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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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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2014 Advent Calender Of Circuits

Every day this month and until Christmas, [vk2zay] is (has already been!) posting a simple but useful hack in his 2nd sort-of-annual “Advent Calender of Circuits” that many of you will want to be bookmarking. For those already saturated with the season of holiday hacks, don’t worry – other than being festively generous of him to tutor and demo a new hack every day, the hacks themselves have nothing to do with Christmas. Though he missed the last couple years we here at Hackaday covered his first month of hacks back in 2011 (now in playlist).

The daily hacks posted so far cover a wide variety of useful projects (leaning towards HV) for the electronics hobbyist who might not have all the fancy tools in their shop: DIY high voltage probes, a 1-hour tesla coil from junk, measuring RF power, a stud detector, how to test an  unknown transformer’s saturation, and many others. We cannot predict what will be posted the rest of the calender (the author hints to be making them up as he goes), but by now it is safe to say that they will not disappoint.

We would be stealing his thunder to cover them all, so, we will just pick our favorite for now:

The 1-hour tesla coil is a delightful all-shortcuts-taken hack project. If one were to listen to aficionados, teslacoiling is a highly precise hobby to get into. It appears to require careful planning, much calculation, special-ordered or soviet-surplus parts, custom jigs, fine tuning, etc. [vk2zay] shows otherwise.

Every single component of the assembly is itself a hack.

No fancy tungsten-infused grade 8 copper being water-cooled via heat pump here – the spark gap is just the bent leg of a capacitor hovering near the start of the primary winding. The power supply is a backlight inverter with a chain of Cockcroft-Walton voltage doublers. The high voltage resistor is a bunch of series-chained resistors shoved into a silicone tube. The topload is a couple cheap pie tins masking-taped together to “resemble something like a sphere.” The primary is a loose, unsupported spring of copper wire. The secondary was calculated to be whatever the height of the tube he had handy and coiled only as smoothly as a first attempt would allow. He does not even bother using wires or a switch – the circuit is completed by clipping a couple of test leads.

After all this hodgepodgery the circuit was then carefully tuned to optimize how little time it took to build (additional time used: zero). Since the frequencies do not match (1.7 vs. 2.6 mhz – 35% apart) the only thing this circuit resonates with is a hacker’s appeal for making do. Does not matter, still works. The streamers easily reach 2 inches and the author claims double that in dark lighting.

In the just 6 minute video he also manages to explain roughly what is going on theory-wise and suggest the time-effective things to considering upgrading. Almost a dozen hacks in the bag and over a dozen more to come before Christmas.

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