500,000 volt Van de Graaff Generator Using Cheap Parts

Picture of 500,000 volt Van de Graaff Generator Using Cheap Parts
Lets build a 500,000+ volt Van de Graaff generator!!

I built this one in about a week, using scrap parts from a sewing machine and materials ordered from http://www.grainger.com/Grainger/wwg/start.shtml

I have seen the larger machines in operation at my local science museum and this one does just as well. I have made hair stand on end and even pie pans float up and off the machine.

For an explanation of operation go to Wikipedia:


ALSO, note that this machine can generate enough static to stop a pacemaker and any other digital device, keep people with heart problems away. Also if you dont wont to blow up you sensitive electronic devices make sure you either use the machine on a separate circuit or unplug everything you want to keep. I have also stopped watches and killed cell phones with it. The current is low around 27micro amps but that's a thousand times whats needed to kill say your flat screen TV or pc/laptop.

Well if your know anything about Van de Graaffs you know that the bigger and smoother the sphere or collector the bigger the charge. Any bump or lip on the sphere and all the charge will run to it and bleed off. 

The recharge rate or time it takes to build up a charge high enough to jump from the sphere is determined by belt speed and width.

I used an art program to generate some diagrams and several pics of the completed unit, its a simple mechanism and you could upscale it for a larger machine easily topping 1,000,000 volts. all you need to do it increase the sphere size and belt width.

This one is an upscale version that I used to test equipment at work and I used the little one to determine the best belt material.
I tried plastic tape, rubber, fabrics, and the hands down best was a plastic coated fabric used in hotel shower curtains. Its easy to cut and glue and lasts for a long time. The charge it carries was easily 50% better than everything I tried.

Also to get the most of your machine you will need to get your hands on some Teflon and some nylon to make the rollers out of. I ordered mine from Granger (links in parts list) I used the Teflon for the top and nylon for the bottom or drive roller. You can also get the Teflon from stacking little half inch thick disks cut with a 2" diameter hole saw from cutting boards. You could also make the top and bottom roller out of the same material and coat the top roller with Teflon tape.

Also if you want to boost your storage and spark a bit build this:
Leyden jar of DOOM!

I will try to list as many tips threw this process as I can. Its been several years since I built the machine and its worked well so far.

Zachary M.
Clinton, TN

Next up a parts list......

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Step 1: Parts List (give or take a few items...)

Picture of Parts List (give or take a few items...)
Sphere-- Garden gazing ball, stainless (glass or plastic will not work)
4" PVC sewer pipe 24" long
4" PVC sewer pipe coupling
2" Diameter 2.75" long Teflon roller Grainger Item # 2NJA2 http://www.grainger.com/Grainger/items/2NJA2
2" Diameter 2.75" long Nylon roller Grainger Item # 1UTY5 http://www.grainger.com
12" x 12" plywood 3/4" thick
12" x 18" plywood 3/4" thick
1/2" all thread (threaded rod) you will need enough to make four pieces 9" long.
1/2" nuts for the all thread, you will need 16 of them also 16 washers
4/40 by 1" bolts I used about 10 of them
Power switch, 120v 5amp
Sheet of copper, I got mine at the hobby store 9 or copper roof flashing at a hardware store.
box of stick pins
3/4 inch copper pipe around 14" long (I would get at least two feet so you have leverage to bend it)
120volt power cord
120volt sewing machine motor with drive pulley and belt. (mine was from a Brother) Or Usehttp://www.grainger.com/Grainger/items/2M033 and Small pulley Granger PN 1X459
12" x 12" PVC sheet 1/4" thick (thick plexi glass will work just as well, and look cool to!)
Axel for top and bottom rollers (whatever you can find, I pulled mine from the sewing machine)
120v panel light, optional
PVC glue
Super Glue medium thickness for the belt
Vinyl covered fabric for belt (shower curtain or cheap strap)

Step 2: Belt Material and were to get it!

Picture of Belt Material and were to get it!
I had several questions about the belt material, and its the most important piece to the VDG next to the sphere.

