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Fun With Electrostatics
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Fun With Electrostatics

What is electrostatics and how can you have fun with electrostatics? Electrostatics is that area of science dealing with charged particles. You are probably most familiar with electrostatics when you take your clothes out of the dryer and they are all clinging together. Advertisers call that "static cling". If you live in a climate that has dry winters, then you are familiar with getting that spark when you touch a door knob or kiss a loved one. I know you're thinking, OK where is the fun in all that? Well, that is what I hope to explain so that you can appreciate this area of science.

Fun with Electrostatics goes back to Ancient Greece

Besides knowing how to philosophize, the Ancient Greeks knew how to rub two objects together to attract or repel lightweight objects. One of the best objects they used to rub was amber. You may not know that amber is the name given to fossilized tree resin, but that's should not be confused with being the same as tree sap. Today, amber is found in jewelry and perfume. The Greeks had their fun with electrostatics, but they didn't understand it.

Flash Forward to 1663 AD and Otto von Guericke

Otto von Guericke, a scientist and inventor, from Germany decided to do some serious rubbing of his own. He built a machine that could spin a large sulfur ball around a shaft. The ball is attached through its center axis. Guericke realized he could build up a charge in his body if he put his hands on the ball as it spun. This invention of his is known as a friction machine. Friction is a misnomer in a way, all that is really required to build up static charges between two different objects is to have them come in contact with one another. It is not the friction that causes the charges to occur, it is just the contact. When you rub more, like the Greeks or Guerick did, you are causing more surface area to come into contact between the two objects resulting in larger charges.

Van de Graaff's Fun with Electrostatics

In 1929, Robert J. Van de Graaff invented the Van de Graaff generator. We believe that he got the idea from seeing a newspaper printing press. What he saw were electrostatic sparks being generated as the ribbon of newspapers went over an end roller.

Van de Graaff's idea was to create a friction machine by having a long rubber belt driven around two separated rollers. Each roller is of a different material than that of the belt and each other. In fact, each roller's contact with the belt is from different ends of the Triboelectric Series. The belt itself needs to fall between the two roller materials in the series. When the belt runs over the two rollers, positive charges collect around one roller and negative charges collect around the other roller. The machine is very recognizable from the outside as it has a long vertical column with a shiny aluminum sphere on top. One roller resides inside the globe, the other inside the base with its motor.

The Van de Graaff generator is probably the best friction machine to have ever been developed. Its range of use varies from fun electrostatic experiments in the high school physics class to serious scientific application in accelerating atomic particles.

Fun with Electrostatics at home

Due to their size and expense, Van de Graaff generators are not normally found in the everyday home. That was until the development of the Fly Stick Levitation wand. The wand is a handheld mini Van de Graaff generator. It runs on two AA batteries and used to levitate and move three dimensional mylar shapes through the air. The toy is a lot of fun for kids and quite inexpensive. If you or your children want to demonstrate, and possibly understand, the principles of static charges, this educational toy is the item you will want to buy.


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