Intro: DIY Lightning Wand -- a Handheld Van De Graaff Generator
Most instructions for building a Van de Graaff generator (VDG) are for tabletop models; however VDGs grounded through a person work well enough to make a handheld version possible. The Fun Fly Stick, a popular toy, is an example of a handheld VDG. This instructable will show you how to make your own handheld VDG capable of producing sparks up to an inch long with a few common items.
WARNING: Keep the VDG away from all electronics, including pacemakers, hearing aids, and the cell phone you forgot was in your pocket. A VDG is an ESD monster!
Step 1: Materials and Tools
 3/4" Schedule 40 PVC pipe
 3/4" PVC Tee
 3/4" PVC Cap
 3 1/2" x 1/4" Rubber bands (No. 64)
 Super Glue
 Hot Glue
 3 ft 16 AWG Stranded Wire (can be taken from old extension cord)
 Motor (like Radio Shack #273-223)
 4xAA Battery Holder (like Radio Shack #270-391)
 Wooden Dowel
 Aluminum Foil
 Aluminum Can
 Wide-mouth Plastic Bottle like a 32 oz Gatorade bottle
 Paper clip
 polyvinyl chloride electrical tape (Scotch 3M 33+ and 35 both work)
 Teflon tape
 glass bead [url:http://www.artbeads.com/czech-glass-rondelle-9mm.html]
Drill or Lighter, Nail, and Screw
Hot Glue Gun
Alligator Lead or Stiff Wire hooked at the end
Before starting, wash your hands and prepare a clean work area. The three enemies of a VDG are oil, water, and dirt. Therefore you should clean and thoroughly dry every part before construction. Use nonsoapy water only since soap can leave a conductive film. Before touching the rollers or belt wipe your hands to remove any excess oil.
Step 2: Motor and Bottom Roller
The motor doesn't quite fit in the PVC Tee. Cut about 18 in of electrical tape; then cut this strip lengthwise. Now wrap the strips around the end of the motor closest to the terminals. Add or remove bits of tape until the motor fits.
To create the bottom roller, cut a narrow strip of polyvinyl chloride electrical tape and wrap it around the motor's shaft. The best way to get the tape to wrap around the shaft is by pinching the tape to the shaft and rolling it between your thumb and index finger. You also want to crown the roller (make it thicker in the middle) by pulling your index finger slightly to the right for a couple turns then pushing back to the left for a couple more turns repeatedly as you roll on the tape. A crowned roller will keep the rubber band from slipping off the roller. Add a bit of super glue to the end of the tape strip to prevent it from unrolling, also add a little super glue to the edge of the roller to bind all the layers of tape together. I tried making rollers out of Teflon tape and silicone rubber, both of which are lower on the triboelectric series, but a roller made from electrical tape was easiest to work with. I did not know what material the generic black electrical tape I had was made from, so to be positive the bottom roller was vinyl electrical tape I used blue 3M 35, but 33+ should work well too.
Step 3: Bottom Comb and Battery Holder
Now you need to drill a hole in the Tee for the bottom comb. You can also make a hole with a heated nail, and use a screw to widen it. Do this in a well ventilated area. See the pictures below, for proper placement of the hole. Next, cut a length of wire about 8 in long and strip 0.25 in of insulation from each end. Insert the wire into the hole and tape it to the Tee like the picture shows. Not taping the wire at the hole will allow you to adjust the distance of the comb from the roller so that you can find the optimum distance once you have the generator built and running.
The Radio Shack motor is meant to run at 1.5-3V, but if you use rechargeable batteries you can run the motor at 3.6V without too much trouble. A higher motor voltage causes the motor to turn at a higher RPM which results in more HV at the collector. I didn't have a 3xAA battery holder so I made a dummy battery out of a piece of wooden dowel cut to the same length as a AA, wrapped that in aluminum foil and insulated the sides with electrical tape. Hot glue the battery holder to the side of the Tee.
The Radio Shack motor has very thin brushes and lacks in construction quality. It gets the job done, but I'm positive there is a better motor out there waiting to take its place. Suggestions for a new motor a more than welcome.
