Introduction: Kelvin's Thunderstorm - Create Lightning From Water and Gravity!

Picture of Kelvin's Thunderstorm - Create Lightning From Water and Gravity!

Did you know that you could recreate thunderstorm lightning in your own home?

It's possible and is really easy to do. Granted, it's not nearly as exciting as a good old fashion thunderstorm, but the effect is still pretty cool and this lightning won't kill you!

The scientific name for this experiment is a water-drop electrostatic generator.

Watch the video for a quick overview, then check out the detailed instructions to see how to build your own! (Scientific explanation is on step 6)

WARNING: This experiment can generate several thousand volts out of thin air, possible injuring or even killing a harmless little gnat or even a fly!

Video overview:

Step 1: Supplies

Picture of Supplies

Here's a list of supplies you will need for this experiment. You can get them all at your local hardware store.

- Garden Hose
- Two buckets - 8 quart or larger are perfect
- Packing Styrofoam
- Hose 'Y' Adapter with flow-control valves
- One foot of 3/4" plastic tubing
- Two 3/4" end caps
- Nylon thread or string
- Wire - any kind of conducting wire works, even alligator leads.
- Two bottomless soup or coffee cans
- A drill with a small bit

Step 2: Prep the Parts

Picture of Prep the Parts

There's a couple of things you'll need to do before putting it all together:

1. Drill holes in the end caps.
This is the most important step. The end goal here is to create several continuous streams of water droplets.

In order to accomplish that, the holes must be properly spaced, otherwise they will join into a solid stream, defeating the purpose.

(This will still work with only one stream of droplets, but the energy buildup time is greatly reduced by having several!)

2. Drill holes in the cans.
The cans will need three holes. Two on top for suspending it from something, and one on the bottom for the metal wire.

Step 3: Prep the Parts - Continued

Picture of Prep the Parts - Continued

Now that you have all your holes drilled, it's time to finish the prep work.

1. Attach the wire to the can.
Cut yourself plenty of wire to work with, and make sure it has good contact with the metal of the can.

2. Attach the thread to the can.
Tie one end of the thread to the can. Cut a few feet to ensure there will be enough to suspend it.

Step 4: Put the Pieces Together

Picture of Put the Pieces Together

Now it's time to put it all together.

1. Connect the y-adapter to the hose.

2. Put the end caps in the plastic tubes.
Be sure they are tight!

3. Attach the tubes to the y-adapters.
I ended up having to use hose clamps to keep them them from slipping off.

Step 5: Put It All Together

Picture of Put It All Together

Now it's time to put the pieces together.

I used one of those folding ladders to attach the hose to, and to suspend the cans from.

1. Align the cans so they are directly under the tubes.

2. Connect the wire from each can to the opposite bucket.
You can also use the wires to help secure the position of the cans under the plastic tubes.
NOTE: Make sure the wires don't cross or come very close to each other!

3. Move the buckets close together.
This is where the spark will jump. If you can't get them within about 1/2 inch of each other, you can also just attach a couple more pieces of wire to the handles of the bucket and use those for the spark gap.

Step 6: Explanation

Picture of Explanation

So what exactly are we doing with all of this?

Water, like many things, is composed of vast quantities of positive and negative electric charges in perfect balance. As water drips down from the top, the slightly positively-charged water is attracted to the more negative can, and the slightly negative water is attracted to the more positive can.

This water-drop contraption utilizes Electrostatic Induction to generate a voltage difference between the two buckets. The charges then build up in the can connected to the bucket opposite of it - attracting even more charge. This results in a positive feedback loop.

When the voltage difference is high enough (usually a few thousand volts), a spark will jump between the buckets, discharging the voltage.

OK, but how does it start?

During dry conditions, everything near the generator ends up with a tiny electric charge just from being handled. It's the same concept that causes a shock after walking across carpet and touching a grounded object.

Once the water begins flowing, that natural charge is amplified over and over very quickly, resulting in a large imbalance that corrects itself as a spark between the buckets.

For more information about electrostatic induction, refer to these great books from

Electrostatics by Niels Jonassen

Creative Experiments in Electricity

Electrostatic Discharge

Step 7: Turn It On!

Picture of Turn It On!

Now it's time to turn the electrostatic generator on and begin producing some miniature lightning!

Turn your hose on, and then use the flow control valves on the y adapter to adjust the flow.

