Campfire 101: A complete explanation of ferro rod fire starters

Editor’s note: This article was originally written by our friends at OFFGRID. Check out their site for more survival-related tips.

Ferrocerium: It’s a word that sounds like it should describe the contents of a pill bottle from the drugstore rather than a tool in your survival kit. Adding to this confusion, ferrocerium rods, or “ferro rods,” are referred to by and associated with a myriad of other terms: fire steel, metal match, magnesium rod, mischmetal, Auermetall, flint or artificial/man-made flint.

A quick search on Amazon reveals products with various combinations of these names. So what the heck is ferrocerium, and how does it work?

Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach, inventor of ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia/OFFGRID
Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach, inventor of ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia/OFFGRID

The substance now called ferrocerium was invented in 1903 by Austrian scientist Baron Carl Auer von Welsbach. Welsbach was experimenting with types of mischmetal — that is, combinations of rare earth elements, such as cerium, lanthanum and neodymium. Cerium was especially notable for its low ignition temperature.

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Cerium is a rare earth metal that is an essential element of ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of: Wikipedia/images-of-elements.com
Cerium is a rare earth metal that is an essential element of ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia/images-of-elements.com

When Welsbach mixed a combination of 70 percent cerium and 30 percent iron, he noticed the resulting alloy gave off sparks when scratched. When ferrocerium is struck by a hard and sharp object, such as a carbon-steel blade, tiny shavings are oxidized and ignited by the friction of the striker and burn at 5,430 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chemistry students may remember that iron compounds use the prefix “ferro” due to iron’s Latin name, ferrum. Therefore, this new iron-cerium alloy was called ferrocerium. Some European countries still call the material Auermetall after the baron’s first name.

Modern ferrocerium typically appears as a dark-colored metal rod. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID
Modern ferrocerium typically appears as a dark-colored metal rod. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Later on, Welsbach added other metals to ferrocerium in order to fine-tune its properties. Lanthanum created brighter sparks, and other metals made the alloy harder and more durable.

Since then, material scientists have continued to modify the recipe, producing a substance with the following approximate makeup: 30 percent iron, 35 to 50 percent cerium, 25 percent lanthanum and small amounts of neodymium, praseodymium and magnesium.

The DGT Shadrach knife contains a mini ferrocerium rod. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID
The DGT Shadrach knife contains a mini ferrocerium rod. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Notice that ferrocerium contains magnesium. However, it’s inaccurate to call the alloy a “magnesium fire-starter” due to the extremely small amounts it contains (about 2 percent). Actual magnesium-bar fire starters contain a large block of pure magnesium, which can be shaved and ignited with a ferro rod.

This magnesium bar has an embedded ferro rod, but the rest of the bar is pure magnesium tinder material. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID
This magnesium bar has an embedded ferro rod, but the rest of the bar is pure magnesium tinder material. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

It’s also technically inaccurate to call ferrocerium “flint” because it has no chemical relationship with the rock/mineral of the same name. However, since both ferro rods and flint rocks spark when struck against steel, ferrocerium is often called flint or artificial flint. The “flint” insert in a Zippo lighter, for example, is just a tiny piece of ferrocerium.

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Flint, chert, quartz, and other hard minerals can be used to create sparks, but are unrelated to ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID
Flint, chert, quartz and other hard minerals can be used to create sparks, but are unrelated to ferrocerium. Photo: Courtesy of OFFGRID

Not even the name “fire steel” is technically accurate, since ferrocerium contains no carbon steel — only iron or iron oxide. “Fire iron” would be a more appropriate name, but doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

No matter what you call it, ferrocerium is an excellent tool for fire-starting in survival situations. This time-tested alloy generates showers of white-hot sparks on demand and is worthy of a place in just about any survival kit.

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