Introduction: Uber-Cheap Electroscope for Teaching

Picture of Uber-Cheap Electroscope for Teaching

The easiest and most fascinating science instrument you can make from rubbish lying around is an electroscope.

Basically, an electroscope is a device that visibly reacts in the presence of static charge by means of aluminium leaves that will spring apart.

The working principle is based on the fact that like electrical charges repel, while opposite charges attract. We can use this principle to push electrons around the scope, and by grounding the scope while in the presence of a charged object, we push electrons out or pull them in. We remove the grounding path, then remove the object that is creating the electric field. What remains is an electroscope that is either positively or negatively charged.

Huh? Don't worry, its way more simple that it sounds.

But the possibilities for using this for teaching physics are vast:

Charges, forces, current, capacitance...even ionizing radiation.

Ionizing Radiation?

Don't forget - electroscopes were used as radiation detectors in the early days of particle physics.You can build it and use gas lamp mantle as a radiation source to show that it works. Gas mantles contain thorium, the element that makes them magically produce more light when heated. If you build the electroscope and charge it with static, theoretically an old TV (electron source), or a thorium gas mantle will cause it to slowly discharge, visibly.

Note: This Instructable is an entry for the the 2017 Teachers Contest, and the Plastics Contest. If you dig this idea, and think it is a great tool for teaching students about electricity, please vote for me! I am hoping to use the prize for a basic electronics class I currently teach in South Korea. I am slowly developing low-budget but effective ways to help students fully grasp electrical concepts.

So, again: Please Vote For My Instructable!

Whatever the case, I have designed this instructable to be a useful teaching tool - feel free to use this material in your teaching!

Step 1: Parts and Tools

Picture of Parts and Tools

The following will be needed:

  1. Aluminium kitchen foil.
  2. A plastic jar.
  3. Some copper wire - thicker wire will make for a sturdier antennae, and can be found inside "single core" electrical wire, from any hardware store, or better, the junk heap.

The following tools will be necessary:

  1. A hole-punch - I got mine for $2 from Daiso in Korea! How do they make such cool crap for so cheap?! Shweet...
  2. Scissors.
  3. Pliers - for cutting the wire and shaping the corners.
  4. A glue gun - not necessary, but ideal for sealing the holes up.
  5. A drill - in my case, um, seeing at I planned on entering the Hand-Tools contest, so I literally used a drill that I turned by hand. I know. Zoom into the photo for a stupid joke...

Step 2: Assembling the Antennae

Picture of Assembling the Antennae

  1. Drill two holes in the lid of the jar using your stupid South African drill. Or better, use the type of drill that runs on some kind of electricity...
  2. Thread the first side of the wire through with a long enough length to create the hook that will sit inside the jar.
  3. Take the other end, and bend it carefully into a loop or two (or three...).
  4. Stick the remaining end into the second whole.
  5. Bending both ends strategically will give them more stability.
  6. Make the hook on the length that sticks into the jar.
  7. Finally, use hot-snot to to seal the two holes, as well as give the wires some final securing.

The antennae is a great opportunity for creating something funky and Doctor-Suessy. The copper wire can be found in power cables that can be bought at a hardware store. Ask for "single-core", not "stranded" wire.

I have not experimented with differing lengths of copper wire for the antennae, but longer wire theoretically is not a great thing, as it creates more surface area allows ions in the air to slowly make the device return to an uncharged state. On the other hand, it should make the device more sensitive?

Regardless, it does look pretty cool...

Step 3: The Aluminium Leaves

Picture of The Aluminium Leaves

I found that the plastic insert that was in the lid of the jar popped out, and I realized I could use it to trace the cutout for the leaves.

  1. Cut out a teardrop shape in the plastic, preferably not too long, ideally so if fully extended in any direction, the leaves don't reach the walls of the jar. Make the top pointed to a half-hexagon-shaped end.
  2. Use this plastic stencil to trace an outline on the flattened aluminum foil. The slightest pressure from a pen is enough to create a good outline - anything harder can cause it to tear apart.
  3. Cut the outlines out, and use the punch to knock out a hole at the top of the tear-drop foil leaves.
  4. Hang them on the hook.

That easy! Close the thing up, and its ready to charge up.

Step 4: Charging Up

Picture of Charging Up

The easiest way to charge up an electroscope is by means of a balloon, but you can find all sorts of materials that can be charged up. Its just that it may require rubbing lots of weird objects in your hair....

  • Syrup? Nope.
  • Plastic cover? Yup.
  • Humans? Don't think so.
  • Fire? Nuh-uh.
  • Cat? Nope.

After much experimentation though, I came to the conclusion that balloons, PVC book covers, plastic packaging, and Styrofoam are some of the best ways to generate static, with balloons being the most versatile.

All involve hair rubbing.

One you have a charged object (assuming a balloon), we charge the scope up as follows:

  1. Move the charged object close to the scope. The leaves will fling apart. The length of the movement shows how much the object is charged.
  2. While keeping the object close, touch the copper antennae with your finger. The leaves will fall down. Remove your finger.
  3. Remove the charged object. The leaves swing up again! And stay like that!

That easy. This method is called induction charging, and it appears a bit mysterious. The diagrams above explain the actual process and what is going on. If the object was negatively charged, the scope will now be positively charged, and visa-versa.

What can this be used for?

Please feel free to use this with diagrams in teaching static electricity (but please give credit). If you think this is a cool way to teach students about electricity, please vote for me for the contest!

Comments, criticisms, and inaccuracies? Say something below!


tjaap (author)2017-10-28

I also have an Instructable in the Teachers Contest, but I love your idea and your writing so I voted for you :-)

Udon (author)tjaap2017-10-30

Am I doing that badly in the contest? heeheehee

That's very encouraging - baie dankie meneer!

tjaap (author)Udon2017-10-31

I meant the opposite of course, but game is on ;-) Mag die beste wen!

julianhoets (author)2017-10-23

Hey Paul - This is a great instructable. I especially like the diagrams and clear explanation of how everything works. Excelllent work and great that you are willing to share all this knowledge with others.

Udon (author)julianhoets2017-10-26

Bwahaha. Thank you mister.


About This Instructable




Bio: Paul (Udon) is a Chinese-speaking South African, who likes saffron tea, sunshine, dogs, and Asian food. He can make things out of yeast, thermoplastic, Arduinos ... More »
More by Udon:Uber-Cheap Electroscope for TeachingMultimeter Tweezer Probes From ThermoplasticFix Broken Multimeter Probes With Thermoplastic
Add instructable to: