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Breakdown of Air

Grounding rod tips of different sizes are used to discharge a large Van de Graaff generator. The larger the curvature of the tip, the more charge must build up to break down the air, resulting in longer sparks. The electricity ionizes air molecules, releasing quick flashes of light.

A pointed tip barely sparks at all, but instead creates an electric field so strong that it forms a tiny ball of plasma just beyond the tip. This is known as "St. Elmo's Fire", and is just visible when all the lights are turned off.

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MIT Department of Physics Technical Services Group

MIT Department of Physics Technical Services Group

Category: Science | Updated 11 months ago

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March 03, 2010 12:42
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