Skip to main content

How to Build a Spectrometer with Just Three Household Items

Learning by doing is awesome. I kept this in mind while working on this year’s PhysicsQuest extension activities, and found some great hands on projects that make science fun for middle school students. Now my internship and time at the American Physical Society are coming to a close, so I want to share one of my activities with you! Inspired by a PopSci Five Minute Project, the cereal box spectrometer is easy to make, fun to play with, and a cleverly disguised optics lesson. Here’s how you make it:

- Cereal box
- Compact disc
- Utility knife


-Cut a 1" slit on the side of the cereal box just below the nutrition information.
-Cut a slit across the opposite side of the box and extend it 1" on either side at an angle 45 degrees above the horizontal.
-Slide a CD into this slit.
-Make an eyehole on the bottom of the box below the CD.

Here’s how it works.

A CD has the very cool property of behaving like a reflective diffraction grating. An ordinary diffraction grating is a grid of tiny, evenly spaced opaque lines on an otherwise transparent material. Light can pass through the material but it has to bend around the lines, which are about the size of a wavelength of visible light. Different wavelengths of light bend at different angles, so light that is made up of more than one color gets “spread out” into its fundamental colors when it passes through a diffraction grating. This phenomenon is known as… diffraction! So, when light hits the CD it’s reflected because of the shiny coating, but essentially diffracted because of the way it reflects off the track of zeros and ones that spirals around the bottom of the disc. And that’s how the white light that enters the slit in the side of the box becomes the spectrum of colors you see when you look through the eyehole.

So what’s the point? Well, it turns out that there’s a lot more to white light than meets the eye (unless that eye is looking through our cereal box spectrometer). For example, it can explain why CFL bulbs are more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs. The following is an explanation from this year’s PhysicsQuest teacher’s manual:

Incandescent light bulbs work by running a current through a very long, thin coil of tungsten. This heats the coil up to a temperature of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, and at that temperature the tungsten starts releasing energy in the form of light. It releases light of every color in the visible spectrum as well as infrared (IR) light, which we can’t see.

Because of the way they work, CFLs are more energy efficient and longer lasting than incandescent bulbs. They work by releasing electrons into the tube that makes up the bulb. The tube is filled with mercury gas, which reacts to the electrons by releasing ultraviolet (UV) light. The walls of the tube are coated in phosphors. When the UV light hits the phosphors, they emit visible light. Each phosphor only emits one color of light, though, so in order to achieve "white" light the CFL has to be coated with more than one phosphor. By using your spectrometer, you can see how many phosphors were used to make a CFL bulb and what color light they emit. Instead of a continuous spectrum (like what you see when you look at an incandescent bulb), you will see a line for each phosphor used in the CFL bulb.

You can build one too and try it out—it's so much fun!

Physics Buzz blogger Quantum takes a homemade spectrometer for a test drive.

Fluffysingularity in her natural habitat.

-by fluffysingularity


  1. I always do this on lamps I want to check out. For me it has worked just as well without the cereal box.

    But pardon me if I disagree about the discontinuous spectrum of CFLs explaining why they're more energy efficient. They're (somewhat) more efficient because it's a different technology; a chemical composite light instead of the enhanced natural fire light of incandescents. Quantity vs quality.

    According to British and Canadian studies on the heat replacement effect, the IR-heat from incandescents also comes to good use in cool regions & seasons, and is mainly a waste or a problem in warm regions & seasons.

    What the CD trick _does_ explain is why CFLs make objects, people and environments look so grey and dull compared with how they look under incandescent light or natural daylight: much of the spectrum in CFLs is simply missing! In so-called full-spectrum CFLs there are more phosphors to cover more gaps in the spectrum but not all. It's an artificial second-rate light with substandard colour rendering capacity trying to mimick the real thing.

    And now we know why.

  2. Halogenica, thanks for the comment. Very interesting and useful insight.



  3. Thanks for the fun projects and promoting science. For the sake of rigour, I wanted to point out that this is a spectroscope. A spectrometer has an additional component (A detector other than the human eye). From the post title I thought you found a way to produce a detector with household items. x

  4. Also works well with DVD's as transmission gratings - you have to lay them back @~70' and put the slit horizontally at the top/bottom (to reduce stray light & improve spectral resolution.

    1. Ive made a spectroscope using a DVD and a slit between two razor blades, and black taped the gaps to cutout light, but all I see is white and grey like a tiny bar code. Can you tell me what Im doing wrong. My dvd is at 45 degrees.

  5. but how it works

  6. miss fluffy ur the best


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know:
"What's going on in this video? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream.

Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?