Introduction: Vacuum Cannon Drives Ping Pong Ball at Supersonic Speed

Picture of Vacuum Cannon Drives Ping Pong Ball at Supersonic Speed


Here I will describe a cannon that can drive ping pong balls fast enough to go through plywood and aluminum cans. This "vacuum cannon" has been demonstrated in college physics classes, since it involves many basic physics concepts such as Newton's laws of motion, air pressure, and particle dynamics. There are some great videos online of these college class demonstrations, but details of construction are a bit sketchy. Some sources claim achieving a ping pong ball speed well over the speed of sound (340 m/s, or 760 mph), but others perform a mathematical analysis that indicates a limiting speed of about 280 m/s ( 625 mph). I made a ballistic pendulum and conducted many speed measurement tests, my average speed was 378 m/s (845 mph). So I am going to claim supersonic speed, and admit there is some controversy.

So here is the warning: At this speed, even a ping pong ball is very dangerous. We are talking about a projectile travelling as fast as rifle bullets. If you elect to build this device, you must treat it with respect and use appropriate safety measures. These include:

Set it up so nobody can be in front or behind the cannon.
Wear safety glasses and eye protection.
Do not put any part of your body in front of or behind the cannon.

Also - the cannon can and will fire at unexpected times, especially as you experiment at the beginning.

Step 1: How It Works

Picture of How It Works

The "cannon" is basically a 6 foot length of 1 1 /2" PVC pipe. A ping pong ball is placed at the near end, and both ends are sealed with thin plastic or aluminum foil. The air is then evacuated from the pipe with a vacuum pump. When the seal at the near end is ruptured, air at atmospheric pressure rushes into the pipe and propels the ball through the seal at the far end.

The key concept is that the ball travels through a vacuum in the pipe, therefore there is no air resistance. With full atmospheric pressure on one side of the ball and no resistance on the other, the ball initially accelerates at about 5000 g's. 

The photo shows the setup.

Step 2: Parts and Tools

Picture of Parts and Tools

The only big ticket item is the vacuum pump. The one I bought cost about $100. The higher the vacuum, the better the results. Ideally, it should be a two stage pump. Many vacuum pumps are available on EBay; they are commonly used in the refrigeration trade.

Safety glasses
Hearing protection
Six foot length of 1 1/2" PVC pipe, schedule 40 (important)
1 1/2" PVC pipe coupling
Thin plastic and aluminum foil.
Vacuum tubing and fittings, I used  1/4" size.
Vacuum gauge (optional).
Ping pong balls, a lot of them. Be sure they are standard 40mm (1.57") diameter. There are 38mm ping pong balls out here; they will not work nearly as well.
Basic shop tools, nothing special.

Step 3: Make the Seals

Picture of Make the Seals

This part  is tricky; the seals have to be perfectly air tight, yet rupture when cut - not leak slowly. They wiil go with a bang when they are right.

There are several methods. to make the seals, I will list what worked best for me.

Best is to sandwich foil between two squares of 1/4" plywood or MDF. I cut a 2" hole at the center of the squares. Then clamp together  with spring clamps. I use this seal on the near end.
On the far end, I stretch the foil over the 1 1/2" pipe, then press a 1 1/2" PVC coupling over it, tightly. Wrinkles are bad, they can cause small vacuum leaks or premature rupture. When the vacuum pump is active and seals in place, expect premature ruptures at any time, at either end!
 I used "Basket Wrap" plastic foil, available at fabric stores, for the far end seal, and now use aluminum foil for the square seals shown below. You can use plastic foil as in the photo, but I have found that aluminum works best and produces the highest speed.
The flat square seals work best. With the vacuum pump on, just hold the seals to the pipe end and vacuum will do the rest.

Step 4: Prepare the Cannon

Picture of Prepare the Cannon

Install a hose fitting near one end of the pipe (the near end). I used a  1/8" NPT x 1/4" hose barb brass fitting. It must be air tight.
Sand ends of the pipe flat and smooth.

