Ben Franklin’s Weak Motor and Other Forgotten Locomotion

Most of the electric motors we see these days are of the electromagnetic variety, and for good reason: they’re powerful. But there’s a type of motor that was invented before the electromagnetic one, and of which there are many variations. Those are motors that run on high voltage, and the attraction and repulsion of charge, commonly known as electrostatic motors.

Ben Franklin — whose electric experiments are most frequently associated with flying a kite in a thunderstorm — built and tested one such high-voltage motor. It wasn’t very powerful, but was good enough for him to envision using it as a rotisserie hack. Food is a powerful motivator.

What follows is a walk through the development of various types of these motors, from the earliest ion propelled ones to the induction motors which most have never heard of before, even an HV hacker such as yours truly.

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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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Funky Looking Motor is Powered by Static Electricity

[Steven Dufresne] of is at it again with another very functional science experiment. This week he’s showing us how he made a large electrostatic motor, also known as a Corona Motor.

A Corona motor makes use of a cool
phenomenon called the Corona discharge, which is the ionization of a fluid
(in this case, air) surrounding a conductor that is energized. He’s done other high voltage experiments that take advantage of this, like his Ion Wind propelled Star Trek Enterprise!corona_motor_electrostatic_atmospheric_motor_diagram

The motor works by using an even number of electrodes on the motor, each electrically charged; positive, negative, positive, negative, etc.

Because each electrode is the opposite charge, they want to repel each other — but since the cylinder is electrically insulated, the charges have no where to go — instead the cylinder begins to rotate as the charges attract back and forth — when a positive charge on the insulation meets a negatively charged electrode, the charge is removed by ionization (creating the corona effect), and the cycle continues. The direction of rotation is determined by the angle of the electrodes. The motor can get going pretty fast but doesn’t have that much torque or power.

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