What you need is 18 oz. Vinyl Coated Polyester

A very tough mesh fabric that is coated with vinyl making it waterproof with a high resistance to dirt, mildew, oil, salt, chemicals and UV. Outstanding strength. Made of top quality materials, will not tear, stretch, crack, rot or mildew. May be sewn or glued with HH-66 vinyl cement.

Were you can get it!!!

They have a 42 oz. version but I have not tried it.

I got mine in white, almost all the black materials I tested didn't do so well.

Step 3: Tools needed (give or take again...)

Picture of Tools needed (give or take again...)
Drill with bits
Table saw or equivalent (skill saw)
Dremel tool
Torch(optional but makes it work better)
screw driver for what ever screws you use...
Hole saw or jigsaw
hack saw
soldering iron w/solder

Step 4: Building the base Step 1

Picture of Building the base Step 1
Cut out your plywood base like the pic, or as long as you keep the top and bottom the same size you can make it whatever shape you want, it will be up to you to determine if you can fit the motor in it.
The top piece is 12" square with the hole centered in it. I recommend laying the two pieces on top of each other and drilling the four support bolt holes at the same time so they line up perfectly.

Step 5: Base step 2

Picture of Base step 2
Cut a couple of 3/4" rings off of the PVC coupler and glue one of them to your main PVC pipe using PVC glue about three inches up one end.

After it dries, fit it threw the hole in the top piece of plywood and glue the bottom ring on to hold it in place.

Get it as tight as you can and it wont slip on you.

Step 6: Base, step 3

Picture of Base, step 3
Next cut the all thread to 9" lengths and assembly like in the pic.
The reason I made it this was was so that you can adjust the belt tension and level the top roller to the bottom roller. You dont have to bolt the top on permanently just yet, you need to add the motor and and comb.

Step 7: Base step 4

Picture of Base step 4
drive rtain 2.JPG
bottom comb.JPG
bottom roller assy.jpg
look at the pics and cut the PVC sheet to make a small box for the roller to ride in. I used the shaft and bearing from the sewing machine. I added a couple of screws to hold in the comb.

A note on the combs both of them the top and bottom ones are nothing more than stick pins soldered in sheet copper. about 1/4" apart. the sharper the better. the bottom one is wired directly to ground.
the top one is touching a spring that contacts the sphere.

Step 8: Base step 5

Picture of base step 5
rear assy.JPG
Next add the motor and pully, then the comb on the back side of the roller, later when you put the belt on you can flex the soft copper of the comb to adjust the space between the roller and the pins, the closser the more charge gets transferred.

Step 9: Base step 5 another view

Picture of base step 5 another view
Mechanical side of the base completed

Step 10: Base step 5 pic

Picture of Base step 5 pic
rear assy.JPG
Note: the motor and bottom pulley needs to turn counter clock wise in the pic below.

The belt and matching pulleys came from the sewing machine.

The aluminum box I mounted the bottom pulley to is just a spacer, you don't have to build yours that way.

I made my motor clamp out of a couple of bolts and a scrap piece of metal with two holes drilled in it.

Step 11: Base (comb and bottom roller)

Picture of Base (comb and bottom roller)
The bottom comb position in relation to the bottom roller is shown below.

Note that the roller will be turning counter clock wise and that the pins are just above were the belt will leave the roller.

Step 12: Base step 6

Picture of base step 6
Wire up the motor, power cable and switch, please shield everything and use a three wire power cable so you can ground it.

I had a left over modem case that I put my power switch in, you can use whatever you like as long as you shield it.

Note: after operation, if you dont discharge the sphere you can get a shock from the power switch.

Step 13: Time for the top 1

Picture of Time for the top 1
Make the top comb as shown, its just a set of pins that need to be held next to the side of the belt just before it touches the top roller. the long tale of copper is to make a spring to touch the inside of the sphere as close the middle as possible.

I put to 4/40 bolts in the top of the machine for this assembly to sit on, this is a very loose design, just get it close without touching the belt and it will grab a great charge.

Step 14: Assemble The Belt

Picture of Assemble The Belt
top roller.JPG
I used a piece of string to measure how long the belt needed to be, and I also left the top deck lowered about an inch so I could tighten the belt up later.

I recommend cutting the belt as pictured below, then gluing a patch over it. I put mine on some wax paper so I could use allot of glue and not stick it to my table. The patch I made was "V" shaped and about 3/4" wider than the seam. See pic in step 15 as well.

