Light Up Your Campsite with a DIY Bottle Lantern!

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Lanterns are a must while you’re camping, so why not build your own and learn about circuits while you do it?

Building a lantern is as simple as closing a circuit with a power source and some LEDs. In this experiment, we construct a camping lantern that is run using batteries and is portable to take camping.

Got a camping trip coming up? Why not build some lanterns for it?

How to make the Bottle Lantern experiment

Supplies you will need

For this experiment, you’ll need:

Supplies needed for the Bottle Lantern experiment

Before you start

We are using sharp scissors and manipulating electricity in this experiment, so please use caution.

Instructions

Here is how to do this experiment with your child:

Step 1: Cut the top off of the water bottle

Cut the 2-liter bottle about 1/3 of the way down from the bottle cap. Please use caution when cutting the bottle.

You’ll notice the marks on the side of the bottle: these are not necessary for this experiment. I just wanted to recycle the same bottle from our Rain Gauge experiment!

Cut bottle, recycled from the Rain Gauge experiment

Step 2: Cut the cardboard to fit the bottle

Cut the piece of cardboard into a circle that will cover the opening on the 2-liter bottle and leave a slight lip around it.

Using the top of the bottle as a guide for the cardboard circle
Cutting out the cardboard circle
A slight lip by making the cardboard circle larger than the 2-liter bottle

Step 3: Run the yarn or string for the handle

Cut a small hole in the base of the 2-liter bottle. Run the yarn or string through the hole, then tie a knot to keep it in place.

The string or yarn will run up the inside of the 2-liter bottle and through the top, creating a handle for the lantern.

Hole in the bottle of the 2-liter bottle
Knot in the string or yarn securing it in place

Step 4: Prepare the cardboard circle

In this step, we’re planning out where everything will be located on the cardboard circle.

First, place the battery holders with their backs touching one another in the middle of the cardboard circle. Trace around them, indicating where they will be located (we want to avoid placing the LEDs under the battery holder).

Next, we need to place the LEDs in very specific locations so the alligator clips can reach them and join two LEDs (the less alligator clips we can use, the better!). See the schematic below to see where the positive legs (anodes) should be and the negative legs (cathodes) should be of each LED.

Step 5: Place the LEDs

First, we’re going to create small holes to drive the LED legs through in the cardboard.

Using a pencil or something similar, poke two holes close together through the cardboard, spacing them about the same distance apart as the LED legs.

Let’s take a quick look at an LED to understand which leg is positive and which is negative (photo from the Emotron 3000 experiment):

The longer leg is the anode for positive power flow and the shorter leg is the cathode for negative power flow.

Once the LEDs are in the cardboard, it might be difficult to see which leg is which, so I recommend having the anode of each LED closer to the battery holders. That way, you know the leg closer to the batteries is the positive leg for hooking up power.

LED through the cardboard circle. Notice the shorter leg (cathode) on top and the longer leg (anode) on the bottom
Two LEDs through the cardboard, with the cathodes in the foreground and anodes in the background
All four LEDs placed in the cardboard

Step 6: Connect the alligator clips to the LEDs

The next piece of the circuit is to create a pathway for the power to flow from the batteries to the LEDs. This is where the alligator clips come in.

I like to use red for positive flow and black for negative flow, since those are the recognized colors for each charge.

Cut the two alligator clip wires about 3-4 inches from the clips and expose the edges like the first image below.

You can keep the alligator clips intact if you would rather, but I found there was too much wire to comfortably place the top back on the lantern in later steps.

You should have two red wires and two black wires from the battery holders, two black alligator clips, and two red alligator clips. Join the exposed ends of each alligator clip with the corresponding colors on the battery holders.

Use a piece of tape to add insulation around the joined wires to ensure they don’t touch in later steps.

Two alligator clips (one black and one red) cut into four separated clips
Exposed ends of the battery holder wire and the alligator clip
Joined battery holder and alligator clip
Tape tightly wrapped around the exposed wires
Completed Step 6

Step 7: Clip alligator clips to LEDs

In keeping with traditional color associations, the red alligator clips will be hooked to the positive LED legs and the black alligator clips will be hooked to the negative LED legs.

If you followed along and placed your LEDs where I did, it should look like the images below.

You will be using one alligator clip for two legs: one red alligator clip to two anodes, one black alligator clip to two cathodes, etc.

I also slightly bent the positive and negative LED legs away from each other and pushed up on the alligator clip insulator to ensure they did not touch one another.

Red alligator clip to the inside LED legs
All alligator clips hooked up to the legs

Step 8: Hot glue the battery holders to the cardboard

Now we’re going to add the battery holders to the lantern. We want to connect them and sandwich the string or yarn inside.

First, pierce a hole in the center of the cardboard circle and feed the string through the hole.

Face the battery holders with the backs facing one another. Run the string or yarn through the middle of them and secure the battery holders to one another with hot glue. Be sure to keep the string taut.

Hot glue the battery holders to the middle of the piece of cardboard.

Hole in center of the cardboard circle
Running the string through the hole
Hot glue on the battery holder back
Pulling string through the middle of the two battery holders, then adhering the holders together
Hot glue on the bottom of the battery holders to adhere to the cardboard circle
Completed Step 8

Step 9: Clean up the wires and turn on your lantern!

I used some tape to clean up my wires so they weren’t loose around the cardboard circle (and to ensure I could close the lid on the top).

Finally, run the string through the hole in the top of the bottle, turn the battery holder switches to turn on the lights, and voila! You have a lantern!

Tape cleaning up the wires
Final product!

The STEM behind the Bottle Lantern experiment

This experiment teaches:

  • Basic circuits
  • Building a simple lantern
  • Resourcefulness and upcycling

How it works

To build a working lantern, all that is needed is a simple circuit with a power source, a light source, and a way to connect them that is a pathway for the power to flow.

In this experiment, the power source is the set of battery holders with AA batteries inside. The pathway for the power to flow is the alligator clips, because the material is conductive. And finally, the light sources are the LEDs. If everything is connected properly, you will have a working lantern!

This experiment also gives kids the opportunity to get creative, because the design of the lantern is not necessarily important and allows flexibility.

Basic circuits

While this experiment may look complicated, it’s actually a very simple circuit!

We build a simple circuit with LEDs, a power source (the AA batteries in the battery holders), and a switch to turn them on and off. All of those components are connected by conductive material (in this case, alligator clips) to complete the circuit.

This experiment teaches kids how to build a basic circuit while making a working lantern that they can design themselves.

Building a simple lantern

This portion of the experiment brings out the inner engineer in kids, along with a creative design side.

The lantern is designed to operate (shine the light) however the body of the lantern is built. This allows kids to get creative with the body and look of their lantern.

Resourcefulness and upcycling

This project demonstrates how to repurpose ordinary objects like a water bottle into something useful and functional. It encourages them to think about ways to reduce waste and give new life to old items!

More experiments with LEDs to try out with your child

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