Glowsticks and the Military

Posted by McGuire Army Navy on

Glowsticks – you can buy them almost anywhere. They’re a cheap way to liven up a concert, great for camping, and guaranteed to make a sleepover with friends a little more interesting. And, they're standard issue in the military.

In fact, the biggest buyer of glowsticks today (also known as chemlights), is the U.S. Department of Defense. It turns out there are many more uses for these little tubes, and not all of them are as cute as a weekend slumber party.

The technology behind glowsticks was first discovered in 1962 by a New Jersey chemist, Dr. Edwin Chandross. While experimenting with light producing chemical reactions, he carried out experiments to determine which chemicals would produce light most efficiently. After a day's experiments, he found that  a mix of hydrogen peroxide combined with oxalyl chloride and dye would produce a soft glow. However, the light was pretty weak, just 0.1% of the light emitted by today’s glowsticks.

Researchers at American Cyanamid then continued tinkering with the formula, eventually finding that substituting phenyl oxalate for the oxalyl chloride produced a far stronger light. They named this compound Cyalume.

Over the next decade or so, various patents were issued to new glowstick devices. In 1976, a patent was given for a plastic tube with a glass ampule inside. When the tube was bent, the glass cracked, causing the chemicals to mix. Glowsticks today are based on this design.

Interestingly enough, one of the first industries to realize the benefit of this chemical discovery was the military. The Navy acquired a patent in 1973 for a glow device, and put it to work in its operations.

It turned out that these little glowsticks had some serious advantages. They didn’t require batteries, were cheap to produce, had a long shelf life, could tolerate high pressures, were water and weather proof, and visible from a mile away in the right conditions.

soldier with glowsticks

Today, glowsticks are used by all branches of the military, for a multitude of purposes.

Some of these uses are:

Night Operations

Glowsticks are a help with visibility at night. They're particularly useful for mitigating hazards by marking them off.

The military also has infrared glowsticks, which are great for marking targets, landing zones, friendly forces, and anything they don’t want to use visible light for.

Hazardous Conditions

Because glowsticks are non-flammable and don’t spark, they’re ideal for using near technological hazards and in natural disasters. They can also be used underwater.

Room Clearing

Glowsticks are a simple and easy way to mark which rooms have been cleared. Just crack one and toss it in the cleared room.

Minefield Marking

An obviously useful purpose of glowsticks is letting soldiers know where a minefield is located.

Route Marking

A very effective and easy to make sure that troops don’t take a wrong turn. (If only Hansel and Gretel took some into the woods that day.)

Survival and First Aid Kits

Glowsticks are an absolute necessity in survival situations.

Search and Rescue

Ideal for water rescue operations, in particular, since they float and are waterproof.

Glowsticks are so vital to military ops, that chemlights are issued with various durations, sizes, shapes, light intensities, colors, and also in infrared. The Dept. of Defense reportedly orders about 20 million of them a year!

As an interesting end-note, Dr. Chandross didn’t even get a patent. He was working at Bell Labs, and apparently nobody thought the formula would be that useful.


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