Connect 1/4"  tubing between vacuum pump and fitting on pipe. A valve may be needed depending on the type of pump; my pump came with a shut-off valve.

Step 5: Fire the Cannon

Picture of Fire the Cannon

1. Place the ping pong ball at the "near" end, just in front of the seal.
2. Place seal at "far" end (see photo in step 3).
3. Set up a target, aluminum pop cans for instance.
4. Put on safety glasses and hearing protection.
5. Turn on vacuum pump.
6. Hold square seal up to the near end pipe opening. Vacuum will grab it and pull it tight. Two photo shows two types of "near end" seals in place, being held by vacuum. I now use aluminum foil here.
7. Wait until maximum vacuum is attained, then puncture the near end seal. There will be a loud bang.

The main photo shows a firing when the ball easily went through an aluminum can.  With maximum vacuum of nearly 30" mercury, the ball will just as easily go through two cans. The other photos show the near seal under full vacuum.

Remember - these seals can rupture unexpectedly during this step.

Step 6: Speed Testing

Picture of Speed Testing

Since I earlier made rash claims about shooting ping pong balls at supersonic speed, I need to describe how these speeds were measured.

I made a "ballistic pendulum"; a device once used to measure  muzzle velocity of rifle bullets, but now mainly used in physics classes to demonstrate the principles of conservation of momentum and energy. The projectile is shot into a block, and is retained inside the block. The block + projectile then swing due to the momentum of the projectile. The vertical height gain of the block is measured, and when multiplied by the mass of the block + projectile, represents potential energy increase. Using the following equation gives the velocity of the projectile:

Velocity = (m+M)/m (√2gh)

m = mass of projectile, in kilograms (ping pong ball mass = 2.4 g = 0.0024 kg)
M+m = mass of projectile, in kilograms (1.32 kg)
g = acceleration of gravity, 9.81
h = vertical height gain, meters, less height gain from air only tests. (2.5 cm = 0.025 m)

The numbers in parentheses are the average values from my tests.

“A ballistic pendulum is a device for measuring a [projectile's] momentum, from which it is possible to calculate the velocity and kinetic energy. Ballistic pendulums have been largely rendered obsolete by modern chronographs, which allow direct measurement of the projectile velocity. Although the ballistic pendulum is considered obsolete, it remained in use for a significant length of time and led to great advances in the science of ballistics. The ballistic pendulum is still found in physics classrooms today, because of its simplicity and usefulness in demonstrating properties of momentum and energy.” (From Wikipedia).

Photos below show the ballistic pendulum I made (along with a view of my screwdrivers and chisels).
The lines on the panel in the background are to measure height, in centimeters.
The laser pointer shows height of the block. In the photos, the first shows height before firing, the second shows maximum height just after firing. A video camera records the action.
The last photo shows the ping pong ball caught in the block.

In addition to momentum from the ball, there is momentum transferred to the block from the air exiting the cannon. I made some test runs using air only and subtracted this average height (0.03 cm) from the tests with ping pong balls.


maesoph made it! (author)2018-01-12

I made this and had nothing but horrible, horrible trouble with aluminum foil, plastic wrap, etc... The only thing I could get to work reliably and repeatedly is packing tape. ULINE 3" packing tape to be exact - further wrapped with 2" packing tape around the end of the barrel. Also have to clean ends of pipe and touch up any dings between shots. Overall a great project, but definitely not hitting Mach 1. The best I can get is around 275m/s which agrees very well with the article posted previously. Great project overall and will be presenting it at a STEM seminar for the scouts. BTW, 1" center to center spacing on the sensors.

Bill WW (author)maesoph2018-01-12

Thanks for the comment! I apologize for the hype in the title: "...Supersonic Speed". No chance of hitting mach 1. Maybe with pressure on one side vacuum on the other? I looked at your chart and guessed that you got over 250 m/s. I had trouble with the end seals also, then made that holder thing.with the thin basket wrap plastic. My cannon still just sits in the corner of my shop gathering dust. But I inherited a couple of grand kids and I'll probably show it to them sometime soon.

