The Van de Graaff generator is a staple of science museums, to the point that even if the average person might not know its name, there’s an excellent chance they’ll be familiar with the “metal ball that makes your hair stand up” description. That’s partly because they’re a fairly safe way to show off high voltages, but also because they’re surprisingly cheap and easy to build.
In his latest Plasma Channel video [Jay Bowles] builds a large Van de Graaff generator that wouldn’t look out of place in a museum or university, which he estimates is producing up to 500,000 volts. It can easily throw impressive looking (and sounding) sparks 10 inches or more, and as you can see in the video below, is more than capable of pulling off those classic science museum tricks.
It’s really quite amazing to see just how little it takes to generate these kinds of voltages with a Van de Graaff. In fact there’s nothing inside that you’d immediately equate with high voltage, the only electronic component in the generator’s base beyond the battery pack is a motor speed controller. While everything else might look suspiciously like magic, our own [Steven Dufresne] wrote up a properly scientific explanation of how it all works.
In this particular case, the motor spins a nylon pulley in the base of the generator, which is connected to a Teflon pulley in the top by way of a neoprene rubber belt. Combs made from fine metal mesh placed close to the belt at the top and bottom allow the Van de Graaff to build up a static charge in the sphere. Incidentally, it sounds like sourcing the large metal sphere was the most difficult part of this whole build, as it took [Jay] several hours to modify the garden gazing ball to fit atop the acrylic tube that serves as the machine’s core.
In the past we’ve seen Van de Graaff generators built out of literal trash, and back in 2018, [Jay] himself put together a much smaller and more simplistic take on the concept. But this beauty certainly raises the bar beyond anything we’ve seen previously.