Step 4: Belt
A longer belt causes a larger charge separation which means a higher voltage will result at the collector. Turning three rubber bands into one long rubber band is easy with a pair of scissors and super glue. Brand new rubber bands are a bit stiff, so stretch them out to loosen them up. Now cut each rubber band. Try to make a very straight cut, so that when you glue the ends together they will make good contact. Place a drop of super glue on a piece of paper and spread it around with a toothpick. Now dip the end of one rubber band in the glue and adjoin it to the end of another rubber band. Don't overlap the edges; you want to directly affix one cut end to the other. Also don't use too much glue; you don't want a glue bond, you want the glue to heat the edges of the rubber bands so that they fuse together. Hold the edges together for around 10 seconds and don't stretch it for 30 seconds. A proper bond can be stretched quite far, much further than required for the VDG. Repeat, until you've made one large rubber band, minding not to twist it.
Too little glue is better than too much. Even if the bond doesn't occur along the entire edge, you can still see what the proper bond should look like before trying again.
Don't be afraid to mess up. The bound sets quickly, so you know right away whether the result is any good, and if it's not just trim the ends and try again.
You should use brand new rubber bands; old dirty rubber bands aren't worth the trouble.
Step 5: Column, Upper Roller, and Collector
The column is a piece of 3/4" PVC that holds the upper roller and supports the aluminum can collector. Cut two lengths of PVC; the column will be 11 in, and the handle 4 in. Now drill a hole 0.5 in from the top of the column. Remove any burrs from the PVC. Wash and dry to remove any PVC dust.
The upper roller is a 9x6 mm roundelle Czech glass bead purchased from artbeads.com. Artbeads.com has no minimum order with free shipping, but please don't take advantage of them by spending less than a dollar; buy a few beads. The axis for the roller is made from a paper clip that has been straightened and formed into an L shape. Stick the paper clip through the holes in the column and trim the excess. Now curve the axel inward slightly. Wrap a little Teflon tape around the axel, and slip the bead over it. The slippery Teflon tape will prevent the paper clip from grinding the bead. Now tape two narrow strips of electrical tape on either side of the bead. You can use a wire stripper to cut away excess tape. These bumpers keep the bead from sliding to the left or right on the axel when you wave the VDG around. The holes in the column are of course too small to pass the bead and bumpers, so you must insert the assembly in the end of the PVC, hook the bottom of the L into one hole, then push the other end of the axel into the other hole.
To make the upper comb, cut 8 in of wire, strip 0.25 in from one end, which will be the upper comb, and 1 in from the other. Shape the wire around the column like the picture shows, then tape the wire to the column. Spread out the comb's strands and twist together the strands on the other end. The comb points at the roller when the generator is running, but can be easily moved out of the way to remove the upper roller assembly.
The collector is made of an aluminum can with the lid removed. First remove the can's tab. The aluminum can's lid can be cut out with a sharp knife but using a handheld can opener is much safer and leaves fewer sharp edges. Use a paper napkin to keep the wheel with teeth from puncturing the can. The can opener should be used like scissors to remove the lid; don't twist. The collector's support is made from a Gatorade or similar bottle. Trace the circumference of a piece of PVC onto the bottles lid. Remove the material from the lid within the circle. Place the aluminum can onto the bottle and trace a circle around the bottle where its neck meets the can. Cut the neck off the bottle using the line as reference. Don't cut exactly on the line, but leave a little excess, which can be trimmed away later if necessary. Screw the lid back onto the neck of the bottle and insert it onto the column starting from the bottom.
Step 6: Complete Assembly
Loop the rubber band onto the upper roller and insert the roller assembly into its holes. Thread an alligator lead through the column, hook the rubber band, and pull it through the column. Pinch a loop into the end of the rubber band and hook it onto the lower roller. Insert the column into the Tee. Look down into the column to make sure the rubber band is not twisted and everything is lined up. Point the upper comb at the rubber band. Make sure neither comb is touching the rubber band. Place the aluminum can onto the column. Push the support up until the can rests on it. Use a couple pieces of electrical tape to affix the can to the support. Later you can glue the bottle neck to the can, but make sure the hole in the bottle is large enough to pass the PVC with the upper wire attached. The end of the upper comb's wire should make contact with the inside of the aluminum can. Place a 3/4" PVC cap onto the handle and insert it into the Tee. Grip the end of the lower comb's wire (aka ground wire) while holding the handle. Apply power to the motor. With a lot of luck you'll feel a static charge on the collector when you move your hand near.