Good luck with the scout project.


maesoph (author)Bill WW2018-01-13

Bill: NO APOLOGY NECESSARY!!! Mach 1 or not, it's a fantastic STEM project.... Hmmmmmm.... It just dawned on me that I have a potato cannon made out of 1.5" PVC that would mate right up to this and give us pressure on one side with vacuum on the other... Mere chance? I think not!!!! Not sure if I will get to this today or not, most likely not, but will post results when I get them. Cool project!!!

ziqfriq. (author)2017-11-01

Here's an article that derives the theoretical maximum muzzle velocity:

It also describes a way of measuring it.

This maximum speed turns out to differ from the speed of sound by a factor of the square root of gamma, the ratio of the specific heats of air at constant pressure and constant volume. But it seems intuitive that the ball can't travel any faster than the shock wave front between atmospheric and vacuum inside the tube.

Bill WW (author)ziqfriq.2017-11-01

Wow, thank you, Zig! Somehow I missed that article, I will print it out and study it in detail - with my physics book open. I have seen that reference to specific heat of air.

Looks like you are new to Instructables? Welcome, you will find it entertaining. I've been pretty inactive for a few years.

Appreciate the comment.


cryophile (author)2014-12-02

I really want to try this. Then I want to scale it up and use a tennis ball.

Ramiro_HWA (author)cryophile2017-05-08

I doubt a tennis ball will be a step forward because of the hairiness..

Catastrophic for Aerodynamics..

A golf ball on the other hand...

HansB3 (author)cryophile2015-06-06

mythbusters made an episode about this... maybe you should watch it and get some ideas about your upscaling effort... post the instructable please

Bill WW (author)cryophile2014-12-02

Thanks for the comment.
Interesting idea, scaling up. You will need a pvc pipe with ID of about 2.6", since a tennis ball is 2.57" OD. I don't think there standard size piles of that dimension, so it may be a challenge.
Let me know if I can help.

djdomagd (author)2017-03-20


Please let me know how you fit ping pong ball that has larger diameter than pvc tube?

Bill WW (author)djdomagd2017-03-20

Thank you for your comment.

Using US standard pipe sizes based upon ASTM D1785 specifications, following are PVC pipe dimensions:

1 1/2" PVC pipe, schedule 40 1.610" 40.9mm
1 1/2" PVC pipe, schedule 80 1.500" 38.1mm

And the standard ping pong ball diameter is 1.57" 40 mm

So, using schedule 40 pipe there should be about 1mm clearance for the ball to fit into the pipe. You may be using schedule 80 pipe, which indeed will be too small.

Good luck and best wishes.

djdomagd (author)Bill WW2017-03-26

Thank you for your comment.

I built the cannon and shot one. I was great shot and ball flew over 30 metres, amazing. But the next shot failed and the next too. I checked inside pipe and balls and is ok. Everything seem correct like at the first shot, pipe is tight, lound bang durring shot but the balls didn't fly. As a cover i used tape office and maybe some glue got inside the tube. I don't have idea what is wrong. Maybe You had the same problem and found the solution.

Bill WW (author)djdomagd2017-03-26

First, where are you located? I hope I included enough metric units.

Part of my problem is that I made the cannon four years ago and forgot much.

1. The office tape may be a problem. For covers, I used a very thin plastic film, the green material you see in step 5 (and other steps). It needs to "pop" when punctured. The covers are held in place by vacuum; turn on vacuum pump, then hold one cover at suction end, have someone hold cover on discharge end while pump is running.

