There are many unusual things to see around Newton Falls, Ohio—the Wal-Mart with hitching posts for Amish buggies, the Army base with helicopters and tanks proudly arranged on hills—but I was here for the most unusual thing of all: the local Dynamitron. I was here to make frozen lightning.
The Kent State Neo Beam facility's Dynamitron is a four-story-tall, five-million-volt particle accelerator much like a tube TV, only bigger. (Yes, tube TVs are domestic particle accelerators.) Both Dynamitrons and TVs use high voltages and magnets to slam electrons into a target. In a TV, that's the phosphor screen; in this Dynamitron, it's usually plastic plumbing components being hardened by the beam. But when I joined the team of retired electrical engineer Bert Hickman and physicists Bill Hathaway and Kim Goins, the product was Lichtenberg figures, lightning bolts permanently recorded in a block of clear acrylic.
With the Dynamitron—rented for the day—adjusted to around three million volts, it blasts electrons about halfway through half-inch-thick pieces of acrylic sheet. The plastic is a very good insulator, so it traps the electrons inside. Coming out of the machine, the blocks don't look any different, but they hold a hornet's nest of electrons desperate to get out.
You can create similar, if less permanent, Lichtenberg figures using toner powder from a copier or printer and any common source of static electricity [see below]. This is how German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg first did it in the late 18th century (he used powdered sulfur), which at the time represented one of the great discoveries in the history of electricity. Today, the figures are a great way to learn about electrical discharge—and can make a cool souvenir from an afternoon with a very expensive machine.
Make a Lichtenberg Figure
Create a Lichtenberg figure out of fine dust, just like Lichtenberg himself did in 1777
- Place a sharp metal point so it touches the center of a sheet of insulating material. (Lichtenberg used resin made from tree sap; today, clear acrylic works well.)
- Use a Wimshurst machine [shown above], a Van de Graaff generator, or vigorous shuffling on shag carpeting to build up static electricity, and then touch the metal point with your finger or with the machine's electrode to discharge it. This forms a pattern of stranded charge on the plastic. The Lichtenberg figure is there; you just can't see it.
- Blow photocopier toner over the surface. It will stick to the static electricity, revealing a beautiful Lichtenberg figure. Lichtenberg's discovery ultimately led to the invention of photocopiers and laser printers, where the charge is laid down in patterns of words and images.
Like what you see? For more Gray Matter, subscribe to our Gray-Matter-only RSS feed here or see the full list of projects at popsci.com/graymatter. And for Theodore Gray's one-of-a-kind periodic table poster, head to periodictable.com/posters
Cool and beautiful!
How long could the bock trap the lighting ?
Where can I get the blocks?
I agree, this is a very cool experiment. As to how long the acrylic can hold the image, permanently. If you mean how long the lightening flashes, I would imagine until the block is grounded, the flashes would persist.
I would imagine that on could generate a fair amount of income selling these Lichtenberg figures.
How much does it cost to rent a Dynamitron for a day?
How long does it take the 3 MEV charge to load on the plexiglass from the Dynamitron?
there are many lichtenberg figures on the ice near my home and they are not drain holes. They are merely the first places that the sun melts the ice, usually caused by something dark at the center which heats up and starts the melting. I have 40mg of pix if pop sci is interested.
phoenix9860, I think that you don't mean 3 MeV (million electron volts), which is a really small amount of energy.
do you realy need the toner? ( dont think you do)
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well if you want to buy one Mr. Gray linked to this site from his. http://www.capturedlightning.com/frames/interesting.html
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It's so exiting and really beautiful. I would like to try it but I'm not very good at science. besides, I think I can hardly manage to do the same by myself. I wish I could see this beati with my own eyes not only at photos. I admire people who create amazing things using simple natural laws. They make science more interesting for usual people like me who sit at their offices with computers and do their work connected with online payday loans and have no idea about such phenomena. For detailed information about personal payday loans visit http://ameriloansearch.com/
Those are really cool, and I would like to buy one. But, the price seems a bit high. I can't see paying $90 for something the size of a deck of cards. If I was making them, I wouldn't bother with the tiny 3"x3" size, but make a 8.5" x 11" or larger size only, with prices starting at $100. To charge $900 for one, I would expect it to be poster size, 24" x 36".