gravity of distilled water is 1.000.]

Hubscher recommends using Benzyl Alcohol, which is used in the manufacture of perfume and (in one of its forms) as a food additive. It can be obtained from chemical or laboratory supply houses (check your yellow pages); the cheapest I could find it for was $25 for 500 ml (probably 2, maybe 3 regular-sized lava lamps' worth). An oil-soluble dye is nice to color the "lava"; Hubscher soaked the benzyl in a chopped up red felt-tip pen and said it worked great. [Benzyl alcohol is "relatively harmless", but don't drink it, and avoid touching & breathing it.]

Hubscher found that the benzyl and the water alone didn't do much, so he raised the specific gravity of the water a little bit by adding table salt. A 4.8% salt solution (put 48 grams of salt in a container and fill it up to one liter with water) has a specific gravity of about 1.032, closer to benzyl's 1.043. I find that the salt tends to cloud the water a bit. You might want to experiment with other additives. (Antifreeze? Vinegar? Glycerin?)

This is put into a closed container and placed above a 40-watt bulb, as above. Either way, I would suggest using distilled water and consider sterilizing the container by immersing it in boiling water for a few minutes.. algae growing in lava lamps is not very hip.

Caveat 1: Some of these chemicals are not good for you.

Caveat 2: Some of these companies are not good for you if they find you've been infringing on their patent rights and trying to sell your new line of "magma lights." Be careful.

Jason Liang ( Why don't you try to use benzyl benzoate instead. As an ester it has a lot less water solubility. Besides it also has a higher density 1.112 compares to benzyl alcohol's 1.045. Therefore you can put a bit more salts and may sodium benzoate to kill germs. Just a thought. I work in a benzylbenzoate producer. If you do try please let me know your results. Benzyl Benzoate is not difficult to buy and it is nontoxic and is even used in gums. If you have trouble to get it, e-mail me your address I might be able to send you a small sample.


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