Super Sparker

 45 minutesWhat do I need?

  • scissors
  • Styrofoam tray from your supermarket
    (ask at the meat or bakery counter
    for a clean, unused tray)
  • masking tape
  • aluminum pie tin
 Animation!

What do I do?
1Cut a piece off one corner of the Styrofoam tray, as the picture shows. You'll have a long bent piece that looks a little like a hockey stick.

Cut styrofoam tray

2Tape the bent piece to the center of the pie tin. Now you have a handle!

 Tape stryo to pie tin

 

 

 

 

6Now--very slowly--touch the tip of your finger to the pie tin. Wow! What a spark! (Be careful. DON'T touch the Styrofoam tray. If you do, you won't get a spark.)

Touch the pie tin...WOW

 

 

7Use the handle to pick up the pie tin again. Touch the tin with the tip of your finger. Wow! You get another great spark.

 

3Rub the bottom of the Stryofoam tray on your hair. Rub it all over, really fast.

Rub tray on your head

 

 

4Put the tray upside down on a table or on the floor.

 

5Use the handle to pick up the pie tin. Hold it about a foot over the Styrofoam tray and drop it.

 
8Drop the pie tin onto the Styrofoam tray again. Touch the pie tin. Another spark! Use the handle to pick up the pie tin. More sparks!

 

9You can do this over and over for a long time. If the pie tin stops giving you a spark, just rub the Styrofoam tray on your head again, and start over.

 

Sparks in the Dark
Try using your Super Sparker in the dark. Can you see the tiny lightning bolts you make? What color are they?

Spark in the Dark

What's Goin On?

What makes the Super Sparker spark?

When you rub Styrofoam on your hair, you pull electrons off your hair and pile them up on the Styrofoam. When you put an aluminum pie tin on the Styrofoam, the electrons on the Styrofoam pull on the electrons. Some of the electrons in metals are free electrons --they can move around inside the metal. These free electrons try to move as far away from the Styrofoam as they can. When you touch the pie tin, those free electrons leap to your hand, making a spark.

After the electrons jump to your hand, the pie tin is short some electrons. When you lift the pie tin away from the Styrofoam plate, you've got a pie tin that attracts any and all nearby electrons. If you hold your finger close to the metal, electrons jump from your finger back to the pie tin, making another spark. When you put the pie tin back on the Styrofoam plate, you start the whole process over again.

What does all this have to do with lightning?

The lightning bolt is a dramatic example of static electricity in action. You see lightning when a spark of moving electrons races up or down between a cloud and the ground (or between two clouds). The moving electrons bump into air molecules along the way, heating them to a temperature five times hotter than the surface of the sun. This hot air expands as a supersonic shock wave, which you hear as thunder.


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This and dozens of other cool activities are included in the Exploratorium's Science Explorer books, available for purchase from our online store.

About the Books

Published by Owl Books,
Henry Holt & Company, New York,
1996 & 1997

ISBN 0-B050-4536 & ISBN 0-8050-4537-6,
$12.95 each






© 1998 The Exploratorium