The Big List



1998, William Beaty

Most people imagine ions to be tiny charged particles which float in the air. My view is different. My mental model was altered by humidifier steam! ;)

After playing with the dense white mist which is created by ultrasonic humidifiers , I realized that tiny droplets of water suspended in the air do not act like particles. They don't act like very small rain. Instead, the boundary layer surrounding each droplet is wider than the space between droplets. This causes the droplet-filled air to act like a DENSE FLUID. When the droplets move, they drag the surrounding air along with them. The individual droplets might be heavy, but since they are so small they don't fall very fast. But the white mist as a whole does fall. Humidifier steam is a composite material, like "heavy white air." A few droplets, when mixed with a great number of air molecules, on the average act like a gas composed of molecules far heavier than air, with no droplets present. All this is an analogy for ion populations in the air: a single air ion will essentially behave like a large number of weaker ions.

In other words, air ions can be imagined to be CHARGED AIR. Even though every single air molecule is not an ion, whenever ions are present, the air behaves as if this were so; as if every air molecule was slightly charged. The individual ions tend to drag surrounding air along with them when they move, and so whenever ions are suspended in air, the air in question behaves as a charged gas, not as a group of independent charged particles moving through the (motionless) air.

The upshot? There might be some interesting things we could do with a blob of charged gas suspended in the air. But beware: if we imagine this gas to be a group of electrified "grains," then we will remain blind to possibilities suggested by the "charged gas" concept.


ION COATED WIRE: Hang a long piece of thin wire from a source of large positive potential, so the wire swings freely like a pendulum. Bathe the wire in the output of a negative ion generator. Remove the ion generator and bring a neutral object near the wire to see if a transparent "ion shell" repels the wire from the object via its pressure gradient. The positively-charged wire should attract the negative air more strongly than it attracts a neutral object, so the surrounding shell of negative air should push the neutral object away.

Swing the positively-charged wire as a pendulum (small weight on the end), then bathe it in negative ions. See if it swings slower because of the extra mass of entrained air. Remove the positive potential from the wire and test to see if the altered period vanishes (it might not, if the air/metal capacitor effect is not disrupted!)

Alternately, perform this experiment in a high-humidity environment which is free of ions. Water vapor is a polar gas, and in a high-gradient electric field it might be attracted in the same way that ions are attracted. (But would water form electrically-stabilized polymer strings, or does thermal motion keep such things from occurring?)

ELECTRIC WIND: If a needle or a short piece of wire is attached to the sphere of a small VandeGraaff electrostatic generator, a "beam" of charged air will stream from its tip. This "beam" stays somewhat coherent, and can be collected by metal objects several feet away. THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE! Something weird is going on. The charged air is all the same charge, it should repel itself and spray outwards from the needle tip in all directions. It should not form a narrow stream. What gives?

AIR-THREADS: Connect a single needle to the positive terminal of a source of large potential, so that ion-wind is generated. Bath the needle in the output of a negative-ion generator. Use a Schlerien optical system to observe the needle and its surroundings. The positive ion-wind from the needle will attract a surrounding negative sheath and build a "thread" structure of oppositely charged air. The pressure gradients within the "thread" will be observable in the Schlerien image as optical distortions, and an image of a long thread-like structure will appear. The "thread" will be found to be of neutral polarity. Try building another "thread" generator, but of opposite polarity. What happens when "threads" of opposite polarity interact? Try injecting smoke or water-mist into the thread, and see if it can be made directly visible. Try immersing the thread-generator within a pool of CO2 mist and see if an upwards- directed thread will entrain and transport mist along with it. The "Thread" phenomena was discovered by Charles Yost, reported in ELECTRIC SPACECRAFT JOURNAL, but the (possible) involvement of opposite ions is my untested speculation. See Air Threads project, also Wasserfadden experiment, and giant water-thread

