How to Start a Fire with a Battery and Steel Wool

How to Start a Fire with Steel Wool and a Battery

At this very moment you’re most likely not in a situation where you lack access to the normal materials to start a fire, however, there is a chance that one day you will be. When you can get a fire started, you can do just about anything that is required to survive. You can boil water, cook things, stay warm, and have a source of light in the dark.

In fact, most deaths that happen in the wilderness could have been prevented if the person had been able to make a fire. That’s why we’re so focused on developing fire making skills here at SuperPrepper.

When it rains, it pours, and survival items always seem to fail in groups, and at the worst possible time. So it’s good to have this skill in your back pocket.

What You’ll Need

Before you can even think about starting a fire with this method, there’s a few things that you’ll need to make sure you have ready.

  • A Battery: AA, AAA, C, D, or pretty much any other battery. If you don’t readily have a spare battery with you, then you’ll need to get creative and try to find something that does have a battery inside.
  • Fine Steel Wool: Steel wool is not something that people just carry around on them regularly so again, you’ll need to get creative. If you can find any type of ‘scrubber’ object, you can usually take it apart to see if there is a steel wool and soap concoction inside of it, and attempt to use that. 
  • Tinder: Materials like pine needles, leaves, dry grass, dry bark, birch bark, cotton balls, dryer lint, any form of paper, or anything else you can find that is easily flammable when ignited. Always collect about double the amount of tinder that you think you’ll need. Find tinder that is as dry as possible.
  • A Safe Place: Do not attempt to start a fire this way in areas with excessive amounts of chemicals, gasoline variants, paints, aerosol cans, explosives, or dry brush. Do not attempt to start a fire this way if you are anywhere within eyesight of anything that may have large quantities of flammable fluids. It’s just a bad idea. 

Finding Batteries to Use

There are lots of places that you might not think to look that are likely to have batteries which you can use for this fire starting method. Below are some ideas on where you can look.

Where to Find Batteries
GPS Devices Cameras Children\’s Toys
Portable Radios Music Players Smoke Detectors
Alarm Clocks Electric Tooth Brushes Electric Shavers
Flashlight Laptop Portable Power Banks
Cordless Tools Wireless Keyboard Wireless Keyboard

The Best Types Of Steel Wool To Use

You’ll generally get the best results by using 000 Extra Fine steel wool to start a fire using this technique, however, it’s perfectly fine to use other types of steel wool including:

  • 0000 Finest Steel Wool 
  • 000 Extra Fine Steel Wool 
  • 00 Fine Steel Wool 
  • 0 Medium Fine Steel Wool 

In general, the bigger or more powerful of a battery you’re using, the thicker steel wool you can use with this technique and still be successful. If you’re using a car battery for example, you can get away with very thick types of steel wool.

Step 1 – Locate All of Your Materials

Gather all of your tinder, your steel wool, and whatever form of battery that you’ve found. If you’re still unable to find a battery to use then take a minute to really think about objects that make noise or have a light on them, as most battery powered devices usually do both of those things.

Step 2 – Arrange Your Tinder into a Small Pile

Try to make your tinder pile somewhere where wind or rain cannot get to it. Make sure the surface you use is flat, dry, and free of any sort of chemical residues.

Step 3 – Lightly Pull Apart Your Steel Wool

Tug on our steel wool to where it’s not compacted too much but you’re still not able to see through it. Usually pulling the piece into a sausage shape is best for batteries with terminals that are spaced far apart, and a ball-like shape is best for batteries with terminals that are close to each other like cell phone and 9 Volt batteries.

Step 4 – Prepare Your Battery (If Necessary)

You can skip this step if you’re using a single battery or a battery that’s not a car (or vehicle) battery.

  • If using more then one AA, AAA, C, or D battery: Line them up end-to-end and tape them together (if possible) so that the negative end of one battery is touching a positive end of another. You should be left with both a free negative end and a free positive end to work with.
  • If you’re using a car battery: Hook up jumper cables to the positive and negative posts of the battery as if you were going to jump start your car. The other end of the jumper cables will be your new positive and negative ends.

Step 5 – Touch the Battery Terminals to the Steel Wool

Put your tinder right next to (or even surrounding) your steel wool. Touch one end of the steel wool to one end of the battery with one of the two terminals, and take the opposite end of the steel wool and touch it to the opposite end of the battery. The steel will light up like something from a sci-fi movie, and it’ll burn.