Step 15: Top roller

Picture of Top roller
I used the rest of the sheet PVC (you could also use Plexiglas) I made a slot for the belt to come threw and used some scrap plastic to hold up the top roller.

Step 16: Top roller another view and belt construction.

Picture of top roller another view and belt construction.
NOTE the way I cut the belt in a "V" shape and used another piece to cover it, that way you wont have a lump in the belt. I measured for the belt and made it as wide as I could without it slapping the sides when its running. The teflon is so slick I didnt use bearings on the top! its just a solid non turning shaft. The belt is 1.75" wide. Not sure how long.

After you have cut and glued the belt, you can put it on, you simply use the four support bolts to tighten it up, don't go to far you just want it tight enough to spin, and not slap the side of the column when its up to speed, this will kill your charge. If your belt does not track right you can fix that by moving one side of the supports up a little at a time, go slow and make the belt center in the rollers. You can also "crown" one of your rollers, that is to make it "keg" shaped. The downside to this is that you lose a little surface contact and in turn a little recharge power.

Optional: you can make the top roller adjustable as well to help center the belt.

Step 17: Sphere

Picture of Sphere
Use a Dremel tool with a good cutting disk and cut a 4.5 inch hole your sphere and make sure it fits.
Take your time and cut slowly, the woven carbide disks worked best.

The first time I fired mine up it worked but had allot of sparks jumping from the bottom of the sphere, to solve or help this problem I fitted a copper ring for the sphere to sit on. This will fold the charge back up to it. If you dont have a pipe bender tape one end of the pipe shut, fill it with water and freeze it that way you wont kink it wile hand bending it.

After I got the copper ring bent in a circle I cut it and clamped it, so it could be soldered with the torch

I also cut several more 1/2 inch tall rings off the coupler and put them on the column, this keeps the voltage from creeping down.

Also make the sphere sit as high on the column as you can without losing contact with the comb inside, my sphere is around 4" down the column.

Step 18: Diagram

Picture of diagram
1= dome
2= collector comb
3= top teflon roller
4=upward side of belt positive charge
5-downward side of belt, negative charge
6=bottom nylon roller
7=bottom comb
8=grounded ball
9= SPARK!!!!!!!!!

Step 19: Time to play

Picture of Time to play
Make sure the subject, in this case me, is standing on something insulated and have them touch the sphere, then turn on the machine, hair will stand.

You will also get a great effect on a humid summer night out side in total darkness, you can view the plasma coming from you and the sphere.

Also once its running good, tape a thumb tack with the point out to the top of the sphere, watch the plasma jet from it.

take five pie pans and stack them on top of the sphere and turn it on, one by one they will float up and fly off the machine.

Hold a florecent tube in your hand near it, it will glow! (you will get a few sparks to you doing this be ready and dont drop the bulb)

I would build a discharge wand to, or stick with a metal ball on the end that's grounded to the machine. You can use a large tin foil ball and a good insulated wire.

You can take it a step further with a leyden jar like the one here:
Leyden jar of DOOM!
Just be careful with any leyden jar they let you store enough current to cause you serious harm.

Also it will hold a charge for sometime after you turn it off. So discharge it before your curious cat looks at his reflection and gets popped in the nose like mine.....

Step 20: In action

Picture of In action
3 min, exposure in a dark room, the other ball is grounded and attached to a stick.

See it and other photos that I have taken here:
Nickademusss Photo Stream

Most of the best visuals with a Van De Graaff are in a dark room, the light is subtle.

Enjoy email with questions :)

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SarahF34 months ago

is it possible to use plastic as the collector and then place metal on top?

Zachary, what is the reason for the long neck leading up to the dome. Can the length of the belt be shorten to stay 3" from roller to roller? If so would widening the belt with this short distance compensate for its lack of length?Thanking you in advance.


john.pisanic5 months ago

Using a larger ball connected to ground will increase the size and energy of the spark quite a bit as well. A good safety device is a straight paper clip. You can touch any machine without getting shocked at all if you approach it with a pointed piece of metal.

