The Chemistry of a Glow Stick


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When you see a glow stick what do you think? When I see one I think of dances or even a fun party of some kind. Also, when I see a glow stick, a question pops in my head. How do they work? Well, a glow stick is simply a plastic tube filled with a chemical and fluorescent dye, and inside that tube is another tube that is made out of glass, which is filled with another chemical. When someone takes a glow stick and bends it in half, the glass vial breaks and releases the chemical. When the chemical is released and mixed with the other a reaction occurs and then emits light.The fluorescent dye is what gives the light a color.  I chose to research the chemistry of glow sticks because I love fluorescent lights and anything that glows in the dark. They are also a fun thing to have during Halloween or a school dance. Glow sticks affect my life in a positive way. They make night events much more fun. Another reason why I chose glow sticks.
Composition of ...
Fluorescent dyes are a type of dye that emits light. They are used everywhere like in glow sticks, pens, and even in biology to track the movement of molecules in tissue. Inside the plastic tube is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and fluorescent dye. Hydrogen peroxide is a clear substance that can be used to bleach products like cotton. However, when it is mixed it produces crystalline solids. The last part of the chemical reaction in a glow stick is the chemical that is in the glass vial. This chemical is called phenyl oxalate. Phenyl oxalate is a solid ester which is the cause of the process called  chemiluminescence. When it combines with hydrogen peroxide it produces  phenol and 1,2-dioxetanedione. The products of the mixture are what “excite” the fluorescent dye to produce the color.

Main Chemicals, Compounds, Components

  • Hydrogen Peroxide

    • clear substance that can be used to bleach products like cotton

  • fluorescent dye

    • dye that emits light

  • Phenyl oxalate

    • is a solid ester

Chemistry's Role

Glow sticks contain fluorescent dyes which is where the color comes from. The dyes are mixed with hydrogen peroxide and contained in a plastic tube.

There are three major components to glow sticks.There’s the dye, which gives it the color. Then there’s the two chemicals that react to give the dye its light. A common combination of chemicals is hydrogen peroxide and phenyl oxalate ester.

The chemicals in glow sticks can be combined in certain ways to have a brighter glow for a short period of time or a dim glow for a longer time. For example putting the glow stick in a cooler environment slows down the reaction that makes dimmer glow that will last longer. placing the glow stick in a hotter environment will exaggerate the glow but will shorten the lifespan.

Background Research

No matter the form of light, it all works the same way. An outside energy will excite the atoms and then the atoms will release particles of light that are called photons. After the atoms are excited and move up energy levels they will fall back down, and when they do they release more energy in the form of light. A glow stick will do the same thing but through a chemical reaction called chemiluminescence. That is the emission of light through a chemical reaction. The two chemicals that cause this reaction are diphenyl oxalate and hydrogen peroxide. A fluorescent dye is also added to create color.


About the Author

Michaela Tharp is a junior at Billings Senior High. She enjoys working hard and going to school. Her favorite class is chemistry where she can learn how chemistry and everyday life are all connected. She also enjoys playing volleyball and hopes to attend the Art Institute of Las Angeles.