2. Make sure the ball is all the way at the suction end of the tube before firing.

Good luck and let me know how it goes.


djdomagd (author)Bill WW2017-03-31

Thank you for your reply. The problem was simpler but not so obvious. I bought pressure gauge to check vacuum. Because I use manual vacuum pump, my vacuum isn't so low. It was reason why my cannon doesn't shot. After I mounted gauge I found the main problem.My installation wasn't tight. I sealed it and now my cannon shot with louder bang and ball fly very fast. I thnik about electric pump beacuse manual pumping is very exhaustive. One shot needs over 100 movements ;( Thank You.

kndclark (author)2017-03-13

Very nice. I don't believe that it is possible to achieve the speed of sound with a vacuum cannon. You can come close, but all the measurements I have seen are below the speed of sound. Some air will leak past the ball slowing it down.
There's an optimum length for the tube beyond which performance (speed) decreases.

Bill WW (author)kndclark2017-03-13

Thanks kndclark.

Yes, I believe you are correct. Close to speed of sound but not quite. But the title does get attention. I hope somewhere In small print I said "close" or "maybe".

I believe supersonic speed could be reached with compressed air on one side and vacuum on the other. I have not tried tat yet!


RyanR32 (author)2015-09-10

Does the ball break if it is fired in an open field? Will this work with a household vacuum? Answer soon please!!

RyanR32 (author)2015-09-10

Hey! Please help me before this Sunday! I need to make this for a project due Monday. I just have a couple questions. How did you make the square thingies stay on the PVC? and also, is the vacuum sucking air? or blowing air? and also, do you remove the square pieces? I do not really understand this.

logface88 (author)2015-08-31

How much distance can you get with this cannon?

MelissaN8 (author)logface882015-09-09

It depends on the projectile. If you shoot a ping pong ball, you can't go as far as you would be able to if you shot a more aerodynamic object.

MelissaN8 (author)2015-09-09

My AP Physics class did a lab on this for projectile motion. We made our own projectiles out of anything from markers to batteries and shot them out the window with the cannon. The most impressive projectile traveled over 100 meters in a horizontal direction, and everyone in the hallway and around the classroom was interested in the cannon :) if you ever get the chance to do this, jump at it!

Mr Gollahon (author)2015-02-20

I made this with a 10ft PVC section and I found that Wax Paper seemed to work the best for me.

Bill WW (author)Mr Gollahon2015-02-20

Thanks; next time I will try waxed paper.

Solillman (author)2015-01-05

If you used an object that had little to no air flow resistance such as a dart shaped object that is mirrored could you achieve higher speeds? If you test this could you let me know because this could be an amazing project.

Bill WW (author)Solillman2015-01-05

I have set the vacuum cannon aside for a while, may do more testing later, will let you know. There is no air resistance to ANY object in the vacuum cannon since the object travels in a vacuum.

Dico854 (author)2014-07-06

Nice toy and video! I'm wondering how much of the damage, could possibly be attributed, to the jet of air pushing the ball? Have you tried to shoot something, without the ball inside? It still would have to pack a punch, it's hard to imagine, the lightweight ball, doing nearly that much damage. But, compressed air, at supersonic speeds...seems like it wouldn't have any trouble, doing that, at that range.

rneal4 (author)Dico8542014-08-12

Dico your theory is intriguing but I have to mention a basic equation in physics that explains that your statement is not true. F=m*a in which F=force, m=mass, and a=acceleration. Finally you may say that the air is near the same mass as the ball but a property of fluids (in this case the air) is that it will follow the surface of any cylindrical object. I hope this informs you that the damage done is indeed done by the ball.

doug123i (author)rneal42014-11-23

Not to pick, but above the speed of sound air is basically not compressible. His Q is a good one—and pretty easy to test—just fire the thing empty? Or with a cotton ball? Or....

Bill WW (author)doug123i2014-11-23

Doug, thanks for pointing out that above the speed of sound air is basically not compressible.

I never did confirm that the ball actually travels at supersonic speed, but have found a device to measure it.


omarmufasa (author)2014-03-02

You should use clear duck tape on each end.

iceng (author)2014-03-01

What happened to your excellent video ?

I wanted to show my wife you did this before Mythbusters.