Nishi20017 months ago

Any belt material will work! i used a wide rubber band

Whats ur opnion about connecting the base comb wire to the motors body.....
MOV_0011.mp4(516x290) 14 KB
I was making one and has a dought with the top comb that. Both the combs are on the same side or not.u sayd that the comb should be placed just before the belt touches the roller...
A faster reply will be appreciable
JamesH810 months ago

How large is your metal ball?

He said it was a 12 Inch Steel gazing ball in one of the pictures

Would it be fatal to discharge it using my body? As in connecting the negative to my ankles and arcing the negative charge through my hands to the positive charge on the globe.

I should add that I want to constantly discharge the electricity while the machine is on.

Can I use this motor http://www.ebay.in/itm/High-Torque-DC-12V-Multipurpose-DIY-Brushed-Motor-/191215763246?pt=IN_Toys_Games_School_Stuff&hash=item2c8558ff2e&_uhb=1 ?

Would foam PVC sheet work well or would that be too weak? How do you recommend I attach the PVC sheet "box" (with the bottom roller in it) to the base? Screws/glue/both?


mmiller641 year ago

Hi I have built the Van de Graaff generator to the best of my ability. I have one problem. The bigger pulley near the bottom roller has a inner diameter that is slightly than the diameter of the rod used. Because of this the pulley isn't able to roll the roller which is a crucial par to this. What can i do to fix this? I cant get a different pulley as there aren't any other sizes available.

jreuter1 year ago
Help! I'm stumped! I build a VDG following these nickademuss instructions with a few ideas from the Mark Rehorst site. I used a rubber belt (Sports Authority exercise band) and nylon rollers, one wrapped in Teflon tape. I used the IKEA bowls for the dome. It is definitely generating charge, I can even see a blue glow around the bottom roller before the belt passes the pickup comb. But around the dome I can only get about a 1/2 inch spark. However, I can get much bigger sparks against the column below the dome. I added some vanes going down the column to try to help (disposable plastic plates), and now I can get even bigger sparks (6 inches) down the column (and through the plates, it seems), but still only 1/2 inch anywhere else on the dome. Anyone have any ideas what I'm doing wrong?

nickademuss (author)  jreuter1 year ago

sorry for the delayed response, As mentioned in this instructable vinyl belts work best with my design.

ANY raised edges on the surface of your collector cause the voltage to bleed off into the air, it has to be a smooth dome or torid to hold the charge. First try the right belt, then get yourself a garden gazing ball like the one I used.

Also if you don't have the copper ring for the collector to sit on, you will lose allot of the charge at the base of the sphere. Hope this helps

Thanks for the response! I could not find the vinyl fabric to use for belts locally, so I went with the rubber belts. I don't think that's the problem, as I can draw a 30cm hot visible spark down the column, just not out perpendicular to the unit.

I have the dome on a copper ring, but it's 3/8 inch tubing, not 3/4. I could not find any 1/2 or 3/4 inch that I could bend without breaking. What did you use?

My suspicion now is that the IKEA bowls are brushed stainless, not a mirror smooth finish, and that may be bleeding off a lot of charge diffusely. I can get a blue corona discharge from a pointed rod as far as a meter away from the dome, and a car ignition wire tester (neon bulb in a wand) will illuminate steadily even further away than that. So there is a lot of charge in the air, and a rod in the area must discharge that before enough can build up to make a big arc.

jreuter1 year ago
I found some great rollers at Walmart. They were nylon bed casters, about 2 1/4 inch wide, and fatter in the middle to keep the belt centered. I used on as is and wrapped another in Teflon tape. I drilled the rivet out of the caster and just used the roller on my own axle (it needs a 1/4 inch axle). Everything I could find about this product from other web sites says the roller is nylon, though you can't get that info from Walmart.

