There probably comes a point in every female technical journalist’s career at which she covers her first make-up story and wonders aloud whether this is what her life has come to. But this make-up story involves some physics, and follows a series of viral videos in the TikTok community in which specialist cosmetics vloggers were surprised to see lip gloss apparently levitating — defying gravity — from the ends of its applicators. This caught the attention of [Steve Mould], who followed up on his hunch that static electricity might be responsible. What follows in the video below the break are a variety of attempts to recreate and characterise the phenomenon.
The tried-and-trusted approach of rubbing feet on the carpet failing to cause any movement in the damp atmosphere of a British January, he’s off to try a Van de Graaff generator Even the hefty electrostatic charge from that failed to produce more than a tiny blip, but did at least give a suggestion that the effect might be electrostatic.
Finally he was able to replicate the beauty vloggers’ results using the FunFlyStick electrostatic toy, with satisfying threads of lip gloss heading off into the air. The FunFlyStick is an interesting device in its own right, being a Van de Graaff generator in toy form and capable of generating significant quantities of charge. The flying lip gloss is an interesting phenomenon, but speaks further about just how much electrostatic charge can accumulate on mundane objects in a dry climate. Those of in damper climes would do well to take note before we travel.
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!
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.
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.
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”→
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.
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.
Lifter flying with high voltage power supply
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.
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.
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.