Lab Work: Piezoelectric power

You can buy or DIY.
Two film canisters, a cardboard tube, and some Alka-Seltzer tablets. Grayscale.
What you'll need for the DIY version of this experiment.

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An explosive kit for exploring energy can be purchased from Educational Innovations. The Piezo Popper Kit (HS-2A; $7.50) is a simple fuel-powered engine that is triggered with a piezoelectric igniter.

Just fill the supplied film canister with two drops of a flammable liquid propellant, seal the canister, shake it (shaken, not stirred), and press the igniter. POP! The resulting explosion can catapult the film canister up to 10 feet away from the startled scientist.

If the notion of juicing a film canister with a flammable liquid leaves you a little shaken, yourself, then consider this alternative testing technique:

What you’ll need:

  • 35-millimeter film canister
  • Antacid tablet

Antacid tablets like Alka-Seltzer are potent rocket propellant systems. I kid you not. In addition to the antacid tablets, you will also need an empty 35-millimeter film canister. These two items are your engine mount and propellant. Optionally, you can add a rolled paper tube that will snugly and safely hold the engine (film canister). In my tests, I found that Fujifilm canisters are the best engines.

Now, rather than adding two drops of a flammable liquid, add measured amounts of the antacid tablet and measured volumes of water. Then record the mass of the canister and the height attained by the flying canister. You can apply these measurements to the same calculations used in the Piezo Popper Kit. Compare the results from a flammable canister’s flight versus an antacid-fueled voyage.

Just don’t expect NASA to begin replacing its booster rocket engines with antacid tablets anytime soon.