A glow stick is a self-contained, short-term light-source. It consists of a translucent plastic tube containing isolated substances that, when combined, make light through chemiluminescence, so it does not require an external energy source. The light cannot be turned off and can only be used once. Glow sticks are often used for recreation, but may also be relied upon for light during military, police, fire, or EMS operations.
Glow sticks are waterproof, do not use batteries, generate negligible heat, are inexpensive, and are reasonably disposable. They can tolerate high pressures, such as those found under water. They are used as light sources and light markers by military forces, campers, and recreational divers. Glow sticks are considered the only light source that is safe for use immediately following any catastrophic event.
Glowsticking is the use of glow sticks in dancing. This is one of their most widely known uses in popular culture, as they are frequently used for entertainment at parties (in particular raves), concerts, and dance clubs. They are used by marching band conductors for evening performances; glow sticks are also used in festivals and celebrations around the world. Glow sticks also serve multiple functions as toys, readily visible night-time warnings to motorists, and luminous markings that enable parents to keep track of their children. Yet another use is for balloon-carried light effects. Glow sticks are also used to create special effects in low light photography and film.
The Guinness Book of Records says the world’s largest glow stick was cracked at 9 ft 10 in (3 m) tall. It was created using Plexiglass by KNIXS GmbH (all Germany) in Darmstadt Weiterstadt, Germany, on 29 June 2009.
Glow sticks emit light when two chemicals are mixed. The sticks consist of a tiny, brittle container within a flexible outside container. Each container holds a different solution. When the outer container is flexed, the inner container breaks, allowing the solutions to combine, causing the necessary chemical reaction. After breaking, the tube is shaken to thoroughly mix the two components.
The glow stick contains two chemicals and a suitable dye (sensitizer, or fluorophor). This creates an exothermic reaction. The chemicals inside the plastic tube are a mixture of the dye and diphenyl oxalate. The chemical in the glass vial is hydrogen peroxide. By mixing the peroxide with the phenyl oxalate ester, a chemical reaction takes place, yielding two moles of phenol and one mole of peroxyacid ester (1,2-dioxetanedione). The peroxyacid decomposes spontaneously to carbon dioxide, releasing energy that excites the dye, which then relaxes by releasing a photon. The wavelength of the photon—the color of the emitted light—depends on the structure of the dye. The reaction releases energy mostly as light, with very little heat. The reason for this is that the reverse 2+2 photocycloaddition of 1,2-dioxetanedione is a forbidden transition (it violates Woodward–Hoffmann rules) and cannot proceed through a regular thermal mechanism.
By adjusting the concentrations of the two chemicals, manufacturers can produce glow sticks that either glow brightly for a short amount of time or more dimly for an extended length of time. This also allows design of glow sticks that perform satisfactorily in hot or cold climates, by compensating for the temperature dependence of reaction. At maximum concentration (typically only found in laboratory settings), mixing the chemicals results in a furious reaction, producing large amounts of light for only a few seconds. Heating a glow stick also causes the reaction to proceed faster and the glow stick to glow more brightly for a brief period. Cooling a glow stick slows the reaction a small amount and causes it to last longer, but the light is dimmer. This can be demonstrated by refrigerating or freezing an active glow stick; when it warms up again, it will resume glowing. The dyes used in glow sticks usually exhibit fluorescence when exposed to ultraviolet radiation—even a spent glow stick may therefore shine under a black light.
The light intensity is high immediately after activation, then exponentially decays. Leveling of this initial high output is possible by refrigerating the glow stick before activation.
A combination of two fluorophores can be used, with one in the solution and another incorporated to the walls of the container. This is advantageous when the second fluorophore would degrade in solution or be attacked by the chemicals. The emission spectrum of the first fluorophore and the absorption spectrum of the second one have to largely overlap, and the first one has to emit at shorter wavelength than the second one. A downconversion from ultraviolet to visible is possible, as is conversion between visible wavelengths (e.g., green to orange) or visible to near-infrared. The shift can be as much as 200 nm, but usually the range is about 20-100 nm longer than the absorption spectrum. Glow sticks using this approach tend to have colored containers, due to the dye embedded in the plastic. Infrared glow sticks may appear dark-red to black, as the dyes absorb the visible light produced inside the container and reemit near-infrared.
On the other hand, various colors can also be achieved by simply mixing several fluorophores within the solution to achieve the desired effect. These various colors can be achieved due to the principles of additive color. For example, a combination of red, yellow, and green fluorophores is used in orange light sticks, and a combination of several fluorescers is used in white light sticks.