Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Elizabeth. Elizabeth Wonders, “How do lighters get there heat from” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Elizabeth!
When is your birthday? If it is today, Happy Birthday, Wonder Friend! We love celebrating birthdays and one of the things we most look forward to is blowing out birthday candles on the birthday cake! Do you look forward to this tradition, too? It is fun to gather around the table with those you're closest to and wait excitedly for a family member or friend to reach for a lighter to light the candles on your cake. Before you know it, each candle is lit and everyone is singing "Happy Birthday" to you!
Have you ever given any thought to how lighters work to produce a flame so easily and consistently? The science behind the lighter is both simple and fascinating.
To produce a flame, a lighter needs both fuel and a way to create a spark to ignite that fuel. Modern disposable lighters combine those two elements in a simple, cheap package that allows us to create fire on demand easily.
The lighter traces its history back to at least the early 1800s, when a German chemist named Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner created a lamp-like device that used a platinum catalyst to spark flammable hydrogen gas into a hot, bright fire. Unfortunately, his device was too large and dangerous to become very popular.
Inexpensive, disposable lighters became possible after Carl Auer von Welsbach patented ferrocerium in 1903. This cheap, man-made metallic material produces a large spark when scratched. It is often misidentified as flint in modern lighters.
In the early 1900s, companies such as Ronson and Zippo began to combine ferrocerium with fuel sources, such as naptha, in the first commercially-available lighters. In the 1950s, most companies that produced lighters switched from naptha to butane as their fuel source.
Stored under pressure inside the lighter in its liquid form, butane quickly converts to a gas when depressurized. When the friction wheel on a lighter is turned by the thumb, a tiny stream of butane gas is released, which is then ignited by a spark. Unlike previous fuel sources, butane produces a controllable, candle-like flame that has fewer odors.
Some newer lighters have replaced ferrocerium with a piezoelectric crystal. When compressed by the push of a button, the crystal creates a voltaic arc that ignites the butane. Otherwise, most lighters work the same way they have since the 1950s.