# Zap! (Electric Discharge)

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1 Zap! (Electric Discharge) You are shuffling along a carpet and reach out to touch the doorknob and zap! a sudden electric discharge gives you a mild shock. The friction between your feet and the carpet has produced a large build-up of negative electric charge on your finger. This produces an electric potential difference, or voltage, between your finger and the doorknob. If the electric potential difference is large enough, a sudden flow of current, called an electric discharge, will occur. An electric voltage can also be produced by the rotation of a magnet in the presence of an electrical circuit. This is the principle behind a generator. Rapidly spinning, highly magnetic neutron stars can act as generators and produce electric voltages in excess of a trillion volts. Violent electric discharges are responsible for some of the most spectacular displays of sudden energy release on Earth and in space. Q: Where can electric discharges occur? A: Here, there, and everywhere that electric voltages are large enough. For example, in an arc welder, a storm cloud, and around a rapidly spinning neutron star. Activity 1 - Leyden jars and static electricity Core concept: positive and negative electric charges can be separated to build up a high voltage, and this voltage can be discharged when the conditions are right. This activity will use Leyden jars to safely explore charge separation and electrical discharge. Exhibit connections: Electric Discharge panels 1 - arc welder and 2 - lightning Materials: balloon, Leyden jar, pvc pipe, square of animal fur, image of lightning Electricity is a fascinating subject for many people, though it can sometimes be dangerous to experiment with. These experiments provide a safe environment to closely observe electric discharge. When you shuffle your feet on the carpet or wear a wool sweater, you re temporarily creating an excess distribution of electrons on your body. When the charge has a convenient place to go with fewer electrons, like a metal doorknob, it leaps at the opportunity, and zap! The static electricity discharges, or jumps to the new place, creating a spark. The number of positive and negative charges are equalized again! 15

3 Discussion/Questions for visitors to consider Ask visitors what they think the differences are between the small spark made by the Leyden jar and a lightning strike. This tiny spark is really the same as lightning, only on a much smaller scale. Static electric charge builds up in clouds when water and ice particles collide. The negative charge in the cloud is attracted to positively charged objects on the ground. The charge from the cloud is released in the form of lightning, with a much bigger zap! Ask visitors to observe the image of lightning. Do they notice the branches or forks in the lightning? These branches are actually multiple strikes. Can visitors hear a sound when the spark discharges from the Leyden jar? Is there an equivalent sound when lightning strikes? You bet, it s called thunder! Activity 2 Plasma Ball Core concept: Electricity flows from high voltage to low voltage via the most convenient path. Exhibit connections: Electric discharge panel 1 - arc welder Materials: Plasma ball, image of sparks produced by welding A plasma ball is a glass globe filled with noble gases, with a high-voltage electrode at its center. Electricity excites the atoms of noble gas (see the glowing gas activity for much more on this reaction) making the flow of electricity visible. The electricity inside the globe flows from the center out towards the air. When your hand comes near, the spark flows in that direction, since you re a more convenient path to the ground (the voltage between the electrode and your hand will be higher than between the electrode and the air). Suggestions for introducing the activity: Show visitors the plasma ball and explain a bit about how it works. Ask visitors if anyone has seen one of these devices before, and in what setting. They are mesmerizing decorations! 17

4 Procedure: Encourage visitors to experiment with the plasma ball. Ask them if they have any ideas about what is going on. Placing a hand or a finger near the glass creates a much more attractive place for the energy to flow, so it immediately travels in that direction. What happens when they hover a hand over the top of the ball but don t touch it? The plasma in the ball can still somehow sense you are there! Try touching the ball with one finger. Try 2 fingers! Ask 2 visitors to touch the ball at the same time. What happens? Discussion/Questions for visitors to consider: Ask visitors to look at the image of the sparks produced by arc welding. How are these similar/different to the sparks produced in the plasma ball? Activity 3 Hand Held Generator Core concept: When a coil of wire is spun around a magnet, the magnet produces an electric current in the wire. This activity will use a hand generator to explore how rotating magnets can generate an electric potential, or voltage, which produces a current in a wire. Exhibit connections: Electricity panel 3 - spinning stars Materials: hand-crank electricity generator, image of neutron star, image of Crab Nebula A hand crank generator is an excellent smaller version of what creates much of the electricity that powers our lives. Wind turbines, steam engines, and waterwheels all operate on very similar principles. These generators convert some kind of mechanical energy, such as hot steam rising or water falling, into electrical energy. This small hand generator is made of a few coils of wire around a magnet. When you turn the crank, the wire coils spin around the magnet, which produces an electric current in the wire! This electric current can be used to power a variety of things, including the small light bulb on the end. Rapidly spinning, highly magnetic neutron stars act as generators in much the same way! When magnetic neutron stars spin, they can produce voltages of over 1 trillion volts! Compare that to the tiny 12 volts your hand crank generator can produce. 18

5 Suggestions for introducing the activity: Ask a volunteer to turn the crank on the hand generator, and observe the light bulb on the end. Have them crank slowly, and then more quickly. What happens? The faster you spin the coils of wire around the magnet, the higher the voltage and the more electric current is produced in the circuit that flows through the light bulb, so the brighter the light bulb can glow. Procedure: Ask visitors to look inside the clear generator and try to figure out how it works. Have them turn the crank slowly and peer inside the metal canister to spot the spinning copper coils of wire. Discussion/Questions for visitors to consider: What happens when you crank the coil of wire slowly? How about faster? When do you think the voltage would be higher? Like the hand generator, rapidly spinning, highly magnetic neutron stars can produce high voltages and electric fields. Show visitors an image of a neutron star. If your hand crank generator can produce up to 12 volts, try to think about enormous magnetic fields and speed of a spinning neutron star that can produce over 1 trillion volts! How far do you think this voltage can reach? These neutron star generators can light up gas clouds in space that extend several light years! Two light years is about 12 trillion miles! Show visitors an image of the Crab nebula. There is a rapidly spinning neutron star at the center of the Crab nebula, too. By the numbers: Voltage between the ends of an AA battery: 1.5 volts Voltage generated by hand-held generator: up to 12 volts Arc Voltage of a welder s spark: 25 volts (very high current) Voltage discharged in a 1 mm spark between your finger and a doorknob: about 3000 volts (but very little current) Leyden Jar voltage: depends on its charge but in general you can estimate 3000 volts per mm-length spark (e.g., if you get a one cm spark, that s 30,000 volts! Voltage released from cloud to ground in a lightning bolt: 100 Million volts Voltage generated by a spinning magnetic pulsar in space: 1 Trillion volts 19

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