The water should come out fairly fast, but it needs to be as droplets and not a continuous stream. A continuous stream won't give the charges a chance to break away from the source, which is grounded.

Ideally, the droplets should begin to form just above the can, before it passes through it. I found that it wasn't very hard to get this working properly without much adjustment.

The water also shouldn't drip on the can, but pass through it instead. A little splashing is normal and doesn't seem to affect the generation of electricity.

Once the water begins flowing, it should only take a few seconds for the first spark to appear. The more individual water droplet streams, the faster and more often you will get sparks!

Watch the video for close-ups of the sparks in action (Fast-forward to 34 seconds to go right to the sparks!):

Step 8: Troubleshooting

Picture of Troubleshooting

If you are not able to get things working as expected, here are some tips for troubleshooting your design:

1. Humidity
If you live in a high humidity environment, don't even bother with this experiment - it won't work. I produced the results you see here with a relative humidity of around 60%.

2. Ground your water source
Your garden hose should be grounded already. If you're having problems getting sparks, grab some extra wire and attach it to the screw of a wall outlet, or carefully attach it to the ground prong of an electrical cord, and then plug it in.

3. Double check your wires from the cans
Are they touching each other?
Are they too close together?

4. Move the buckets closer together.
It's best to move the buckets within a couple of millimeters to start off with, to be sure the generator is working properly. Then you can move them farther and farther apart.


phyck (author)2007-09-13

ok i now almost nothing of this science , but hypothetically if you could curculate the same water with a pump , (or gravity suction tube thing) , and some how harness the electricity isnt that potencially a pretty damn easy renewable energy resource ?

please enlighten me if this is possible with the correct enginereing , or if its just a quick idea that wont work
-thx =)

mitchells365 (author)phyck2016-03-30

Ok, you are definitely right that you don't know ANYTHING about science!!!! But you could use a high up source of water that you use your own energy to fill to run a generator which could supply you with a small amount of power, plus going up the ladder would give you a good workout; But as the Law of Conservation of energy states you can never get more energy out than you put in, also some of the energy you put in will be wasted by the friction between the water and the pipes/tubes (it will turn into small amounts of heat, which will be lost to the water, tubes and atmosphere)

saket bishnoi (author)phyck2015-11-30

that's nice. it can be used in those places where water pumps are used to harness some energy .

However using a water pump specially for producing this energy will not be economic.

Zanpakutou (author)phyck2007-12-22

It won't work. No matter how hard you tried, you would always be putting more energy into the pump than you would be getting back. And you can't circulate water by gravity alone.

spikeychops (author)Zanpakutou2008-08-25

Yep, can't get more out than in, conservation of energy, just like an 'A' bomb...hang on, that's not right is it..slightly more energy out than the TNT or tiny A bomb used to set the main A bomb off.. Ok, then...the atom itself. The atom demonstrates the laws of conservation perfectly, doesn't it? The electron(s) spin(s) around the nucleus until it runs out of ener...oh, that's another bad example really isn't it. OK, got it this time...the solar system! That, needs to be constanly fed new energy in order to maintain orbits, planes etc..hang on a moment! That doesn't work either, does it. Hmmm..this conservation of energy 'law' is a bit of a flakey law really isn't it. The only poeple this so called 'law' has served, is the people that try to convince the rest of us that this law exists and is valid 100% of the time. The truth of it, is that it's only valid MOST of the time. A bit like saying 99 out of 100 UFO sightings are not really space/dimentional craft, but other normal objects, therefore, UFO's don't exist. Fine until you realise that because most are not 'real', if just 1 of 100 IS 'real', then the other 99 count for zilch.

Zanpakutou (author)spikeychops2008-09-07

The law does exist and is valid 100% of the time. Regarding the A-Bomb, you've got to remember that matter and energy are equivalent; energy was put in, in the form of matter, which was converted to energy during the explosion. As for the orbits of planets and electrons, they aren't losing any energy as they orbit, because there is no friction from air etc., so no more energy needs to be added in order for them to maintain their orbits. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the law still holds in each example.

chriskarr (author)Zanpakutou2008-09-07

Matter and energy are not equivalent. Matter can not be turned into energy, just as energy can not be turned into matter, but, instead, the energy that's already in the atom can be forced out. If you think about the fact that the atom's nucleus will explode at nearly the speed of light (thanks to the SNF - that's the strong nuclear force) because of the energy already contained within the atomic structure. There is no such thing as a conversion from matter to energy.

davecollinsnz (author)chriskarr2008-09-09

Ever heard of this small equation?
Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared
Thats the basic theory (I think) behind a nuclear bomb, matter is converted to energy.

chriskarr (author)davecollinsnz2008-09-09

Matter is NOT converted to energy. The strong nuclear force is being over-powered by the initial blast in the bomb. This causes rapid atomic decay, in which the protons of the atom are shot out at speeds near to, at, or exceeding the speed of light. Matter is not converted to energy, but, instead matter gives off energy. An easy way to describe this is in a similar manner to an exothermic or endothermic reaction; in an exothermic or endothermic reaction, the reactive material gives off energy or pulls in energy, respectively. In an exothermic reaction, bonds are generally broken; because it takes energy to make those bonds, the reaction puts off energy. In an endothermic reaction, the opposite is true. The same basic principle applies in a nuclear reaction, only on a MUCH larger scale (with smaller parts!). Isn't science wonderful?

davecollinsnz (author)chriskarr2008-09-09

"in which the protons of the atom are shot out at speeds near to, at, or exceeding the speed of light." Something tells me that the above statment is flawed. Matter, travelling near the speed of light? Yes. (LHC particle beam 99.999%) At the speed of light? Nearly impossible. (Massive amount of energy) Exceeding the speed of light? No. Photons travel so very fast because they have little to zero mass. When I talk of matter to energy, I'm meaning matter to photons (aka electromagnetic radiation). I know that a neutron can be split into a proton and an electron, which then bombard other sub-atomic particles, thus setting up a nuclear chain reaction, in the right materials. For the exothermic and endothermic reactions, you sorta had a comparision, since as the molecules interact and electrons moved about, they emitt or require infra-red radiation to react. :D

Pie Ninja (author)davecollinsnz2008-12-18

Actually to travel at the speed of light you'd need infinite energy. sry for bein a pedant.

chriskarr (author)Pie Ninja2008-12-18

That's not true. Think of it this way - if you were a beam of light and I were moving in a direction opposite your motion, relative to you I'd be moving faster than the speed of light.

Pie Ninja (author)chriskarr2008-12-18

Yes, but that's your relative speed, not your actual speed.

(I probably should have also mentioned that it's easy to travel at the speed of light provided that you have no mass.)

chriskarr (author)Pie Ninja2008-12-18

But the fact remains that you would be moving at the speed of light. It doesn't matter what it's relative to, because there could be some light moving the opposite direction of the light we're speaking of relatively, and we're moving at half the speed of that light, when compared to the 'stationary' light. There's also the fact that light is composed of photons, which are very simple, but not without mass.

Rotten194 (author)chriskarr2009-07-01

Time slows down as you approach the speed of light, thus making your arguments invalid. Look it up.

atomcloud (author)Rotten1942015-07-09 at 38 miles an hour? Or one of the other speeds of light?

Pie Ninja (author)Rotten1942009-07-01

I'm sorry, but how is this relative? Also, in response to chriskarr, THE SPEED OF LIGHT IS CONSTANT. I feel I should have mentioned that, you see, even if I was moving away from you, you would still appear to move at the speed of light, no faster. No trying to work around it with your incomplete physics.

galeb (author)Pie Ninja2015-05-12

The speed of light varies according to the media that is travels through.

I feel I should have mentioned that, you see, even if I was moving away
from you, you would still appear to move at the speed of light, no
faster. No trying to work around it with your incomplete physics. Well then why try to prove it with your incomplete physics?

Rotten194 (author)Pie Ninja2009-07-02

Sorry, I misunderstood what he was saying.

mrclean816 (author)Pie Ninja2009-07-20

Wait but I read light does have mass. I think its the protons or something. Something about a laser hitting something.

Light has no mass, but it can still affect what it bounces off of. When light pours out of a flashlight, it's bouncing and dispersing freely, like a buckshot round. When it's being shot out of a laser, it's focused into an extremely straight line, which is one of the reasons they're so powerful.


