Wrangling High Voltage

Working with high voltage is like working with high pressure plumbing. You can spring a leak in your plumbing, and of course you fix it. And now that you’ve fixed that leak, you’re able to increase the pressure still more, and sometimes another leak occurs. I’ve had these same experiences but with high voltage wiring. At a high enough voltage, around 30kV or higher, the leak manifests itself as a hissing sound and a corona that appears as a bluish glow of excited ions spraying from the leak. Try to dial up the voltage and the hiss turns into a shriek.

Why do leaks occur in high voltage? I’ve found that the best way to visualize the reason is by visualizing electric fields. Electric fields exist between positive and negative charges and can be pictured as electric field lines (illustrated below on the left.) The denser the electric field lines, the stronger the electric field.

The stronger electric fields are where ionization of the air occurs. As illustrated in the “collision” example on the right above, ionization can happen by a negatively charged electron leaving the electrically conductive surface, which can be a wire or a part of the device, and colliding with a nearby neutral atom turning it into an ion. The collision can result in the electron attaching to the atom, turning the atom into a negatively charged ion, or the collision can knock another electron from the atom, turning the atom into a positively charged ion. In the “stripping off” example illustrated above, the strong electric field can affect things more directly by stripping an electron from the neutral atom, again turning it into a positive ion. And there are other effects as well such as electron avalanches and the photoelectric effect.

In either case, we wanted to keep those electrons in the electrically conductive wires or other surfaces and their loss constitutes a leak in a very real way.

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High Voltage Please, But don’t Forget the Current

In high voltage applications involving tens of thousands of volts, too often people think about the high voltage needed but don’t consider the current. This is especially so when part of the circuit that the charge travels through is an air gap, and the charge is in the form of ions. That’s a far cry from electrons flowing in copper wire or moving through resistors.

Consider the lifter. The lifter is a fun, lightweight flying machine. It consists of a thin wire and an aluminum foil skirt separated by an air gap. Apply 25kV volts across that air gap and it lifts into the air.

So you’d think that the small handheld Van de Graaff generator pictured below, that’s capable of 80kV, could power the lifter. However, like many high voltage applications, the lifter works by ionizing air, in this case ionizing air surrounding the thin wire resulting in a bluish corona. That sets off a chain of events that produces a downward flowing jet of air, commonly called ion wind, lifting the lifter upward.

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A Cornucopia of High Voltage Sources

Having hacked away with high voltage for many years I’ve ended up using a large number of very different high voltage sources. I say sources and not power supplies because I’ve even powered a corona motor by rubbing a PVC pipe with a cotton cloth, making use of the triboelectric effect. But while the voltage from that is high, the current is too low for producing the necessary ion wind to make a lifter fly up off a tabletop. For that I use a flyback transformer and Cockcroft-Walton voltage multiplier power supply that’s plugged into a wall socket.

So yes, I have an unorthodox skillset when it comes to sourcing high voltage. It’s time I sat down and listed most of the power sources I’ve used over the years, including a bit about how they work, what their output is like and what they can be used for, as well as some idea of cost or ease of making. The order is from least powerful to most powerful so keep reading for the ones that really bite.

Triboelectric Effect

Triboelectric series table
Triboelectric series table

You’ve no doubt encountered this effect. It’s how your body is charged when you rub your feet on carpet and then get a shock from touching a door knob. When you rub two specific materials together there’s a transfer of electrons from one to the other. Not just any two materials will work. To find out which materials are good to use, have a look at a triboelectric series table.

Materials that are on the positive end of the table will become positively charged when rubbed against materials on the negative end of the table. Those materials will become negatively charged. The further apart they are in the table, the stronger the charging.

Powering corona motor with triboelectricity
Powering corona motor with triboelectricity

An example of where I’ve used this is to power the corona motor shown here. I vigorously rub a PVC pipe with a cotton cloth, and as the pipe emerges from the cloth, a sharp wire a few millimeters away takes the charge from the pipe. You can see this corona motor being powered by other power sources in the video here.

This would be considered an electrostatic power source because charge is accumulated on surfaces. Being insulating materials, that charge can’t move around.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Open Source Electrospinning Machine

Electrospinning is a fascinating process where a high voltage potential is applied between a conductive emitter nozzle and a collector screen. A polymer solution is then slowly dispensed from the nozzle. The repulsion of negative charges in the solution forces fine fibers emanate from the liquid. Those fibers are then rapidly accelerated towards the collector screen by the electric field while being stretched and thinned down to a few hundred nanometers in diameter. The large surface area of the fine fibers lets them dry during their flight towards the collector screen, where they build up to a fine, fabric-like material. We’ve noticed that electrospinning is hoped to enable fully automated manufacturing of wearable textiles in the future.

[Douglas Miller] already has experience cooking up small batches of microscopic fibers. He’s already made carbon nanotubes in his microwave. The next step is turning those nanotubes into materials and fabrics in a low-cost, open source electrospinning machine, his entry for the Hackaday Prize.

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Working with Mains Voltage: The Electrifying Conclusion!

This is the second in a two-part series looking at safety when experimenting with mains-voltage electronic equipment, including the voltages you might find derived from a mains supply but not extending to multi-kilovolt EHT except in passing. In the first part we looked at the safety aspects of your bench, protecting yourself from the mains supply, ensuring your tools and instruments are adequate for the voltages in hand, and finally with your mental approach to a piece of high-voltage equipment.

The mental part is the hard part, because that involves knowing a lot about the inner life of the mains-voltage design. So in this second article on mains voltages, we’ll look into where the higher voltages live inside consumer electronics.

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Looking Mains Voltage In The Eye And Surviving

It is often a surprise to see how other people react to mains electricity when they encounter it in a piece of equipment. As engineers who have dealt with it both personally and professionally for many years it is easy to forget that not everyone has had that experience. On one hand we wince at those who dive in with no fear of the consequences, on the other we are constantly surprised at the number of people who treat any item with more than a few volts in it as though it was contaminated with radioactive anthrax and are scared to even think about opening it up.

We recently had a chat among the Hackaday writers about how we could approach this subject. The easy way out is to be all Elf-and-Safety and join the radioactive anthrax crowd. But the conclusion we came to was that this site is a resource for hackers and makers. Some of you are going to lift the lid on boxes containing significant voltages no matter what, so we thought we’d help you do it safely rather than just listen for the distant screams.

So here follows the first in a series on how to approach electronic devices containing high voltages, and live to tell the tale. By “high voltages” we mean anything up to mains voltages, and those directly derived from them such as the few hundred volts rectified DC you’ll find in a switch-mode PSU. For multi-kilovolt EHT you’ll have to wait for another article, because that is an entire subject in itself. We’ll mention these higher voltages in passing, but their detail is best left for a Hackaday colleague with more pertinent experience.

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Teslaphoresis: Tesla Coil Causes Self-Assembly In Carbon Nanotubes


This significant discovery in nanotechnology could also be the first practical use of a Tesla coil in modern times that goes beyond fun and education. A self-funded research team at Rice University has found that unordered heaps of carbon nanotubes will self-assemble into conductive wires when exposed to the electric field of a strong Tesla coil. The related paper by lead author and graduate student [Lindsey R. Bornhoeft], introduces the phenomenon as “Teslaphoresis”. Continue reading “Teslaphoresis: Tesla Coil Causes Self-Assembly In Carbon Nanotubes”