What’s Inside A Lava Lamp?

What’s Inside A Lava Lamp?

November 7, 2019 100 By William Morgan


Benji Jones: Oh, God!
This is not attractive.
Jessica Orwig: No.
It really does look like human fat.
Jones: That’s me and my
boss opening up a lava lamp.
[glugging]
Oh! Are we getting these noises, guys?
Our goal was simple: to
figure out what’s inside.
As it turned out, it actually
wasn’t simple at all.
And that’s because companies
don’t want you to know.
Bryan Katzel: It’s a formula
that, you know, has been
pretty well-guarded
throughout time, you know?
Jones: That’s Bryan
Katzel, vice president of
product development at Schylling,
the manufacturers of
Lava brand lava lamps.
And true to his word, he
wouldn’t share the full recipe.
But he did reveal some key ingredients.
Katzel: Inside of a lava
lamp, you’ve got wax,
which is mostly paraffin wax.
That’s your lava.
Jones: Paraffin wax is a
common wax made from petroleum.
You can often find it in
candles and cosmetics.
But when we squeezed it in our hands,
it didn’t really feel
like melted wax at all.
Orwig: It sort of has the
consistency of mashed pumpkin.
Jones: And what about all that liquid?
Katzel said it’s mostly water.
And since wax doesn’t mix with water,
that makes a lot of sense.
But, as you can see, it’s not just water.
Yes, that extra coloring
is partly for effect,
but it also contains
chemicals that prevent fungus
from growing in the bottle.
And, of course, he did
leave some things out.
Katzel: You know, there’s
a little bit of lava magic
that we sprinkle inside there.
But, essentially, it’s
liquid. It’s water and wax.
Jones: That “magic” is
actually really important,
because it’s what makes lava
lamps work the way they do.
Stefano Sacanna: You have
these two liquids that are
separate, but now you also
want to have this effect
where one of the liquids
sort of dance around
and goes up and down.
And that has to do with the density.
Jones: He says the density
is everything when it comes
to lava lamps.
When the lamp is off,
the wax is slightly denser
than the liquid around it.
And that’s why it sits at the bottom.
And when most materials warm up,
they expand and become
less dense, or lighter.
That’s what causes the wax to rise.
And then, when it reaches the top,
farther from the heat
source, it cools, contracts,
gains density, and
eventually falls back down.
So what does this have
to do with what’s inside?
Well, regular wax is normally lighter,
not heavier, than water.
So then what sort of wax is this stuff?
Sacanna: I suspect what you
have inside is, in fact,
not just plain wax.
Most likely what you have is a mixture
of wax and some additives.
You add a little bit of this additive
until it just starts to fall down.
And that is when you
reach that sweet spot.
And now you can use the
temperature to tilt the balance,
either one side or towards the other.
And so I suspect that most
of the trademark secret
is what kind of additive you want to add.
Jones: We asked Katzel about this,
and he said at Lava, those additives are
actually in the liquid, not the wax.
Katzel: At the end, you know,
you do a little bit of
tweaking to the liquid
to make sure that the wax is more dense
than the liquid.
Jones: We may never
know for sure what those
special additives are.
But a study published
in 1996 may hold a clue.
The researchers report
they found that one lamp
of an unspecified brand
contained kerosene,
which Sacanna confirmed could
make the liquid less dense.
But whatever those
“magical” additives are,
they smelled really bad.
Orwig: Ugh! Smells terrible.
Jones: Exactly. Yeah.
This is not,
Orwig: Awful!
playing with it is not helping the smell,
as it turns out.
Orwig: This smell is,
like, making me nauseous.
Jones: So suffice it to
say, we won’t be opening
another lamp anytime soon.
And according to the
company, neither should you.