Pie Ninja (author)mrclean8162009-07-20

Light has no mass, it also has nothing to do with protons. Read the wiki.

tech-king (author)Pie Ninja2009-09-10

plus, at the speed of light, things slow down, so your relative speed would still not exceed the SOL

Pie Ninja (author)Pie Ninja2009-07-01

Also you can travel faster than light, you just need to go back in time, and to do that, all you have to do is go faster than the speed of light. :P

wilddog (author)Pie Ninja2010-12-07

According to quantum physics you can't go faster than light...

galeb (author)wilddog2015-05-12

According to quantum physics you can't go faster than light. Well then that means that quantum physics is wrong as we have already seen things that travel faster than the speed of light.

Langarulz (author)wilddog2011-08-19

quatum physics is right but u can move across the galxy in a matter of secong if u had an incredible ammount of anti-matter

electrons have less mas than protons and if the electrons are flying at the speed of light we call them photons :) so if you can reverse the energy holding the electron near the nucleus it creates gamma radiation and light if and only if that force is powerful enough to accelerate the electron to photon speeds. also the neutron cannot be split into a proton and electron.

chriskarr (author)davecollinsnz2008-09-10

I suppose I'd have to agree with that.

Dirtie Hippie (author)chriskarr2009-09-27

I had not thought of it before, but you are right. Matter is not converted into energy. Even in an atomic blast. The protons, neutrons, and electrons are still there just as they were before. Good old E=mc2 only refers to the release of the energy bonds. The electromagnetic bond of the electron/proton is broken and the electron goes flying off and photons carrying that energy go flying off. The nuclear bonds of the proton/neutron are broken and they go flying off and photons carrying that energy. The matter (i.e. proton, neutrons, and electrons) are all still present, just not bonded together.

And as for some particles exceeding the speed of light. Why even get into that? Yes, some tiny, tiny, tiny amount of them do. But that's this crazy quantum mechanical, they can do it cause we can't observe them thing. It just confuses people. By people I mean laymen, students, advanced physicists with three doctorates. :)

galeb (author)Dirtie Hippie2015-05-12

And as for some particles exceeding the speed of light. Why even get
into that? Yes, some tiny, tiny, tiny amount of them do. But that's this
crazy quantum mechanical, they can do it cause we can't observe them
thing. It just confuses people. By people I mean laymen, students,
advanced physicists with three doctorates. :)

If even one travels faster than the speed of light, then that means that the physics involved is wrong, does it not?

BlackFang171 (author)chriskarr2011-05-16

Matter IS being converted into energy, as is evident in the difference of mass that is exhibited between the mass of a particle you split, and the sum of the masses of the resulting particles. This is elementary physics.

chriskarr (author)BlackFang1712011-05-16

Sorry; I am going to need to take back my prior comment, to a degree. Matter is, in fact, not being *converted* to energy...matter is naught more than condensed energy receiving mass from its interaction with a sort of 'grid', according to the standard model of particle physics and the theory of Higgs interaction.

This is quantum physics.

"matter and energy are not equivalent" actually we now know that what we perceive as matter is really just the interaction of different energys and everything is energy and theoretically could be converted from one form to another. everything is made up of atoms. atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. these are made up of quantum particles which just recently have been found to be forms of energy themselves. Correct me if I am wrong. which this is off the top of my head not from a source. but its late and I don't feel like looking it up.

davecollinsnz (author)Zanpakutou2008-09-09

Err, actually the planets are losing energy, because the sun's gravity is tugging on the planets, making them orbit instead of flying off in a straight line. So eventually (ignoring the future expansion of the sun) the planets would crash into the sun.

Langarulz (author)davecollinsnz2011-08-19

but the planets have momentum so we would never crash into the sun (ignoring the expansion of the sun)

spikeychops (author)Zanpakutou2008-11-01

Hi Again, I think you have it wrong when you say there is no friction on the planets. Cosmic dust and debris smash into the planets and have done to a greater or lesser extent for billions of years. Thousands and thousands of tonnes of dust, rock, metal falls through our atmosphere every year, the same is true of all other planets. The friction is evidenced everytime we see meteor trails burning in the sky. Also, space is not 'empty'. It has billions of tonnes of charged particles whizzing around, it has loosely spaced atoms of virtually ALL elements, perhaps a few atoms every cubed foot or so, but x that by infinity (for space) and x that by 4.5 billion years (approx age of our planet), and that makes for a lot of resistance. What about electrons? Well, they have to contend with forces too. Electromagnetic attractions and repulsions, chemical interactions, quantum particle interaction, all have an effect, but an electron (as far as we can tell at our present tech) will orbit it's nucleus at a constant speed and distance until the end of time. But where does the 'energy' or driving force come from that causes this to be so? If the electron (or scale up exactly the same model for a solar system, a spiral galaxy, perhaps even this whole universe itself), isn't an example of (I'll NOT say perpetual motion, even though it is) 'obtaining energy through non apparent means', then I can't think of a more obvious or apt example to prove the existence of this phenomena. All we ridiculous humans have to do, is discover and replicate the effect, and we'll all be moving to the stars, to start our own private family planets!

rivetgeek (author)spikeychops2008-12-01

electromagnetism. It's a basic force. Next.

Noego (author)spikeychops2009-09-11

Please, spikeychops, there is no evil conspiracy in the CoE law. The law works on mechanical principles, not nuclear ones (until you get down to the sub-at level, where it really still does). You really have to look into laws like this with a (decently) educated background. Once you know all the facts of it you will find that it does work, 100% of the time. Not saying no conspiracies exist period- just that if you look for them everywhere you will make them up with a combination of incomplete and flawed knowledge and vindictive imagination.

josephlebold (author)Noego2011-05-19

what happens when the electrons in matter run out of energy and they stop spinning around the protons? do they finally meet up with the protons and cease to exist? since no energy is left in the atom does it just vanish silently?

rivetgeek (author)spikeychops2008-12-01

*sigh* God I hope you haven't passed 5th grade science yet. splitting the atom simply releases energy storing in the form of nuclear binding forces. It doesn't create energy. Energy can not be created. Ever. It can only be converted from one form to another.

Pie Ninja (author)rivetgeek2009-07-01

I apologize if i was unclear, I was merely explaining to him the law of conservation of energy, I am perfectly aware that E = mc2 and that by splitting an atom you release energy equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, i.e an astronomically large amount.

Pie Ninja (author)Pie Ninja2009-07-01

And can anyone tell me how to get my text back to normal after I make it superscript?

Pie Ninja (author)spikeychops2008-12-18

Ugggh, Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed into aother form...wait, why am I writing all this out?

Why is it that the people who know the least, know it the loudest?

karossii (author)Zanpakutou2008-04-04

While this is true - you can't use this to produce more energy than consumed (i.e. there's still no such thing as a free lunch, nor free power), if you are already circulating water for a water feature, like an indoor waterfall in your office or some such thing, you can use this to generate small amount of power to offset the energy cost, or to power something else. I don't have pictures, but in my last office I had a small setup which was not only pleasant to see (it was made quite beautifully in addition to the general pleasantness of flowing water), and pleasant background noise (that sometimes made me need to pee), but it charged batteries for me. Of course, it consumed more power than a normal charger which would plug into the wall - but it consumed a lot less than said charger and a typical indoor waterfall would have!

s3klyma (author)karossii2008-06-12

I saw something on tv, about a setup utilized in ancient Greece, or Rome.. or something like that. Water would be put into a bowl, and it would drain through a hose, the hose was attached to a kind of beaker which was filled with air and had another hose inside of it, that hose when to another beaker that was filled with air and had a hose in it, that hose lead out of the whole thing and back into the bowl. It was a recycling waterfall, and it worked. I do feel, that because no energy is being used, except the change from potential to kinetic energy, that that setup could be used for the purposes.

dudemonkeys (author)s3klyma2008-06-26

I think what you just described is called Heron's Fountain. While the water does flow without help, it does not last forever. The water stops flowing after a brief while.

Pie Ninja (author)dudemonkeys2008-12-18

True dat, in order for a syphon to work the end where water comes out needs to be lower than the water level in the vessel from which the liquid comes from. Which means that your diagram would never work, maybe momentarily, and I'm talking about 1 or 2 seconds here, if you had sucked the water out of the syphon first you might have a little bit trickle out when you take your mouth away.

Pie Ninja (author)Pie Ninja2008-12-18


galeb (author)Pie Ninja2015-05-12

As long as you continue to believe that way, then you are right for you, but only for you. If you want an example, the amount of energy it takes to make a magnet into a magnet is very small compared to the energy that is available for hundreds of years from the made magnet. That is not perpetual motion, but perpetual energy, which is what perpetual motion is all about.

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