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Stripped-Down Generator

Science Snack
Stripped-Down Generator
Shake just right to see the light.
Stripped-Down Generator
Shake just right to see the light.

In an electric power plant, steam or water power is used to move huge coils of wire past extremely strong magnets, generating megawatts of electricity to light whole towns. This Snack uses your muscles to move ordinary magnets past a small coil of wire, generating milliwatts of electricity—just enough to light an LED. The two generators work at very different scales, but they are both based on the same physics principles.

Tools and Materials
  • Two 8.5 x 11-inch (A4) transparency sheets
  • Two plastic film canisters with lids
  • Tape (transparent or translucent)
  • Three rubber bands, each 1/8-in (3mm) wide x 3 1/2-in (9 mm) long
  • Approximately 200 feet (60 meters) of #30 magnet wire (very thin copper wire with lacquer insulation)
  • Scissors, knife, or wire cutters
  • Small piece of sandpaper
  • Two mini alligator clips
  • Light emitting diode (LED)
  • Five ceramic “donut” disk magnets, 1 1/2-inch diameter
  • Bipolar (two-color) LED
  • Masking tape
  1. Put the two transparency sheets together, one on top of the other, and roll them lengthwise into a long tube.
  2. Insert a film can (with lid on) into each end of the tube, leaving the lid sticking out. Tighten the tube so it fits snugly against the sides of the film can at each end. Use the transparent tape to tape the tube at both ends and in the middle so that it holds this diameter. Also tape along the lengthwise seam for added strength. You should now be able to remove and reinsert the film cans easily.
  3. Take two of the rubber bands. Wrap each rubber band twice around the tube and place both bands near the middle, with about 1 inch (3 centimeters) separating them. The rubber bands will help keep the wire you are about to wrap around the tube tightly coiled.
  4. Leaving about 12 in (30 cm) of wire free, start wrapping the wire around the tube in the area between the rubber bands. Wrap the full length of the wire around the tube, about 500 times. Wrap the coils as tightly as you can without squashing the tube. Be careful not to scrape the lacquer insulation off the wire as you wind, and try to keep all the coils between the rubber bands (if the coil starts to come apart, use tape to hold it in place). When you have finished wrapping, leave another 12 in (30 cm) of wire free at the opposite end.
  5. Secure each end of the coil (where the free pieces of wire connects) with tape. You should now have a coil with a 12-in (30-cm) piece of wire coming from each end. Cut both of these wires so that they extend about 3 in (8 cm) from the coil.
  6. Starting at one end, use a knife or sandpaper to remove a little more than an inch (3 cm) of the lacquer insulation from the wire extending from the coil. Thread the stripped wire through the hole in the shank of one of the alligator clips, then wind the wire tightly around the shank of the clip. Be sure that the stripped wire makes good contact with the clip. Repeat this process with the other piece of wire and the other alligator clip.
  7. Clip each alligator clip to one of the legs of the LED. Lay the clips alongside each other on the tube, but make sure they don’t touch. Use the third rubber band to secure both alligator clips to the tube.
  8. Stack the donut magnets together. Remove one of the film cans from the tube, insert the stack of magnets into the tube, and replace the film can at the end of the tube. (Be sure the lid is still on the film can.) The magnets should be able to slide easily in the tube between the film cans. A diagram of the completed Stripped-Down Generator is shown below (click to enlarge).
To Do and Notice

Grasp the tube at both ends to hold the film cans in place. Shake the tube rapidly back and forth so the magnet stack slides back and forth inside. Shake the tube as rapidly as you can.

Each time the magnet stack passes through the coil of wire, the LED should flash. The flashes are more dramatic in a darkened room.

Remove the original LED, and hook up the bipolar LED. Again, shake the tube so that the magnet stack slides back and forth. What happens now?

What’s Going On?

Whenever a wire and a magnetic field move perpendicular to each other, a voltage is induced in the wire. If the wire is part of a complete electrical circuit, the voltage will cause a current to flow in the circuit. If a coil of wire is used instead of a single wire, the voltage obtained is the single-wire voltage multiplied by the number of turns in the coil.

In this Snack, every time the magnet stack moves through the coil of wire, the coil experiences a changing magnetic field, inducing a voltage in the coil. Since the coil is part of a complete circuit that includes the LED, current flows through the LED, and it lights.

When the magnet stack passes through the coil, two pulses of voltage of opposite polarity are produced. This happens because the direction of the voltage induced in a coil is related to both the orientation of the magnetic field lines relative to the coil and their direction of movement relative to the coil. When the north pole of the magnet stack, for example, is moving to the left through the coil, the magnetic field lines point away from the center of the coil, and the current flows in one direction in the coil. Then, when the south pole of the magnet stack passes through the coil, the magnetic field lines point toward the center of the coil, and the currents flows in the opposite direction (see diagram below).

The normal LED lights up once each time the magnet stack passes through the coil, regardless of which way the stack is traveling, even though two pulses of current are produced. There is only one flash because the LED is a normal diode, and a normal diode only allows current to flow in one direction. When the magnet stack passes by the coil in one direction, the first pulse of current lights the LED, and when it passes by in the other direction, the second pulse of current does the job.

The bipolar LED is actually two LEDs in one casing that allow current to flow in both directions. When current flows in one direction, one of the LEDs emits red light; when current flows in the opposite direction, the other LED emits green light. When you hook up this LED, you see two flashes of light each time the magnet passes through the coil—one when the north pole of the magnet stack passes through the coil and the other when the south pole passes through.

Going Further

Current that always flows in the same direction is called direct current (DC). Current that flows first in one direction and then the other is called alternating current (AC). The generators that provide the electricity you use every day produce AC current just like the Stripped-down Generator and operate on the same general principle. Most of the appliances and lights in your home can use AC current straight from a wall outlet. Some electrical devices, however, require DC for their operation. These either have a built-in electrical circuit that converts the AC to DC or use an adapter that accomplishes this task. Many devices that can be run on batteries, such as laptop computers and cell phones, come equipped with AC adapters, which convert the AC from the wall outlet into DC for the device.

Dual LEDs
Attach an ordinary LED to the alligator clips. Note which clip holds the longest leg of the LED. Then hook up a second ordinary LED, with its longest leg in the other clip. The two LEDs now have opposite polarities. Predict what will happen when you shake the tube.


Curt Gabrielson developed this Snack based on an idea proposed by Van, a sixth-grade student in an afterschool workshop.

Macaulay, David. The Way Things Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. See LED, page 293, and Electric Generator, pages 304–305.