OK, I’m being a little dramatic in the headline, but arcing 2,000 volts in front of a high-speed camera at your desk isn’t the safest thing to do. Even so, the result is undeniably beautiful, as the above video from TheBackyardScientist shows.
In the first part of the video, we see a ribbon of plasma arcing from a microwave oven transformer. As the electricity springs from the leads, a flickering blue light is surrounded by a wisp of orange. The blue flicker is the result of gases in between the leads conducting the electrons, which gets excited to the point where the gas emits photons, or light. The orange glow is the plasma — the fourth state of matter that results when a gas is heated to the point that its elementary particles become a kind of soup. That’s right, the Sun is a giant ball of physics soup.
The flickering arcs from the oven transformer come from AC, or alternating current, meaning that the electricity is rapidly flipping directions. In this case it changes 60 times per second.
In the second part of the video, we are treated to a classic plasma demonstration that’s a bit safer to do at home: making plasma with a grape and a microwave.
There are many theories as to what exactly is going on here, but the simplest is that the grape is the perfect size for the wavelengths of radiation inside the microwave to amplify right at the intersection of the two grape halves. There, the bit of skin left ignites and becomes super-heated plasma, which rises to the top of the beaker.
But while all this science looks awesome, it’s not like making a water bottle rocket. Maybe leave demonstrations like these to the Backyard Scientist.