To prevent the VDG from producing sparks you can cover the collector with a piece of cardboard. The VDG will still perform most of the same stunts including the merciless destruction of electronic devices.
Step 7: Fiddling and Debugging
This VDG design works well when it works, but can be very vexing when it doesn't.
Don't lose heart.
If you apply power to the motor and it doesn't turn, remove power immediately.
Attach a thin strip of toilet paper to the collector. As the collector charges, the tissue paper will rise. If you've got things working well, it will rise quickly and point almost straight up. You can also get a good idea how well the collector is charging by holding it close your ear. You will feel a stronger pull on the tiny hairs on your ear as well as hear more static crackles and pops when the VDG is working well.
If the rubber band is too tight the motor will not turn or turn slowly. Push the column further into the Tee or remove a bit of PVC from the end of the column.
If the rubber band is too loose it will make poor contact with the rollers and not turn it as fast as it could. If the rubber band slaps around pull the column out of the Tee a little. If the column is way too short you'll have to cut another longer one.
Make sure the combs aren't touching the belt. The combs should be about an eightth of an inch from the belt. Remember you didn't tape down the bottom comb so you could adjust it; once you've found the optimal distance secure it.
Van de Graaff generators will fail to work when the air is very humid. Use a hair dryer to blow out any moisture from inside the VDG.
Make sure you're touching the ground wire when you hold the handle.
When not using your VDG, unhook the rubber band so it doesn't deform and lose its elasticity.
Taping the bottle neck to the collector along with some extra tape on the bottom of the collector will help prevent losses due to brush discharge.
If you use an ohmeter to test the resistance of the inside of the can, you'll see that it has a nonconductive coating. The coating makes little difference at the high voltage a Van de Graaff generator produces, so don't bother scraping the coating off the can.
Step 8: FUN
Turn off the lights. Observe corona discharge by pointing a finger at the collector; the tip of your finger should have a blue glow. Hold the back of your hand near the bottle lid to cause brush discharge. This will look like lots of little lightning bolts. Draw a spark from the collector by moving one of your second knuckles towards the collector. If you've got your VDG working well you should be able to draw sparks a little over an inch long. Since dielectric breakdown of air is approximately 84kV/in (33kV/cm) this tells us the collector voltage is around 84 kV! Tape a needle to the the top of the collector and hold you're hand over the tip of the needle. You should feel a cool breeze. This is called ionic wind.
Ring Franklin's bells. I like to set up Franklin's bells without a grounding wire; normally the can on the right in the video below would be grounded. Without the grounding wire the tab/clapper transfers charge between the cans until both cans are at the same voltage as the VDG. Then one can turn off the VDG, set it aside, and then discharge the second can; lo and behold, the bells start ringing again as if by magic.
Cause an incandescent light bulb to flash a violet-blue. A burnt out bulb works fine. Cover the glass with some clear tape to prevent shattering if the glass breaks.
Bend a thin stream of water.
Deflect soap bubbles.
Light a small neon bulb.
Stick paper to a wall.
Levitate Fun Fly Stick fliers.
Check out Prof. Bunsen's Fun Fly Stick video for various demostrations of a handheld VDG's powers.
Bill Beaty's website describes some other interesting VDG stunts.
Giving a shock to someone who isn't expecting it sounds like good fun, but it's a bad idea. Though the current and pain will be minimal, the surprise of the shock could cause a person to jump back reflexively and hurt themselves. It's also possible you could destroy an expensive or essential electronic device they have on them.
You can make a CFL bulb glow, but you probably shouldn't. Once I was making a CFL glow while holding it in my hand when I received a shock much brighter, louder, and more painful than anything I've received from the VDG by itself. Unlike an ordinary fluorescent tube a CFL has an integrated starter and ballast. This circuitry contains capacitors which will charge slowly from the VDG, but will release that charge all at once with the result being a higher current and a bigger shock. If the shock doesn't harm you, the surprise of it could cause you to drop the bulb releasing mercury and broken glass into your surroundings.
Never charge a capacitor with a VDG unless you understand the risks involved. A VDG is a high voltage but very low current device. A capacitor can have high voltage and supply a potentially deadly current.
976herget made it!