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.
Create a Lichtenberg figure out of fine dust, just like Lichtenberg himself did in 1777
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Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.