How to Burn a Calcium Carbide Lamp

Written by john brennan
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How to Burn a Calcium Carbide Lamp
Water and calcium carbide react to form acetylene gas--like the gas used in this torch. (Soudure Oxy-acetylene image by Coralie Palmeri from

Carbide or acetylene lamps add water to calcium carbide to yield acetylene gas. This flammable gas burns to give light. In the early 20th century, these lamps were popular for use in mining, as military searchlights and in headlights. As electric lights became more widely available, they gradually supplanted carbide lamps in most of these applications. Carbide lamps are still sometimes used for exploring caves or spelunking. Carbide lamps are fairly simple to use as long as you are careful with them.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Calcium carbide in an airtight container
  • Calcium carbide lamp
  • Plastic bag

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  1. 1

    Read the manufacturer's instructions for the lamp.

  2. 2

    Detach the base of the lamp. Pack the base of the lamp 1/2 to 2/3 full with calcium carbide, which is usually sold in pellet form. Do not overfill. Check the upper reservoir of the lamp to make sure it is full of water.

  3. 3

    Spit into the lamp bottom to add some water to the calcium carbide.

  4. 4

    Reattach the lamp base to the lamp top.

  5. 5

    Slowly turn on the drip. Calcium carbide lamps come with a drip mechanism that slowly releases water onto the calcium carbide. The water is stored in the upper reservoir of the lamp.

  6. 6

    Feel or listen for gas flowing from the lamp base. As soon as you feel a steady flow of gas, cup your hand over the lamp reflector and push the striking or ignition mechanism on the lamp with your palm. The acetylene should ignite with a pop.

  7. 7

    Blow out the lamp when you are finished. Clean out the base of the lamp with a stick and empty any spent calcium carbide into the plastic bag you brought with you.

Tips and warnings

  • Always keep the lamp reflector clean and well-polished.
  • Never dump spent calcium carbide; it can potentially be harmful to wildlife.
  • Carry a spare flint and spare lighter in case the ignition mechanism on your lamp goes bad.
  • Always carry calcium carbide in an airtight container -- the moisture in the air can react with the carbide and deprive you of your fuel.
  • It's important to make sure the upper reservoir of the lamp has enough water; the lamp will only work if it has water. Carry some water in a water bottle in case you run out.
  • Calcium carbide mixed with water yields acetylene gas, which is highly flammable. Always take all possible precautions when using or igniting your lamp.
  • Do not use calcium carbide lamps when doing a vertical climb down a cave. The heat of the lamp could melt through the rope.

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