Denatured alcohol burns hot and steady, making it a top choice for laboratory heat sources for centuries. These simple lamps offer the means by which to strike and maintain a flame quickly and easily, and a small amount of alcohol will keep the flame alive for a long time compared to similar-sized lamps with other fuel types. Aside from laboratory use, alcohol lamps are often used for heat and light while camping, for outdoor garden or patio lighting and for ambient light indoors. Here is a brief overview of what an alcohol lamp is, and the basic answers you need in deciding whether or not an alcohol lamp will be right for your needs.
What is an alcohol lamp?
The basic, traditional alcohol lamp consists of a small jar with a short, narrow neck. A metal or other non-combustible cap fits over the mouth. This cap has a small slit in it that's just large enough to allow a broad wick to pass through. A second, solid cap fits over the top of the first when the lamp is not in use in order to prevent the alcohol from evaporating. The wick should be long enough to allow a small amount to protrude above the slit in the first cap while the other end is submerged in the alcohol. More recently, wickless alcohol burners have been produced as well.
Are alcohol lamps safe?
While the use of any ignition source carries some risk, alcohol lamps are considered safer than most alternatives. The close fit of the wick as it passes through the cap precludes a flame from moving into the jar since there is not enough oxygen to keep it alive. Even if a flame did reach the alcohol, it would merely burn all of the small amount of fuel and then go out. Unlike gas lamps, alcohol lamps do not carry a risk of explosion.
What are the advantages of using an alcohol lamp?
Not only do alcohol lamps burn steadily, they are quite inexpensive to use. The lamp requires only denatured alcohol to work, the exact type of alcohol isn't critical. You can find denatured alcohol in the paint section of your local hardware store, as it is often used to clean paintbrushes and other tools. Expect to pay about $10 to $15 per gallon. Alcohol lamps are a favorite for both home and laboratory use because they burn clean, producing no soot or smoke. Finally, the lamp itself is inexpensive and easy to use.
Where can I get an alcohol lamp?
Alcohol lamps can be purchased from any laboratory supply company for under $10 for a traditional wicked lamp. Wicking can be purchased from the same sources, or from camping supply outlets and sometimes craft stores. Alternatively, you can make your own alcohol lamp fairly easily using a jar or small bottle that has a metal lid (baby food jars work well). Even regular household cotton balls can provide a serviceable wick, though designated wicking material is recommended so that you know it won't melt or contain harmful chemicals.