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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

03/05/23 - An Earth Battery and an Arc Generator


3rd May:

Experimentation: Working with an Earth Battery and Arc Generator

Something I have been discussing/thinking about for some time now is in field experimentation; moreover, creating imagery on site with the site. I cannot remember when or how exactly this idea came about, but I have been considering how I could take my artificial lighting into specific landscapes and power them when miles away from a power source. I looked into many ways to source power and one that I deemed to be suitable, sustainable and environmentally friendly was by creating earth batteries (see 07/11/21 - Earth Battery post This power source would be created from the Earth building a circuit of cells consisting of dirt, copper and zinc. This battery would give me a positive and negative output and would be able to produce a current that could possibly power a small light. If successful I would look at ways to increase the voltage/output to increase the amount of lighting placed within the specific landscape.

This idea of the earth battery creating a power supply had me thinking... the Earth was producing a power. The Earth is harnessed to produce 'power' i:e electricity across the globe using a variety of sources such as wind farms, water turbines and ..... to name a few. The Earth also produces 'power' in the emotional and psychological sense, this being a subjective one, but still a sense of power put onto us. I would state as a clear example this could be a feeling or sensation of awe and wonder (sublime almost?) when looking at an aesthetically pleasing landscape. This type of power can sometimes be composed into paintings, films, music etc, artistic interpretations of Earthly power but let us get back to my idea. If the Earth produced a power could I harness that power or use it as a live material that could produce an artistic outcome? Surely if the Earth is producing a power then the Earth is speaking/communicating to us in an artistic manner... a hypothetical thought that is. What material could capture such power? I could photograph or film the output, but hang on...photograph? The output from the Earth is electrical, electrical currents have a measure of light, photography captures light, photographic film captures a light source... what if I can capture Earthly outputs directly onto film. The idea has arrived!

I already had built an Earth battery from November 2021, but the dirt was dry and so I refreshed it with new dirt and new zinc bolts and copper wire. I thought a fresh material change would help the batteries power generator. Unfortunately I cannot just expect an electrical current to just spark out of a battery, I would need a generator that could distribute a visible current. I therefore looked at many options including a Wimshurst machine (see blog entry 28/03/22 - The Wimshurst - but because this was a small test, I decided to pick up a small arc generator or best known as a Marx generator. A Marx generator is an electrical circuit that was 'invented' by Erwin Otto Marx in 1924.

Its purpose is to generate a high-voltage pulse from a low-voltage DC supply. I picked up from Amazon a small generator that is something I would call cheap and cheerful. It is a simple circuit that has an input voltage of DC 3.7-7.4V and can produce an output of DC 800-1000KV (depending on input). Once hooked up to a battery the discharge will be that of an electrical current/spark which can become quite violent as positive and negative protons build up.

Depending on my research and experimentation I will work with the Marx generator exploring its photographic possibilities but for future developments, I will look towards a Wimshurst machine. I might be able to power a small motor from an E.B to turn a Wimshurst that would generator a electrical discharge/spark.

With my Marx generator now in my hands I set about testing if I could produce an electrical current from the E.B through the Marx generator. I replenished the soil in each cell, as the original soil had severely dried up and I also gave the bolts and copper stems a wipe down. With the E.B back together again I connected the positive and negative points and waited for the tell-tale sign of the humming current noise. Unfortunately no sound was being produced and that would mean not enough voltage was being produced throughout the E.B. From my previous experience with the E.B I tried to amplify the voltage with a touch of distilled vinegar in each cell, but unfortunately I still had no luck with this. I decided to test the Marx generator with a household 9v battery. This was simply to just make sure that the generator was functioning correctly. Once the 9v battery was connected, the humming sound occurred, meaning I had a power and a working generator, leaving me with a head scratch as to why the E.B was not working. I originally produced 12v from the E.B but this generator was powered by 9v... hmm a puzzle indeed.

As it was late in the evening, I decided to put the E.B to one side and tell myself that I would return to it in the next week. I made the decision to also look upon the assistance of someone who was a professional electrician, and as it so happens, that someone is my dad. I have arranged to spend this weekend working with him to create a working E.B that will produce a sufficient output that can power the generator. One thing my dad did suggest was that I may need a capacitor to store the E.B output charge. This is something I will consider as I move forward.

From the above gallery of imagery and the video you can see how the generator and E.B were set out. The video shows the extent of the spark produced from the generator and although it looks quite intense, it is of a low voltage, saying that, it does not mean it is not dangerous. I take precaution within all my work and even when looking 'home made', my safety is put first.

The spark produced is a continuous arc and therefore no break occurs between the positive and negative points. I roughly cut up some photographic paper into small squares as I wanted to try and test out if I could capture the arc. I knew this would be a long shot because two reasons; one, electricity is hot, really hot! and there was a good chance the arc would burn through the paper. Two, with an arc, light would be continuously emitting from the spark and there would be no direct light impact onto the papers surface. I had to slide the paper into the arc meaning the paper would be exposed to light even before the spark had touched it. Below you can see the outcomes. I would like to point out that these were very rough (on the spot) experiments. I set up some dev and fix loosely without ratio mix. From the outcomes you can see that nothing was captured but the the two small dots are where the arc burnt through the paper. Again I will return to the development process soon. I believe I will need some new dev, stop and fix and as a precaution, I will produce the imagery in the dark room where I work (the Northern School of Art).

Moving Forward

Clearly work needs to be done, and this was expected as I did not believe I could just produce a working E.B and capture electrical current on film. Items I will be purchasing are;

  • multimeter (voltage reading)

  • crocodile clips (aid current discharge along a circuit)

  • petri dishes (further experimentation)

  • Zinc bolts (fresh electrical conductors)

  • Garden trays (cells)

  • Capacitor (store voltage)

  • Developer and Fix (photographic aid)

  • Wimshurst Machine (spark generator)

Some of the items I has on order which is good and hopefully will be with me shortly so that I can experiment this weekend as planned. I do have to be patient with this process as I need to test and try to get it functioning at a level which can be managed within the field. I am finding it all very exciting and a little fun. I feel like that stereotypical mad scientist is returning as I now look at making work rather than reading and writing as I was stuck doing over the past four months.

I will continue to update my blog with my progress over the next month as well as dropping in some conversations around texts, exhibitions and other things I come across.

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