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

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Introduction: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Amazon.com

Electrostatics by Niels Jonassen

Creative Experiments in Electricity

Electrostatic Discharge

Step 7: 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

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.

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    133 Discussions

    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 =)

    19 replies

    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)

    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.

    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.

    Yep, can't get more out than in, conservation of energy, just like an 'A' bomb...hang on,..no 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 dear..no, 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.

    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.

    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.

    Ever heard of this small equation?
    E=MC²
    Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared
    Thats the basic theory (I think) behind a nuclear bomb, matter is converted to energy.
    :D

    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?

    "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

    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.

    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.)

    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.

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

    http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/01.24/01-stoplight.html at 38 miles an hour? Or one of the other speeds of light?

    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.

    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?

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