Step 6 – Light Your Tinder

Light your tinder material as quick as possible because the wool won’t stay lit for more than a few seconds. Be careful when lighting your tinder material though as red-hot pieces of steel wool can fly off and burn you during this process. You may also need to lightly blow on the wool and tinder to get it to ignite.

As long as you have enough wool, this process can be repeated if you’re unable to get a fire started the first time. It might take a few tries to get it just right.

Using AA and AAA Batteries

You can make fire this way with AA or AAA batteries if you find yourself stuck with only those types of batteries as an option. A single AA battery can produce an ember via this method, however, it may not be easy. If you’re attempting this, try to use the finest steel wool you can find.

The best way to go about using AA or AAA batteries is to use more than one, but I wouldn’t try to use any more than three. It’s easiest to tape the batteries together end-to-end to accomplish this. If you don’t have access to any sort of tape, you could do your best to simply set them down touching in the same manner while being extra careful not to disturb them during the process. 

Common battery sizes and types.
These are some of the most common types of batteries that you’re likely to come across.

Using Other Types Of Batteries

You can get away with using just about any type of battery for this method. Here are some other common battery types that can be used successfully with steel wool to make a fire.

  • 9-Volt: The ideal battery type that is most often used to make fire this way, at least experimentally, would be your household 9 Volt battery. The reason is that they have more power then many other types of batteries and the terminals are conveniently located right next to each other making it easy to make contact with the steel wool.
  • C or D Type Batteries: A single C or D type battery will work well with this method and are usually easier to find since they’re the most common batteries used in flashlights and lanterns.
  • Cell Phone or Tablet Batteries: If you have a cell phone or tablet with you that isn’t completely out of battery power, you can remove the battery and use it to start a fire using this method. You’ll have to find the battery terminals on the battery and touch those to the steel wool. The terminals are usually two little metal components (either gold or silver colored) located on the top or bottom edge of the battery.
  • Car or Other Large Batteries: If you have access to a car, ATV, kids battery powered car, electric scooter, or large lawnmower, then you can remove the battery and also use it with this method. Most modern vehicles have a pair of jumper cables that come tucked away somewhere in the cab, which would make this process much easier since you wouldn’t have to physically remove the battery from the vehicle. Just hook the cables up to the vehicle’s battery posts the same way you would if you were going to jump start it on one end, and with the other end you can touch the two cables to opposite ends of your steel wool, and poof! You have fire.

Only use a car battery as a last resort, and never touch a vehicle battery or any battery for that matter, if it has any indication of being damaged or defective in any way.

Why Does This Work?

After starting a fire with this method, you may find that it is quite fascinating and honestly, quite a bit of fun. It’s a good idea to understand just why this amazing reaction happens when you touch these two things together. The scientific spiel of how this works boils down into two main components, the electrical current, and the chemical reaction. 

In order to get a current from the battery to power your electrical devices, both ends of the battery need to be connected with sufficiently sized and adequately protected wires. The steel wool is ironically the complete opposite of that, as it’s made up of very tiny wires (which are about 98% iron) that are unprotected and fully exposed to an abundant supply of oxygen.

The result when both ends of the battery are connected through the steel wool is what an electrician would call a short circuit. The tiny wires in combination with the exposure to oxygen and the electrical current generates so much heat that it meets the temperature required for ignition. This causes the steel wool to ignite and effectively makes you a hero in a survival situation for creating fire from two seemingly random items.

Can You Get Electrocuted?

The good news is that your household standard battery types; AAA, AA, C, D, and 9 Volts are just not equipped with the quantities of electricity that it would take to seriously hurt you.

It’s possible to still get that same kind of minimal shock that happens when you test a battery with your tongue. I suppose that it may tingle a bit, but it certainly won’t electrocute you.

It’s worth mentioning though that in some circumstances batteries can rupture. With most household batteries the worst you’d get is swelling and leaking of the battery acid. It’s not a violent explosion by any means, but you’d still want to avoid touching the leaking battery acid.

Lithium-ion batteries on the other hand, like what’s inside most cell phones, have a nasty reputation for exploding with heat and flame if they’re punctured. So it’s always a good idea to avoid doing anything that might physically damage one of these batteries.

Final Thoughts

There a ton of ways to make fire if you’re willing to get creative enough. If you want some other cool ideas, take a look at 5 Strange Ways to Start a Fire Without a Lighter.

Knowing multiple ways to start a fire can literally be a life saver. Just remember to play it safe and don’t attempt anything described here unless it’s a life or death situation or you’re under the supervision of a professional.

Do you know of any creative ways to start a fire? Share them in the comment section below!

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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