What is a Carbide Lamp?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A carbide lamp is a lamp which is designed to burn acetylene, a gas which will burn hot and bright in the right conditions. These types of lamps were originally designed for mining, and although they have been largely replaced by electric lamps, some people still use carbide lamps for caving, camping, and mining operations. Antique versions can be purchased at auction or through an antique store, while new versions are available from outdoor suppliers who sell camping equipment and related supplies.

Carbide lamps are still sometimes used in cave exploration.
Carbide lamps are still sometimes used in cave exploration.

The design of a carbide lamp includes two chambers connected with a valve. When the valve is opened, water can drip from the upper chamber into the lower chamber, which is filled with calcium carbide. This causes a chemical reaction which generates acetylene, with the gas flowing out of a nozzle in front of the lamp. The acetylene can be lit with a match or similar device, generating a bright flame. Often, a reflector is mounted on the lamp to scatter the light.

There are some potential safety risks with the lamp. It is important to make sure that the nozzle is clear so that the gas can escape, or the lamp may explode from the buildup of pressure inside. It is also critical to be able to control the valve which drips water, as this controls the amount of gas produced inside the chambers. When the carbide lamp is not in use, the valve needs to close securely so that flammable gas is not generated. These lamps also get very hot, which can become a safety issue.

The light produced by a carbide lamp is bright, white, and even. The even nature of the light can be very useful in underground settings where lights with filaments and lenses can cast peculiar shadows. Shadows may obscure important visual information or make a space look and feel confusing, which can be disorienting underground when people lack frames of reference which they can use to figure out where they are.

Calcium carbide to run carbide lamps is manufactured industrially. It can be obtained through a number of companies. Many stores which sell new calcium carbide lamps also sell calcium carbide refills, or can point people to potential sources. For people buying antique lamps, it is critical to clean and inspect the lamp, taking special care to check the valve and nozzle, before fueling the lamp and testing it out. It is also advisable to test a carbide lamp in a controlled environment with a fire extinguisher within reach in case there is a problem.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I don't really think it will explode with shrapnel. The nozzle on mine was clogged and the gas leaked out of the side seal of the lamp. When I tried to light it the gas combusted, but it was just a burst of fire, not the actual whole lamp exploding.


My parents used to bring a carbide cap lamp along when we would go camping. I remember how very bright it was, but I never knew how much danger we were in by using it. I'm glad that nothing bad ever happened.

I do recall them telling me never to touch it, so that should have been a clue right there. I could tell that the area around the lamp was pretty warm, and I was afraid of touching hot things, so it was not a temptation to me.

Flashlights are good for using inside a tent, but the carbide lamp was way better while we were outdoors gathering firewood. I think it probably also helped to scare wild animals away.


@seag47 – Miners use carbide lamps, and they definitely know how to do it right. My uncle is a miner, and I got to go underground with him once. He brought a carbide lamp so that we could see our way around.

The lamp lit the entire area. With most lamps, you don't get enough light to be able to use your peripheral vision, but with this one, I could see all around.

Also, it was really cold in the mine, but the lamp heated the area up a bit. My uncle told me that this is one reason that miners love carbide lamps.


Wow, carbide lamps sound really dangerous! They may put off good light, but still, who would want to take that risk?

I'm a bit accident prone anyway, so I would never mess with one of these. I would probably be the person responsible for making one explode.

Having one catch fire underground would be even worse. People would be more likely to die from the fumes before they could find a route of escape.

I sure hope that people who use carbide lamps know what they are doing. This sounds like something only professionals should use.

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