Levitating Orb

orb-levitation-mylar-tinsel

Levitate a magical orb using a PVC pipe, mylar tinsel, and static electricity.

This trick looks like magic, but it’s pure science. Amaze your friends and family with this project, which happens to be one of my favorites. In this orb levitation experiment, you will learn about the science behind static charges. Plus, you’ll have a blast!

Materials:

  • 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide PVC Pipe about 24 inches (60cm) long (Amazon link: PVC Pipe)
  • Mylar tinsel for Christmas trees. Although there are many types of tinsel, many won’t work. Look for the thinnest and narrowest possible. If the tinsel is more than 1 millimeter wide, the orb might be too heavy to levitate. (Amazon link: Mylar Tinsel)
  • A head of clean, dry hair
  • Scissors (Amazon link: Scissors)

Instruction:

  1. Set 4 to 6 strands of mylar tinsel side by side. Then, tie a knot at both ends. This will be the orb to levitate with your pipe. Cut the extra mylar past each knot so that the tinsel orb will be light enough to float.
  2. Take your PVC pipe and rub it on your hair for about ten seconds.
  3. Grasp the charged PVC pipe with your arm outstretched.
  4. Hold the mylar object by one of the knots with your other hand. After you hold it above the PVC pipe, drop it. The mylar orb should instantly float above the pipe. If it doesn’t, try again. If it still doesn’t, you might need to get thinner mylar or charge the PVC pipe even longer.

Try This:

  • After you levitate the mylar orb, place your arm above the PVC pipe  just enough to attract the orb. What happens? Does the orb jump between your arm and the pipe?
  • Use different amounts of mylar strands for your orb. You can also experiment with different lengths of mylar by cutting the strands. Do larger or smaller amounts of mylar strands affect an orb’s ability to levitate? Also, what is the effect of using shorter lengths of tinsel?
  • Buy different lengths and widths of PVC pipe. How does this affect levitation?
  • Buy different materials to charge your PVC pipe, such as wool and fur. How do these materials compare to dry hair? Does one build up more static charge than the other?
  • With a stopwatch, time how long the static charge lasts. How can you make the mylar orb float longer?

Explanation:

This may seem like magic, but there is always an explanation. The levitation you just performed is an example of static charges. Opposite charges attract, while like charges repel. Rubbing the PVC in your hair gives the pipe a negative charge. At first, the mylar orb has a positive charge, which is why the pipe attracts it. However, the orb gains a negative charge once it touches the pipe. Now that the orb and PVC have negative charges, the orb repels and hovers over the pipe. (Remember, like charges repel.)

So, why is the mylar orb attracted to other objects? This is because most other objects – including you –  have positive charges. (Remember, unlike charges attract.) After you levitated the object and held your arm over it, you may have noticed the mylar jump back and forth from your arm to the PVC pipe. At first, the orb (negative charge) is attracted to your arm (positive charge). After the orb touches your arm, it gains a positive charge and is attracted to your pipe, which has a negative charge. Then, the orb gains a negative charge, repels the PVC pipe, and the whole motion repeats.

 

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Image Attribute:
By Londonsista (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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