REAL TORNADO: Dr. Vonnegut, the weather physicist, suspected that tornadoes are not driven by air pressure, but instead that they are a form of electrostatic motor. I've recently heard that someone experimented with this idea by directing streams of negative and positive charged wind at each other, and a tiny tornadoe actually did appear. This suggests that a science-fair "tornado chamber" could be built which is based upon high voltage, with no fan needed. Make a plastic "tornado chamber", put thin wires across two of the intake slots, and connect a high-voltage power supply across the wires. One would generate a stream of negative air, and the other would be positive. The streams would attract together and with luck form a vortex in the center of the chamber. Or, if this didn't work, maybe we need one wire down the center of the chamber, and an opposite-polarity wire on each intake slot. Repeat the experiments using dry air and humid air to see whether polarizable gases play any role. To increase the charged-air emission of a thin wire, it helps to position a grounded rod or plate nearby and parallel to the wire. (Thin wires, if connected to high voltage, act as a "sharp edge" and will emit charged air.)

ALIEN SPACECRAFT: Build a low-mass disk-shaped device having negative ion generators around its rim and a large central foil disk on the bottom which is insulated from the rest of the device. Connect power supplies to the ion generators via an umbilical. Connect a large positive potential to the central plate. A region of negative ions will form adjacent to the positive plate, and a pressure gradient will appear. If the total weight of the device is low enough, the device will lift into the air and hover on top of its transparent negative-ion bubble. If a large enough device could be built, the power supplies could be placed onboard!

HIGH WIND-CHILL FACTOR: Charged air should attract itself to any grounded metal object (and be discharged as the ions touch its surface.) But objects normally have a "boundary layer" of unmoving air which adheres to their surfaces. This air acts as a thermal insulator. It is stripped away by high winds (above 50MPH generally), and this is the origin of the "wind-chill factor". Even when flowing slowly, ionized air has maximum wind-chill factor, since it dives right down to a conductive surface and penetrates the boundary layer. If a gentle stream of charged air is directed at a red-hot metal object, the stream of air will cool the object as if its velocity were around 50MPH! Charged air causes anomalous cooling of hot objects and anomalous heating of cold objects (but only for conductive objects. Insulators would quickly gain a surface charge and thenceforth REPEL the charged air.)

"THICK" AIR: Suppose a volume of air was entirely composed of equal numbers of ions of opposite charge. They would attract each other and might form a low-density semisolid, like a cross between aerogel and an ionic crystal (such as sodium chloride.) Suppose a 3-dimensional array of small volumes of ionized air could be produced. Volumes of opposite polarity would experience attraction forces, yet the array as a whole would be neutral. It would be denser than ordinary air, and internally would be at higher pressure. The array of ion-blobs might act like a sort of invisible "solid" which would cohere together, resist disruption, eject intruding objects, and would move as a unit when pushed. It would act somewhat like an invisible semi-solid mass. The organized ion-air could take the form of positive threads in a negative medium, positive spheres in a negative medium, alternating layers of positive and negative, various close-packing arrays of blobs of opposite polarity, etc. A gas composed mostly of positive and negative air ions (few neutral molecules) might exhibit a behavior very different than ordinary air. It would exhibit increased pressure, density, and refractive index. It would be heavier than normal air, and might be directly visible as an area of optical distortion in the air. The increased attraction between ions might raise the boiling and freezing temperatures of the gas to anomalously high values. Or perhaps such a thing is totally unstable, and cannot exist in the first place! What happens when oppositely-charged N2 molecules collide? Do they discharge, do they adhere to each other, or do they tend to rebound without otherwise interacting? Or rather than ions, instead experiment with high humidity environments. Water vapor is a polar gas, and perhaps the high voltage electrodes can concentrate it or even provoke the formation of electrically stabilized aerogels made from water molecule chains or percolation structures.