Bill WW (author)iceng2014-03-01

I may have fixed it now, kind of forgot how to embed a video.

monty324 (author)2013-04-17

this is so cool but i cant help but think how much better it would be if you replace the near side of it with a barrel sealing piston valve and a high pressure tank because theres the full force of upto 150 psi of pressure pushing a ball against no resistance. the ultimate spud could load potatoes into it and put them on the moon.
intergalactic potato launcher

Bill WW (author)monty3242013-04-17

Tanks for the comment, Monty.

Yep, I already have th materials for what you are thinking about. There will be pressure on one side of the near seal, vacuum on the other.

monty324 (author)Bill WW2013-04-20

glad you like my idea. if you decide to do it, could you post or update an ible and also is there some way you could make the far seal permanent like a piece of rubber on a hinge?
Great ible and idea by the way

Bill WW (author)monty3242013-04-20

Thanks Monty.

I will make a new Instructable, but I will first find another way to measure speed.

I also used just flat smooth discs cut from food containers, or soap containers. The disc can just be placed in front of the pipe, with the pimp running the vacuum will suck the disc tight .

monty324 (author)Bill WW2013-04-23

try measuring the speed by having 2 lasers pointing a 2 ldr's or other light sensors and have them 50 cm apart. then make some circuitry so when one beam is broken a timer starts and when the other one is broken it stops. then just S=D/T.

you could even wire the ldr up to a mic input of some device and record audio and use an app like Audacity to check the speed

Bill WW (author)Oorspronklikheid2013-06-17

Thanks guys, but electronics is not my strong suit. I understand the concepts, but you will have to tell me what a "ldr" is.

Oorspronklikheid (author)Bill WW2013-06-17

An ldr ( light dependent resistor ) is a simple device whose resistance changes depending on the amount of light it receives and can thus be used to detect a passing object if used in conjunction with a laser.

Bill WW (author)monty3242013-04-23

Thanks Monty -

I will work on this. Do you hav a suggestion for a timer?

monty324 (author)Bill WW2013-04-24

I would either use a standard stopwatch and solder new wires to the buttons or if you have any programming experience then use an arduino.

SG1Oniell (author)2013-04-16

Interesting project, but as you mentioned, it being supersonic is questionable. I'm used to firearms, and all supersonic rounds give off an audible and distinguishable crack as they break the sound barrier. This didn't. It might be close, but I don't think it made it.

Cool project though, straightforward 'ible. All things considered, nice work.

cchubb (author)SG1Oniell2013-04-18

The audible "crack" is from a wall of sound waves building up in front of the projectile. As there is no air forward of the projectile until it exits the tube, and is only outside the tube for a few centimeters in the video, any supersonic crack would be very small.

But I'm also having a hard time understanding how the air behind the projectile can expand at a rate faster than the speed of sound when it's at (essentially) STP until the membrane is pierced.

I really wish you had a friend with a reliable chronograph.

SG1Oniell (author)cchubb2013-04-19

I don't think you have a great understanding of how a sonic boom works. In order for an object to be supersonic, it must be faster than those waves. For the pressure waves to be in front of an object, as you say, means that it is not supersonic. The object must lead the waves in motion, not the other way around. Also, those waves propagate behind the object and spread outward. Seems to me it could very well affect the atmosphere behind it and create a boom throughout its launch. Mind you, I'm not entirely certain if it requires atmosphere in front as well as behind, or only behind where the waves propagate. But I would point out that if the boom was as short as you say, you'd still be able to hear it. They are incredibly recognizable. The sound would be heard over others going on, and would reverberate off the walls at least allowing you to hear something of it. It'd be comparable to firing a suppressed gun with ammo that breaks the sound barrier at something a few inches away. The suppressor muffles only the noise of the expanding gasses, but does nothing to the sonic boom almost regardless of distance to target. One exception being firing into a solid with the barrel pressed against it.

