Making lightning in the bathroom

Over the past few weeks we have started some experiments with dielectric barrier discharge as a way of generating high voltage corona and plasma discharge across a surface.  This is a technique used by Kerry Tunstall and Wade Enright  to produce their high voltage work and they passed the method on to us while we were at Lightwave showing The Neuron Chamber.

The basic idea is to separate two high voltage terminals with a very thin, very dielectric (electrical restive), very heat and UV resistant material.  The electric charge forms briefly on the surface of the dielectric material as it tries to reach ground. This discharge dissipates and reforms rapidly creating a beautiful effect.

Bellow are some photos of our first round of experiments.

The dielectric we are using is a two part, elastomer that needs to be carefully stirred, then combined, then mixed.  It’s key to have equal volumes and to prevent air form getting trapped in material as it’s mixed.  Air is far less dielectric than the material and if trapped it will create weak points.  Once it was prepared we did a fast and dirty casting on a baking sheet.

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Here is the rig we used to test the process out.  Yes, it’s in the bathroom — it was the only room in the shop that got dark enough to see all the discharges at low voltage.  On the left you can see the high voltage transformer (the black box beside the bleach).  We tried a 9kV and 15kV transformer with much better effects with the latter.  Between the wall socket an the transformer is a sweet Variac, which is basically a heavy duty dimmer switch allowing us to slowly ramp up the voltage.  One of the two leds of the transformer go up to the foil below the dielectric (the grey circle atop the toilet) while the other goes to the copper mesh on top of the dielectric.

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Here is a shot of the Variac … because it’s cool looking.

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Okay here is the pay-dirt.  Here are a series of 30 second exposure shots at various light levels.  Remember these arcs are really dancing all over the surface.  I’ll try to get some video soon.

Cool, huh?

Well, it’s just going to get cooler.  Stay tuned.

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