Here's the Walmart product link:
azhar121 year ago
i am unable to find teflon roller an nylon rollers in my area now what can i use?can i wrap a bed roller in teflon tape to use it instead of teflon roller?THANKS IN ADVANCE
Beachley1 year ago
I just got done building mine and it works great! Thanks for the instructable.
Here's a picture
and another
nickademuss (author)  Beachley1 year ago
GREAT JOB! looks awesome!
leviterande2 years ago
I have one question: How did you get close to 900kv with this small 12" sphere? It is just impossible, for instance the absolute maximum theoretical voltage you could get out of a 12" sphere is V = 3x106r= maximum of 450kv but in reality it would fall below 300kv.... How come you got huge sparks, you see?
ccheung62 years ago
Is stainless steel positive or negatively charged or neutral and would it work for the gazing ball??
does anybody know how to make a discharge wand?
browntachi2 years ago
Hi, thank you for a marvellous instructable! I am planning to build a machine based on these instructions. I have a question: in your instructions, there is a platform implemented at the top of the tube to mount the roller and charge comb on. But my friend and I are thinking about mounting the top roller on an axle that simply rests in cutouts in the side of the tube itself. Of course, it would protrude a little meaning that the hole in the sphere would need to be enlarged a bit - at least where the axle pokes out. But can you think of any fundamental reason why it wouldn't work? The whole thing would be within the radius covered by the copper ring that the sphere rests on. Thanks so much for your opinion!
I have a doubt, if this Van De Graff generator can produce 900,000 volts, then why can't we use it for electric supply for a house? or other purposes?
it does not make energy, it feeds of a battery or wall power, and converts that into a high ponental static electricity.

even though the voltage is high, the current is super low. try to make a light bulb light up or a motor spin. this type of high voltage/low current will just shoot straight though any low-impedance load. (coils of wire in a motor, or a filament in a lightbulb).
Just because it's called a Van de Graaff generator doesn't mean that it's an electrical generator or "energy source" capable of producing a usable current like the ones in a power plant.
No we cant because eventhough its 900,00 volts, the current( I ) is low.
Study basic electronic theory.
and i forgot to say, a house needs like 50 amps so 0.2209 amps would power a 25 watt light bulb, it probably couldnt even power your laptop. And also van der graafs need to charge up to 900000v, its not constant. so powering a house would simply be impractical.
the amperage is also far too low: 900,000 volts at 27 micro amps will produce 110v at 220.9 milli amps (0.2209 amps) when a house requires far more amps then that. and not to mention the losses when converting 900000v to 110v
This generates static electricity, and voltage like this isn't that useful. It will jump through insulation on wires, and the amperage of this is also extremely weak.
dot1dot22 years ago
I built one similar to this in '92. I worked for a company that built very high power coax equipment for tv + radio broadcasting. The rule-of-thumb for electrical arc in dry air is 70000 volts/in. An engineer I worked with said "I'd be careful about spending much time with that", he did not explain why... later I read that electrical discharges (arcs) over 300000 volts generate x-rays (at 70k volts/in thats about a 4.3" arc). I used a 14" diameter globe and had visible arcs about 12" and non-visible ones snap at my knee when approaching at about 30". If you have one of these put a cheerio on top... it will build a charge, jump upright like a tire (from a lying flat position) and then the repelling charges will make it fly away. My kids found that white styrofoam particles would travel about 10ft through the air and cling to the sphere, then if you discharged the sphere (make it arc) all the particles would drop off for a moment and then jump back up when the charge returns!
For extreme Van de Graaff Generators check out www.physicsplayground.com

JDH_242 years ago
I am a little confused how did you calculate what your voltage would be for this generator
Nathan58022 years ago
I'm younger then 16, so I don't exactally have a lot of money, so I was wondering, how much would all of this cost. And also, the links to buy the rollers do not work anymore, please fix them.
nickademuss (author)  Nathan58022 years ago
NA I like broken links....

they are no longer available from Granger, try cole parmer or use bed frame rollers available from home depot....

Cost depends on how much used stuff you can scrounge, mine was around 150.00 or a little less if you go to a good thrift store and buy a 5.00 sewing machine.

Its also scalable, build a smaller one with smaller dimensions, it will be cheaper.
Your instructions are nicely done. The adjustment of the brushes could be made if you use a spacer like paper of various thickness to make positioning easier and more parallel. I haven't started yet but I assume the belt will have a tendency to centrifugally move towards the brushes if they are above the tangent point off the rollers? You say to move them just above where the belt is starting to loose contact with the roller. Are you saying that is very important or can the brushes be at the tangent of belt and roll? If so, then the likelihood of scraping is reduced.
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