For Science Club we ventured into static electricity—some history, how it works, how to use it for tricks and games, and how it’s part of our lives. I would like to note that static electricity is finicky…it requires low humidity and clean hair. I recommend reminding the kids to wash their hair the night or morning before and also consider bringing a dehumidifier to class as the humidity rises with all the bodies in the room.
Aluminum Can Race
How quickly can you get your aluminum can from the starting line to the finish line using only static electricity?
You’ll need empty and clean aluminum cans, balloons, a stopwatch, start & finish marks (just written on paper), and packing tape. Take the start and finish marks to the floor with packing tape.
Place your aluminum can just behind the start line. Have a partner use the stopwatch and let you know when to begin with a “ready, set, go”. Get your balloon charged by rubbing it on your hair. Use the balloon in front of the aluminum can to pull the can with static electricity, but don’t touch the can. Pull it across the finish line and stop the stopwatch. Try again if you’d like to improve your time.
How it works: Rubbing the balloon on your hair transfers electrons from your hair to the balloon. Electrons have a negative charge, therefore the balloon is more negatively charged. When you place the balloon in front of the can, the electrons from the balloon are attracted to the positively charged protons in the can. Since the positive and negative charges are attracted to each other, you can use this attraction to pull the can.
Balloon Tic Tac Toe
Play a game of Tic Tac Toe on the wall using static electricity.
You’ll need 10 balloons (5 each of two different colors) and painter’s tape. Use the painter’s tape to create the Tic Tac Toe board on the wall.
Play this game with two players. Each player chooses a balloon color. On your turn, charge a balloon by rubbing it on your hair and sticking it to the wall on the Tic Tac Toe grid. The first player to get three in a row wins.
How it works: Static electricity is produced on the balloon when you rub the balloon on your hair and transfer electrons from your hair to the balloon. Electrons have a negative charge, therefore the balloon is more negatively charged. When you place the balloon on the wall, the electrons from the balloon are attracted to the positively charged protons on the wall. Since the positive and negative charges are attracted to each other, you can use this attraction to hold the balloon to the wall.
Control and move your bubbles with static electricity.
You’ll need bubbles, bubble wands and/or straws, towels for clean-up, PVC pipe, and wool fabric (like an old sweater piece). I also used a clear tablecloth to protect the table.
Use the bubble wand or a clean straw to blow bubbles. Blow them into the air or directly onto the table.
Charge the PVC pipe by rubbing it with the wool, and see what happens when you bring it near the balloons. Can you do any neat tricks with bubbles and static electricity?
How it works: Static electricity is produced on the PVC pipe when you rub it on the wool because electrons are transferred from the wool to the pipe. Electrons have a negative charge, therefore the pipe is more negatively charged. When you place the pipe near the bubbles, the electrons from the pipe attract the positively charged protons in the bubbles, and you can control where your bubbles move.
Use static electricity to make a fluorescent bulb glow.
You’ll need a dark space (we used a bathroom without a window). You’ll also need a balloon and a fluorescent bulb. We used two different types of fluorescent bulbs—compact fluorescent and the tube type.
*Keep in mind that fluorescent bulbs have mercury vapor in them, so be aware of clean-up procedures if one breaks.*
Go into a dark space. Hold the fluorescent bulb in one hand and the balloon in the other. Charge the balloon by rubbing it on your hair. Now bring the balloon near the bulb. What happens? Try touching the balloon to the bulb. Try rubbing the balloon quickly but gently up and down the bulb. What happens?
How it works: The fluorescent bulb is filled with mercury vapor. When the bulb is in a light fixture and turned on, electrons collide with the mercury vapor, causing the vapor to emit uv light. The inside of the fluorescent bulb is coated with a material containing phosphors. When you shine uv light on phosphors, it emits visible light which is the light we see when the bulb lights.
When you rub a charged balloon near the light, you are stirring up the electrons in the mercury vapor which emits uv light, and the uv light causes the phosphors to emit visible light.
The Power of Amber
Observe amber’s “power of attraction” just like the Ancient Greeks.
You’ll need a piece of amber and some tiny cut-up pieces of tissue. You’ll need carpet or a carpet-type rug.
Rub amber on the carpet to charge it. Hold it near a square of tissue. Touch it to the tissue. What happens to the amber and tissue?
How it works: Amber is fossilized tree resin from an extinct type of pine tree. Amber, and it’s ability to attract small particles when rubbed with wool, was first described by the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus in the 6th century B.C. We now know that amber is a material that readily accepts electrons from materials that readily give electrons when the two are rubbed together. These extra electrons on the amber give it a negative static charge. This charge is attracted to the positive charged part of the tissue.
An interesting fact: The word "electron" in English comes from the Greek word for amber!
Use static electricity to bend water, and fill a container.
This is a variation of the common “bending water with static electricity activity”, but it’s a variation that could be used if you don’t have a faucet and sink. It’s also a little different because the goal is to get the water in the “fill here” container. It’s more fun this way!
You’ll need a cup with a hole in the bottom and a gallon jug of water as a faucet. You’ll need a large plastic bin as a sink to catch water. You’ll also need two small plastic containers labeled with permanent marker, one labeled “aim here” and the other labeled “fill here”. You’ll need a balloon. A towel is useful for spills or drying wet balloons. I placed modeling clay under the plastic containers to keep them in place—this is optional.
Cover the hole on the bottom of the plastic cup with a finger while filling it with water. Charge the balloon by rubbing it on your hair. Hold the cup over the container labeled “aim here”, and place the balloon above the container labeled “fill here”. Remove your finger from the hole so water streams into the “aim here” container. Now use the charged balloon to bend the stream of water toward the container labeled “fill here”. See if you can get more water in the “fill here” container by the time you run out of water in your cup.
How it works: Static electricity is produced on the balloon when you rub it on your hair, transfering electrons from your hair to the balloon. Electrons have a negative charge, therefore the balloon is more negatively charged. When you place the balloon near the falling water, the electrons from the balloon attract the positively charged protons in the water. You can use this attraction to bend the stream of water.