If you listen to your elders, electricity is a dangerous, often fatal, medium that shouldn't be toyed with. If, like Rob Flickenger, you decide to completely ignore such sage counsel, then electricity is awesome and a whole bunch of fun – especially if you build yourself a working battery-powered Tesla Gun that handles some 20,000-volts and 2,000 amps of current and shoots out bolts of lightning!
Flickenger says that he was inspired to build a real-world version of the Tesla Gun after reading a Steampunk graphic novel called The Five Fists of Science, that concerns the efforts of Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Bertha von Suttner to bring about an end to all war and the titanic battle for supremacy against the Dark Lords of Power – Thomas Edison, John Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Guglielmo Marconi – that follows.
He readily admits that his version is a poor imitation of the device used by a young Tesla in the novel. For starters, it's bigger (being more like a rifle than a pistol) and it cannot create an ion wind, but it is powered by a drill battery and has one major advantage over the original design – it actually exists.
Basically a hand-held spark gap Tesla coil, the main body housing consists of two sand-cast aluminum halves and is based on a Nerf gun. The rough edges and some sloppy innards were smoothed away using a Fadal 3-axis mill at the Hackerbolt Labs in south Seattle to make room for the internal components, which help produce the impressive sparks at the business end.
Central to the successful operation of any Tesla coil is the high voltage switch which needs to be tough enough to cope with the repeated switching of tens of thousands of volts and around 2,000 ampere of current, as well as being able to take some modest heat generation in its stride. Flickenger's switch housing is custom-made from porcelain and contains a pair of tungsten welding electrodes. Once tweaked and tested, the new switch was installed inside the gun's housing along with a CPU cooling fan for drawing hot ions out of the switch to help create bigger, rapid lightning bolts.
An 18V drill battery powers a ZVS driver circuit, which in turn drives a flyback transformer that ups that 18V to somewhere around the 20,000V mark. The output from the circuit is sent along to a center-tapped coil wrapped around the ferrite core of a flyback transformer, generously donated from the insides of an old television set. Last order of business before dealing with the coils was to install a bank of 942C20P15K-F capacitors in a custom-made housing.
The Tesla Gun's primary coil consists of high voltage wire protected by high-density polyethylene insulation, and the secondary coil is made from a 2.5-inch (63.5 mm) piece of ABS pipe wrapped in 30-gauge enameled wire. The unit is topped by a doughnut-shaped aluminum toroid, from which the sparks fly out.
After a bit more tweaking to ensure that whoever fired the weapon didn't die in the process, the battery-powered Tesla Gun was ready for its first light show. According to the designer, when there's nothing to earth the flow from the toroid, a cool-looking mini lightning corona forms around the edges. When a spike is added to the top of the toroid, the sparks fly straight out at anything up to two feet (0.6 meters) away. The battery can power the gun for about 30 minutes before needing to be recharged.
As to whether the Tesla Gun could harm anyone, Flickenger says that a baseball bat is a more effective weapon than his creation.
"You’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself if you’re foolish enough to fire the thing," he said. "This is sculpture. Art inspired by art. Not a weapon, any more than any object is a weapon if wielded with intent to harm."
We think Flickenger has done a wonderful job and produced an excellent lightning gun, that would fit equally as well in the world-saving hands of a certain 19th century electrical engineer/super hero or any modern-day mad scientist.
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