What I particularly like about the Van de Graaff (or VDG) is that it’s a combination of a few discrete scientific principles and some mechanically produced current, making it an interesting study. For example, did you know that its voltage is limited mostly by the diameter and curvature of the dome? That’s why a handheld one is harmless but you want to avoid getting zapped by one with a 15″ diameter dome. What follows is a journey through the workings of this interesting high voltage generator.
Scenario: your little three-hour boat tour runs into a storm, and you’re shipwrecked on a tropic island paradise. You’re pretty sure your new home was once a nuclear test site, but you have no way to check. Only your scrap bin, camera bag, and hot glue gun survived the wreck. Can you put together a Geiger-Müller counter from scrap and save the day?
Probably not, unless your scrap bin is unusually well stocked and contains a surplus Russian SI-3BG miniature Geiger tube, the heart of [GH]’s desert island build. These tubes need around 400 volts across them for incident beta particles or gamma rays to start the ionization avalanche that lets it produce an output pulse. [GH]’s build uses the flash power supply of a disposable 35mm camera to generate the high voltage needed, but you could try using a CCFL inverter, say. The output of the tube tickles the base of a small signal transistor and makes a click in an earbud for every pulse detected.
You’ll no doubt notice the gallons of hot glue, alligator clips, and electrical tape used in the build, apparently in lieu of soldering. While we doubt the long-term robustness of this technique, far be it from us to cast stones – [GH] shows us what you can accomplish even when you find yourself without the most basic of tools.
Single tube Nixie clocks? Been there, seen that. A single tube Nixie clock with sculptural wiring that exposes dangerous voltages? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
[Andrew Moser]’s clock is clearly a case of aesthetic by anesthetic — he built it after surgery while under the influence of painkillers. That may explain the questionable judgment, but we won’t argue with the look. The boost converter for the Nixie lives near the base of the bent wire frame, with the ATmega 328 and DS1307 RTC supported in the midsection by the leads of attached passive components and jumper wires. A ring at the top of the frame supports the octal socket for the Nixie and a crown of driver transistors for each element.
In the video after the break, [Andrew] speaks of rebuilding this on a PCB. While we’ve seen single tube Nixie PCB clocks before, and we agree that the design needs to be safer, we wouldn’t ditch the dead bug style at all. Maybe just throw the whole thing in a glass bell jar or acrylic tube.
A Jacob´s ladder is a favorite project of high voltage enthusiasts. It makes a visually attractive and fun display of a high voltage electrical arc climbing a pair of electrodes. [Keystone Science] shows us how to make a Jacob´s ladder that runs on 9 V batteries.
The ladder itself is pretty easy to make. It is nothing more than a pair of stiff wires in a V shape, connected to a high voltage power supply. The more difficult part is the HV power supply. [Keystone Science] explains how to build one using a flyback transformer from an old CRT tv and a few other components. It is a pretty simple circuit and can be powered by a 9 V battery. The ladder works because, when HV is applied to the electrodes, an arc is established at the bottom, where they are nearest each other. The arc is at high temperature so the air rises, and the arc starts to climb the ladder. Since the electrodes are further away from each other as the arc rises, at a certain point the distance is too large to sustain the arc and the process repeats.
This is a nice weekend project if you want to try it. In case you don´t want to make your own HV power supply, you can try another ladder project that uses a commercial one.
[GreatScott!] needs to light off fireworks with an arc rather than a flame, because “fireworks and plasma” is cooler than fireworks and no plasma. To that end, he attempted to reverse engineer an arc lighter, but an epoxy potted high-voltage assembly thwarted him. Refusing to accept defeat, he modified a CCFL inverter into an arc lighter, and the process is pretty educational.
With his usual impeccable handwriting and schematic drawing skills, [GreatScott!] documents that his CCFL inverter is a resonant Royer oscillator producing a sine wave of about 37 kHz, which is then boosted to about 2400 volts. That’s pretty good, but nowhere near the 15 kilovolts needed for a self-sustaining arc across electrodes placed 5 mm apart. A little math told him that he could achieve this by rewinding the transformer’s primary with only 4 turns. After some testing, the rewound transformer was fitted back into the Royer circuit and with a few modifications the arc was struck.
It’s not a finished project yet, and we’re looking forward to seeing how [GreatScott!] puts this to use. For now, we’re grateful for the lesson is Royer oscillators and rewinding transformers. But if you’d rather hack an off-the-shelf arc lighter, there’s always this arc lighter pyrography pen, or this mini plasma cutter.
I work a lot with high voltages and others frequently replicate my projects, so I often get asked “What voltage is needed?”. That means I need to be able to measure high voltages. Here’s how I do it using a Fluke high voltage probe as well as my own homemade probe. And what if you don’t have a probe? I have a solution for that too.
How Long Is Your Spark?
The simplest way to measure high voltage is by spark length. If your circuit has a spark gap then when a spark occurs, that’s a short-circuit, dumping all your built up charge. When your spark gap is at the maximum distance at which you get a spark then just before the spark happens is when you have your maximum voltage. During the spark the voltage rapidly goes to zero and depending on your circuit it may start building up again. The voltage before the spark occurred is related to the spark length, which is also the spark gap width.
The oscilloscope photo below shows this changing voltage. This method is good for a rough estimate. I’ll talk about doing more precise measurements when I talk about high voltage probes further down.
It’s generally a bad idea to mix high voltage electricity and water, but interesting things happen if you do. This video from [RWGResearch] shows one of them: water bridging. If you have two water sources (such as two beakers full of very highly distilled water) with a high voltage between them, the voltage can create a gravity defying bridge that flows between them.
The experiment starts with the pouring spouts from two beakers nearly touching each other. Water fills the beakers right up to the spout, but it’s the application of electricity that pulls the bridge between the positive and negative beakers. With care, this technique can create a bridge of up to 2cm (about 0.8 inches). [RWGResearch] shows that he is able to create a bridge of about a centimeter with a 5KV voltage, but which only carries a few milliamps.
What forces are at play here isn’t exactly clear, but one recent paper speculates that it’s down to a combination of the dielectric force caused by the differing charges of parts of water molecules and the surface tension of the water. Whatever it is, it is fascinating and makes for a neat trick.
Want to make your own contribution to the scientific body of knowledge? Prove or disprove the speculation mentioned in the Wikipeadia article: is this possible because of an H3O2 lattice formed by the high voltage? How would you formulate a test for this?