The Van de Graaff generator was invented in 1929 by American physicist Robert J. Van de Graaff. That’s a great fact, but why did he invent such a contraption?

Flashback to Science Class 

Van de Graaff began experiments to find methods to accelerate particles at very high speeds in order to disintegrate atomic nuclei. We’ve all seen these generators with the aluminum dome on top of a long pole in science class, and if not, we’ve certainly heard about them. Is that what we were doing in science class? Trying to accelerate particles and not just create lightning?

When we were young, we thought it was cool to receive and give people static shocks. When belts made of silk rotate on small motors, they create friction, and therefore static electricity. The belts in proximity to the hollow metal domes are insulated from a ground reference. The charged metal domes can store enough energy to produce a visible discharge, but the current is typically very low. Table top versions of the Van de Graaff generator, as used in science experiments, can reach between 200,000 and 500,000 volts.

Time for a Field Trip? 

The largest Van de Graaff generator in the world, built by its inventor in 1930, is on permanent display at Boston’s Museum of Science. This 15-foot diameter sphere stands atop a 22-foot tall column and has the capability of generating 2,000,000 volts. Three or four times a day, the techs at the museum demonstrate how it works. As the generator reaches its peak, it produces sparks, lightning and makes hair stand up. The science techs stand inside the caged dome, which demonstrates lightning. Also, a 20 minute display teaches those in attendance about conductors, insulators, electricity, magnetism and storm safety.

The Dangers of Van de Graaff Generators

It is important to note that Van de Graaff machines, even the table top science lab units, can generate enough energy to stop a pacemaker and destroy sensitive electronic gadgets such as cell phones, laptops and personal computers. Make sure that during experimentation, precautions are taken to keep these devices away from the field of energy that is created by the generators. It is not recommended for children under the age of nine.
Static electricity is a threat that can cause many problems. A whole industry of static control equipment and materials has spawned from the ill effects of electrostatic fields and electrostatic discharge. If you have a static problem, please contact Static Clean and we will offer the best recommendations to keep you and your products safe.