Activity

Static electricity: light a bulb

Summary
Light a fluorescent bulb with static electricity.
Science content
Physics: Energy forms, Conservation of Energy (1, 3, 4, 5)
Physics: Electricity, Electromagnetism (7)
Lessons activity is in
Materials
  • fluorescent bulb
  • balloon
  • dark room or cupboard
Procedure

Take a balloon and fluorescent bulb into the dark room.
Rub the balloon on your hair. This will transfer electrons from your hair onto the balloon and charge the balloon with a negative charge.
Bring the charged balloon near to the fluorescent bulb, and the bulb will light.
If it does not work right away, keep charging the balloon and trying again.

The static electricity of the balloon energizes the atoms or the mercury vapour inside the bulb. (The wall electricity does the same thing when you plug the bulb in.) As the mercury releases this energy again, it gives off UV light. This UV light collides with the phosphors in the bulb (seen as a white coating), and makes them glow. The glowing phosphors light up the bulb.
This works with a fluorescent bulb, because it needs less energy than an incandescent bulb to give out the same amount of light.

Notes

I recall it also working when the fluorescent bulb is simply rubbed hard against a sweater - test again.

Grades taught
Gr 1
Gr 2
Gr 3
Teaching site
Gordon Elementary Science Club