Expanding Horizons With The Ion Propelled Lifter

Like many people, going through university followed an intense career building period was a dry spell in terms of making things. Of course things settled down and I finally broke that dry spell to work on what I called “non-conventional propulsion”.

I wanted to stay away from the term “anti-gravity” because I was enough of a science nut to know that such a thing was dubious. But I also suspected that there might be science principles yet to be discovered. I was willing to give it a try anyway, and did for a few years. It was also my introduction to the world of high voltage… DC. Everything came out null though, meaning that any effects could be accounted for by some form of ionization or Coulomb force. At no time did I get anything to actually fly, though there was a lot of spinning things on rotors or weight changes on scales and balances due to ion propulsion.

So when a video appeared in 2001 from a small company called Transdimensional Technologies of a triangle shaped, aluminum foil and wire thing called a lifter that actually propelled itself off the table, I immediately had to make one. I’d had enough background by then to be confident that it was flying using ion propulsion. And in fact, given my background I was able to put an enhancement in my first version that others came up with only later.

For those who’ve never seen a lifter, it’s extremely simple. Think of it as a very leaky capacitor. One electrode is an aluminum foil skirt, in the shape of a triangle. Spaced apart from that around an inch or so away, usually using 1/6″ balsa wood sticks, is a very thin bare wire (think 30AWG) also shaped as a triangle. High voltage is applied between the foil skirt and the wire. The result is that a downward jet of air is created around and through the middle of the triangle and the lifter flies up off the table. But that is just the barest explanation of how it works. We must go deeper!

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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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Homebuilt 30kV High Voltage Power Supply

If you have need for 30,000 volts to launch your ionocraft (lifter) or power other DIY projects then shuttle over to RimstarOrg’s YouTube channel and checkout [Steven Dufresne’s] homebuilt 30kV power supply. The construction details that [Steven] includes in his videos are always amazing, especially for visual learners. If you prefer text over video he was kind enough to share a schematic and full write up at rimstar.org.

The power supply can be configured for 1.2kV – 4.6kV or 4kV – 30kV at the output while requiring 0-24V DC at the input. In the video [Steven] tries two power supplies. His homemade DC bench power supply at 8V and 2.5A and also a laptop power supply rated at 20V 1.8A DC. A couple of common 2N3055 power transistors, proper wattage resistors, a flyback transformer and a high voltage tripler is about all you’ll need to scrounge up. The flyback transformer can be found in old CRT type televisions, and he does go into details on rewinding the primary for this build. The high voltage tripler [Steven] references might be a bit harder to source. He lists a few alternates for the tripler but even those are scarce: NTE 521, Siemens 76-1 N094, 1895-641-045. There are lots of voltage multiplier details in the wild, but keep in mind this tripler needs to operate up to 30kV.

Join us after the break to watch the video and for a little advice from Mr. Safety.

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Ionocraft aka Lifters

It’s hard to believe that in five years we haven’t covered lifters before. This realization was sparked when [Tyler] tipped us off about a lifter project demonstrated at the Kansas City hackerspace called CCCKC.

Lifters, the casual name for ionocraft, fly without combustion or moving parts. We’re not going to tackle the particulars of what makes flight possible, but high voltage is required to feed the phenomenon that provides the lift. One of the first comments when we asked what to do with old CRT monitors was to use them for lifters. The flyback transformer puts out plenty of voltage if you can tap into it without killing yourself (no, seriously, that’s an issue).

This is the method that the CCCKC folks used. Take a peek at the video after the break. If you’re thirsting for more fun with lifters, stop by the Lifter Project.

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