Posted by: T. Boyd | April 6, 2009

Flames of Fire

The voice of the Lord is powerful;elect_static_mtr
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty…
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;

(Ps. 29:4-8 ESV)

We have all heard the story of Benjamin Franklin sending up a kite during a thunder storm and being shocked through a key tied to the kite string. But I was surprised years ago to find out that this electricity is available on clear, cloudless days as well. Which brings to mind another story from our family chronicles.

Back in the 80’s (last century, to you youngsters), our middle school-age son decided for his science project to investigate this atmospheric electricity by making a static electricity motor.

He worked hard for weeks on the contraption, the design gotten from Scientific American, I believe. It consisted of a circular piece of plastic about 10 inches in diameter, balanced very carefully on a tiny ball-bearing axis.

We gathered the gang – our 2 sons, my wife, and myself – in the front yard and launched a red weather balloon. It was about 4 feet in diameter and full of helium. The tether was made of fishing line, with small copper wire tied along side, plus a static electricity collector made up of narrow strips of metal screen right under the balloon.

We reeled out about 200 or 300 feet of the line and wire, with the plan to connect the wire to the electric motor when we got it up. We tried connecting it at several heights, with nothing happening, when suddenly, our younger son, cried out, “Ouch! Mom, you shocked me!”

I shouted, “Ya hoo – it’s working!” and about that time our older son yelled, “It’s turning!” And we watched as the wheel gradually turned faster and faster while he took notes on the experiment.

How much power is available from this source? The numbers are quite impressive on one scale (volts) but very weak on the other (amps). The voltage goes up about 100 volts (more in winter) every yard in altitude (100 yards = 10,000 volts), but the current is in the microampere range – enough to turn a very delicate motor, but not enough to power anything useful from the motor.

There are different theories about where the electricity comes from. The one that makes sense to me is that it is from the friction of air molecules upon each other as they move with the wind. There is an article on Wikipedia about atmospheric electricity
which may be of interest.

This source of energy is responsible for the amazing display of flashes of lightning that come in thunder storms, another wonderful example of the intricacies of the creation of our God.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords…
To Him who alone does great wonders…
To Him who by understanding made the heavens,
for His steadfast love endures forever;

(Ps. 136:3-5 ESV)

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