This Lightning Detector Is Remarkably Sensitive

Lightning strikes are quite high energy events, and release plenty of radio frequency energy when they go off in the atmosphere. This makes them easy to detect, and the magnitude of the energy release means it can be done at impressive range. [Jay] decided to build a device of his very own, and was impressed at its detection performance.

The device is a simple but effective design. An antenna is used to capture RF signals, and these are then amplified through a single transistor stage. This is connected to a basic transistor flasher circuit, which is biased to only flash when tipped over the edge by an incoming signal. After building the circuit, [Jay] noticed that the device wasn’t just picking up signals from lightning, but also those from many other smaller discharges. The device was able to detect a shock from wearing socks on a wood floor, as well as discharges from a Van de Graff generator and even just from getting out of a chair!

Lightning detectors have been around for a long time now; we’ve seen others grace these pages before. Video after the break.

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Mini Van De Graaff Is A Shocking Desk Toy

The Van De Graff generator is a device capable of generating potentially millions of volts of electricity which you can build in an afternoon, probably from parts you’ve got in the junk bin. This is not a fact that’s escaped the notice of hackers for decades, and accordingly we’ve seen several Van De Graaff builds over the years. So has high voltage hacker [Jay Bowles], but he still thought he could bring something new to the table.

The focus of his latest build was to not only produce one of the most polished and professional versions of this venerable piece of high voltage equipment, but also make it accessible for others by keeping the design simple and affordable. The final result is a 40,000 volt Van De Graaff generator that’s powered by two AA batteries and can fit in the palm of your hand.

Put simply, a Van De Graaff generator creates static electricity from the friction of two metal combs rubbing against a moving belt, which is known as the triboelectric effect. The belt is stretched between the two combs and passes through an insulated tube, which serves to “pump” electrons from one side to the other. The end result is that a massive charge builds up on the positive side of the Van De Graaff generator, which is all too willing to send a spark firing off towards whatever negatively charged object gets close enough.

The video after the break guides viewers through the process of turning this principle into a practical device, illustrating how remarkably simple it really is. A common hobby motor is used to get the belt going, in this case just a wide rubber band, and the rest of the components are easily sourced or fabricated. Even for what’s arguably the most intricate element of the build, the combs themselves, [Jay] uses nothing more exotic than aluminum foil tape and a piece of stranded wire splayed out.

Combined with the acrylic base and the purpose-made metal sphere (rather than using a soda can or other upcycled object), the final result not only generates healthy sparks but looks good doing it. Though if the final fit and finish isn’t important, you could always build one out of stuff you found in the trash.

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Hair-Raising Tales Of Electrostatic Generators

We tend to think of electricity as part of the modern world. However, Thales of Mietus recorded information about static electricity around 585 BC.  This Greek philosopher found that rubbing amber with fur would cause the amber to attract lightweight objects like feathers. Interestingly enough, a few hundred years later, the aeolipile — a crude steam engine sometimes called Hero’s engine — appeared. If the ancients had put the two ideas together, they could have invented the topic of this post: electrostatic generators. As far as we know, they didn’t.

It would be 1663 before Otto von Guericke experimented with a sulfur globe rubbed by hand. This led to Isaac Newton suggesting glass globes and a host of other improvements from other contributors ranging from a woolen pad to a collector electrode. By 1746, William Watson had a machine consisting of multiple glass globes, a sword, and a gun barrel. Continue reading “Hair-Raising Tales Of Electrostatic Generators”

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]