Here's someone who discovered something similar: Ball lightning as metastable matter

INVISIBLE WALL: This weird phenomenon might be explained using charged air concepts. It also occurred during extremely humid weather, so it might be an example of water-based polymers or aerogels. Then again, it might also be caused by unexplored laws of physics, and constitue a true example of "star trek technology".

BURST A BALLOON: Fill a large plastic bag with air, connect the two ends of a hollow plastic pipe to the bag, then install a small fan and an ion generator inside the pipe. When the ion generator is operated, the ionized air within the bag will self-repel and exert force upon the walls of the bag. The pressure should increase linearly as long as the ionizer is operating, and the bag should eventually explode because of the increasing electrical pressure.

DIPOLE AIR: Build two of the above 'bag' devices, but having opposite polarities. When operated, the attraction forces between them should grow to a large value, until the bags tear loose from their moorings and slam together.

ELECTRIC DIRIGIBLE: Fill a hot-air balloon with air, then install a negative ionizer and let it run until the contents of the balloon become highly charged. The balloon should experience a lifting force as the positively charged sky attracts it and the negatively charged earth repels it. Also, the charged air should self-repel, thus expanding and attaining a lower density than normal air. This would give lift via bouyancy. An electric blimp, which requires neither helium nor hot air. Is the force too feeble to lift a dirigible? Then try charging soap bubbles?

BOWL FULL OF AIR: Generate a high-density cloud of negative air ions. Place a large positive potential upon a metal can or bucket. Direct the air ions into the bucket. This should form a charged capacitor, with the air being one plate and the bucket the other. Ground the bucket and see if the contained ionized air is affected. (Once the ion/metal capacitor effect has commenced, you should be able to remove the power supply without destroying the effect.) Drop small, light objects into the bucket to test for pressure-gradient repulsion forces. Inject smoke into the bucket to observe possible "ion wall" effects.

ELECTRIC PEOPLE: People who claim to receive "static electric" shocks far more often than normal... might be emitting charged air. If a human body could emit charged air (through the lungs? the skin?) then that body would aquire an opposite charge, and experience big "zaps" even when the humidity was so high that "normal" people never feel any sparks at all.

REAL TORNADO II: If tornadoes are electrostatic motors, where does the energy come from? Well, once a tornado gets going, it creates a flash-cloud around itself. Incoming air falls in pressure, which reduces its temperature, which causes condensation. But if the resulting cloud droplets should coagulate into large raindrops, they might be thrown from the tornado through centrifugal action. A tornado might "rain outwards" while warm air and miniature thunderheads "rise inwards." (Do they do this in reality?) Now suppose that something during this condensation causes separation of charges. As water droplets appear in the air, charged air is ejected from the droplets and the droplets aquire an opposite charge. Now normally this would have little result, because the large scale net charge is zero (there are negative droplets immersed in positive air, or vice versa.) But if the centrifugal effects act to "sort" the positive from the negative, then the tornado would quickly become (say) a columnar mass of warm negative air which is spewing cold positive rain outwards to the ground. This warm negative air will rise, but alwo will be attracted upwards by the Earth's natural field (the ionosphere is positive,) and the tornado's updraft would be like that in a hot chimney, although driven partly by electrical forces as well as by bouyancy. The whole thing is an "electrical waterspout", partly driven by earth's vertical e-field, and partly driven by storm/typhoon power source: by the thermal energy given up by condensation of incoming humid air.

ABOVE TORNADO: ALL SPECULATION! But if this is truely the way it works, then it might be possible to destroy a tornado by "shorting it out" somehow. If a tornado was allowed to suck up a huge cloud of sharp metal "chaff", perhaps this would wreck the electrical effects and make the thing stall out.

Or perhaps it would be possible to build a huge indoor tornado; a building which takes in humid air from the sides, supports a fast-whirling central air column, and ejects warm dry air through a central chimney. Use tangential propellors to get it started, then once it takes off, let the propellors act as wind turbines.
Created and maintained by Bill Beaty.
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