baratacus (author)SG1Oniell2013-06-09

the sound waves generated by an object radiate from it all around. As the velocity of that object increases, the sound waves in front of it are compressed as the waves catch up to one another until they form a front of extreme pressure at the leading edge of the object generating the sound. The "boom" is generated when it breaks through that pressure wave and surpasses the sound waves it is generating.
I'm with cchubb in thinking that the vacuum in front of the projectile would negate any sound waves from being generated. With no sound waves and no air, there would be no high pressure wave front to break through. The air entering the cannon can move as fast as 1640 fps. Sound travels at 1129 fps. In it's vacuum environment, I think the projectile will definitely be moving faster than sound, given it's low mass and speed of acceleration, but without any air pressure in front of it and thus no building sound wave front, there would be no "boom" as it surpasses the speed of sound. Once it hits the atmosphere, there isn't going to be enough inertial energy from the ping pong ball to displace that volume of air at a supersonic speed. I'm wondering if the can wasn't there, would the ball break apart on it's own when it hit the atmosphere?

SG1Oniell (author)baratacus2013-06-10

You're incorrect in assuming that its always traveling through a vacuum. Rewatch the video, there is a space between the end of the barrel and the soda can that is not in vacuum, and in fact is open to the atmosphere. Based on that, your question regarding breaking apart is irrelevant. It hits the atmosphere before it hits the can, and the damage on the ball was done by the can.

Also, you're incorrect in stating that sound travels at 1129 fps. The speed of sound changes with temperature. You picked a value for a very specific temperature, which could be used to guess an altitude. Keep in mind that the speed of sound is not a constant value. for instance, people say Felix Baumgartner broke the speed of sound, when in reality he broke several speeds of sound.

Another thing, "inertial energy" doesn't exist. There is inertia, and there is energy, there is no "intertial energy". There is however, kinetic energy, which is what I think you're trying to refer to.

It is evident to me that you do not understand what you're trying to talk about with all of the errors you have made. Consider that the energy you're trying to refer to exists for all moving objects, and that it increases as velocity increases. Consider also that anything that moves through the air displaces the gas. Now, if something with as much energy as a ping pong ball moving at supersonic speeds (at whichever temperature you choose), cannot displace the air in front of it, then how does a ping pong ball tossed through the air displace the same volume? If what you said were true, then playing ping pong would not be possible, because the ball could not physically move through the air, and would act like it hit a solid the instant you released it.

Bill WW (author)baratacus2013-06-09

Thanks, Baratacus -

You said "The air entering the cannon can move as fast as 1640 fps."
How do you get that number? (Just curious).

No, the ball did not break up unless it hit the can or another object. However, I have wondered if it might heat up to its melting point if it was moving fast enough. All the kinetic energy would be converted to heat.

cchubb (author)SG1Oniell2013-04-19

Granted, I'm no expert at supersonic waves, but I have fired suppressed guns with projectiles both above and below the speed of sound. The "boom" from a supersonic round from a suppressed gun is loud, but I have never fired it at a target inches from the muzzle to determine if the sonic boom requires a significant stretch of non-turbulent fluid to pass through.

In the area within inches of the muzzle it's going to be very turbulent during and after the projectile leaves the barrel. I think that sound of a supersonic projectile is going to be very hard to detect over the sound of the membrane breaking, the can rupturing and other noises.

A chronograph is going to tell the whole story. Ideally one within the last couple of inches of the barrel, but one directly outside might have some bearing if the projectile is heavier than a ping pong ball, and more aerodynamic, like a golf ball, though attendant safety measures will be much more stringent with such a heavy projectile.

SG1Oniell (author)cchubb2013-04-19

I'm uncertain how much turbulence has to do with it. If a fighter flies through fairly turbulent storms at supersonic speeds, it'd still result in a boom. Though this is far different from that. I agree with you, a better measure is necessary to determine this cannons projectile speed.

Also, I must applaud you. It's rare that I find someone willing to have a pleasant discussion without resorting to personal attacks anywhere on the Internet. I feel you and I would get along quite well.

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm a retired mechanical engineer, woodworker, boater, and inventor. Now I'm getting into wood turning, and have found that all my wood projects ... More »
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