The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes for Make At Home: Tabletop Linear Accelerator

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My favorite Make projects all seem to have something to do with things that other people might say "Don't try this at home." In this case we went out to the Make Magazine "Test Lab" to learn how to make a small steel ball fly across the room using magnets… good clean fun in my book. This Make project called "Gauss Rifle" by Simon Quellen Field is actually a really good way to demonstrate the transfer of kinetic energy from one object to another. When each nickel-plated steel ball hits one of the lined up magnets, its kinetic energy is passed on to the next ball in the line, making it move to the next magnet. The energy builds up with each collision until the last ball bearing is shot across the room. I keep thinking about when my brother and I played croquet in our backyard growing up and I'd send his croquet ball flying across the yard.

Probably the hardest thing to get your hands on for this project will be the four gold-plated neodymium-iron-boron magnets. Not something you usually find at the local 5-And-Dime. (Or maybe I was just looking in the wrong aisle.) But I'm sure Make Magazine can point you where to get them. Once you do, here's a safety tip: The magnets are very powerful, so make sure they are securely taped down or they might slam together and shatter. Then you'll have to go out and find more gold-plated neodymium-iron-boron magnets.

Do try this at home. But be careful out there. Adult supervision is always a good idea. And make sure to aim your Tabletop Linear Accelerator away from your little brother.

Download Instructions for the Tabletop Linear Accelerator (419.3 KB .pdf)


Watch the Make At Home Tabletop Linear Accelerator television story report online.


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Category: Engineering, Physics, Television

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.
  • Steve Ryan

    What a great basis for a physics lesson! Even leaving magnetism aside, you have force, acceleration, momentum, elasticity, and more.

    For Bob: The first ball gains energy as the first magnet pulls it. When that ball hits the first magnet and next two balls (balls 2 and 3) most of the energy gets transferred to ball 3. Ball 3 then gets even more energy from the second magnet before repeating the process.

    To show how the energy accumulates, lets say that the energy added to a ball by one magnet is E. Also make a wild guess that 90% of the energy is transferred at each impact. The energy of the final ball should be 0.9*(0.9*(0.9*(0.9*E+E)+E)+E).