How A Van De Graaff Generator Works

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.

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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 Links: October 5th, 2014

Good news from CadSoft this week. They didn’t miss all the complaints about their decision to use a Node Lock License for EAGLE 7. This had meant that users of the popular PCB design software would be limit on how many machines they could use the software with a license. They have removed License Management from the package (and all the citizens rejoiced).

We’re tripping over the growing pile of hardware that boast the “next-big-thing” in getting devices onto a network. That’s not a complaint at all. This time around it’s a cell chip, the U-blox SARA-U260, which can connect to 3G on the AT&T network and is just 16x26mm. They call it world’s smallest but we have no idea if that’s true or not. Anyone have a source and/or pricing for these? [Thanks Austin]

This guy loves his Nixie tube. How much? To the extent that he built up a hardware and software interface that behaves much like a pet. It’s voice activated, and the infectious delight of [Glasslinger’s] video demo is in itself worth watching. [Thanks Morris]

Making this Magnetic Stripe Reader work as a USB device is really nothing more than adding a serial-to-USB converter. The journey to find the way to add the converter makes for a fun read though.

We know from watching Breaking Bad that you can kill power to a building by shorting the power lines outside with a huge bouquet of mylar balloons. This installation is a twist on the idea. Connecting one mylar balloon to a Van de Graaff generator and floating it next to another results in an oscillating repel-discharge-repel cycle. [Thanks filnt via NPR]

Van de Graaff generator built for a few dollars


This Van de Graaf generator was built using mostly parts on hand. The only thing that was purchased for the project was the Christmas ornament shaped M&M candy tin that serves as the collecting sphere. We didn’t include the in-action shot in the banner because it’s so dark. But sure enough, this will generate the visible sparks that make the device famous.

The gist of the device is that it uses rotating belt to generate static electricity. This potential is stored in the metal collecting sphere on top until a path for discharge is provided. They’re an awful lot of fun in middle-school science class as long hair can be made to stand on end if you touch one while your body is insulated from ground. This build uses a long rubber band as the belt. The band is moved by the motor from a DVD drive tray which is housed in the PVC base. An empty prescription pill bottle bridges the gap between the base and the metal sphere.

If this one is too small for you consider moving to a 900,000 Volt version.

[via Hacked Gadgets]

High Voltage: Build your own 84 kV lightning stick

There’s a proverb that says ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’. Now that stick can come in a high-voltage form factor. The device above, which reminds us of a side-handled baton with a coke can stuck on the end, is a portable Van de Graaff generator.

Although debated in the comments, the creator of this hack claims you can shock someone with 84 kV of electricity using the device. Of course as a weapon it’s lacking since we’re talking about static electricity; the voltage can be through the roof but the current is extremely low. Despite that, there are some fun things you can do with them. The video after the break show it throwing off sparks with the lights dimmed. [Yardleydobon] also includes a few other tricks at the end of his tutorial. He makes a set of Franklin Bells using two more soda cans with the aluminum tab from one suspended in between them. As he charges it up, the tab dances back and forth, ringing the ‘bells’ it runs into. Once they are charged, the ringing can be restarted by discharging just one of the cans.


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900,000 volts at your fingertips

[Nickademuss] has put together these great instructions on how to build a 900,000 volt Van De Graaff generator. For those unfamiliar, Van De Graaff generators produce massive amounts of static electricity. They are usually the things you see in science centers that make people’s hair stand on end. [Nickademuss] put a lot of effort into this, he created 3D models and diagrams for many of the steps and gave a very detailed step by step breakdown.