How To Make A Lava Lamp

Sometimes we try something that makes the boys just stop and silently stare in wonder. Other times my kids come up with brilliant ideas that result in some pretty amazing things. This week both things happened when we made DIY Lava Lamps! They were mesmerized by the bubbles and it started them asking some fascinating questions that lead into a brand new Lava Lamp Experiment that turned into a wonderful learning experience. All child led!


Against a white background a mason jar has dark and light green liquids with bubbles in dark green going through the light green layer in a lava lamp style. Overlay text says How to Make a Lava Lamp

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This simple science experiment is always a huge hit with kids of all ages. The best part was seeing how their minds were thinking, analyzing and contemplating as they watch the bubbles bouncing up, before they sink down. Moving around in mesmerizing ways in our lava lamps.

As an educator I love how easy it is to do this experiment. Kids of all ages and abilities can benefit from this activity. I recommend it for preschool and up, as long as they are old enough to not be spilling or playing with the mix in the jars. They need to be mature enough to be able to just watch and enjoy the reaction, which is truly mesmerizing and relaxing. Even adults will enjoy watching the bubbling lava reaction.

The kids and I were fascinated by the little beads of colour that bounced joyfully in our bottles.

Check out our Lava Lamp Video

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DIY Lava Lamp Materials

There are a few different options for making your lava lamp so you can pick the option that works best with your readily available supplies, but let’s start with a complete supply list for all the different options. Then you can try them all and see what works best for you!

Jars or Bottles – clear (we found washed, large juice bottles worked well, but so do mason jars)
Tonic Water
Oil (vegetable or baby oil, I prefer baby oil because it is clear)
Alka Seltzer tablet (or Eno or similar)
Liquid Food Colouring
Photoluminescent pigment
Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)
Citric Acid

Basic DIY Lava Lamp Directions

Fill the bottom of the jar with water to about 1/4 full.

Next add vegetable oil. Fill the bottle leaving about an inch at the top. In a mason jar I fill to the lip.

Next add a few drops of food colouring. This is a fascinating step watching as the drops of food coloring drops fall through the oil and rest on top of the water before slowly starting to mix with the water at the bottom of the container.

Now it’s time for the magic! Add a teaspoon of Alka Seltzer (if yours are in tablet form, break the tablets into quarters and add a quarter tablet to start).

Watch the lava lamp come to life with bubbles!

After a few minutes the reaction will settle down. To start it again, simply add more Alka Seltzer.

Test your variables now by adding a whole tablet. What happens?

If you want to store the container and use it at a later time simply set it somewhere safe. If you need to put a lid on the container, make sure the reaction has completely stopped as a gas is released and a build up of pressure from the reaction could cause the container to rupture if you place a lid on it.

Lava Lamp Without Alka Seltzer

If you don’t have all the ingredients on hand you can make a few substitutions.

Instead of vegetable oil you can use baby oil. We found it created a lot of bubbles and the clarity of the lava lamp was not as good, but it does still work.

Next, if you don’t have Alka Seltzer, you can make your own mix. If you ever make bath bombs like us, you already have the ingredients on hand! Simple mix 2 parts baking soda with 1 part citric acid. Add a teaspoon of the mixture and watch the reaction go! The best part is how this helps kids understand that it is once again an acid-base reaction charging our lava lamps. We love those acid-base reactions!

Now, what can you use instead of water? Well we came up with a cool solution that gives our homemade lava lamps glow power!

Glow in the Dark Lava Lamp

After building our first Bubble Bottle my son announced that he wanted to try it with Tonic Water instead of plain water to see if we could make a Glow Lava Lamp. Always ready to take things up a notch we decided to go for it. And it worked!

On a black background a blue glowing lava lamp is bubbling. Overlay text says How to make a Glow in the Dark Lava Lamp

In fact, it resulted in some really cool and unexpected results. The food colouring sat in a layer between the oil and tonic water, only mixing once we added the antacid.

We then tried adding two different colours. With water as the base the colours started diffusing and blending right away. But with the tonic water the beads of colours once again sat on top of the tonic water. When we added the antacid the food colouring started diffusing but not before creating beads of colour in both colours before they slowly blended together to create our new colour.

Glow in the Dark Lava Lamps Without Tonic Water

So the next question was, “Can we make a lava lamp that glows without using tonic water?” Turns out the answer was YES!

Instead of food colouring we added some glow in the dark pigment (Photoluminescent pigment) to the water. The best part was that this one glowed without needing a black light. Although you can use the black light too.

This is the same glow in the dark powder we used in our Glow Moon Dough.

Lava Lamp Science Experiment

Our Lava Lamps teach so many science concepts.

First, it is a wonderful demonstration about density. Oil is lighter than water and floats on top of the bottom water layer. You can explore this by placing a lid on your lava lamp (only once the reaction is completely finished) and gently tipping the bottle back and forth to watch the waves that form.

Diffusion is also evident as the food colouring mixes with the water in colourful swirls.

Our glow power with Tonic Water is due to the fact that quinine, a component of Tonic Water, fluoresces under black light. We have a different science concept powering the other glow lava lamp.

When we made our Glow in the Dark Lava Lamp with photoluminescent pigment the glow happens even without black light. Glow in the dark pigment powder has luminescent phosphors which luminescence (glow). For this glow to work it needs to charge in the light. The Lava Lamp will need to charge in bright light in order to glow. Once it is charged simply turn off the lights to see the glow. As the glow fades, simply expose it to bright light to charge it again.

The chemical reaction that powers our lava lamp is an acid-base reaction that releases lots of Carbon Dioxide gas(CO2). The gas bubbles up (because it is less dense than oil) with bits of the coloured water trapped. At the top the gas is released and the water bubble falls back down to start the process again. The water falls because it is more dense than the oil.

This does give us one final simple Lava Lamp method. What is our favourite acid and base reactions? Baking Soda and Vinegar!

A Final Quick and Easy Lava Lamp Experiment

If you are still stuck for supplies and need a really simple way of making a lava lamp. Here is an easy way!

Place 2 tablespoons of baking soda in the bottom of a mason jar. Pour oil into the jar. In a second container add vinegar and a few drops of food colouring, mix. Now, using a dropper, add a few drops of coloured vinegar to the top of the oil and watch the reaction!

As the bubbles float through the oil down into water the bubbly reaction will be triggered!

What other variables can you play with? What about using different types of oils? Maybe try using different types of food colouring. Change the temperature of the solutions. Try different measurements of the ingredients. Play with those variables as you create your own Lava Lamps and see what happens!

Which lava lamp version is your favourite?

Have fun creating lava lamps!

In the top image s green mason jar lava lamp bubbles while in the bottom image a blue glow in the dark lava lamp bubbles. Overlay text says How to make a Lava Lamp with Glow Power


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