“Mommyo, help! Does paper conduct even a low level of electricity?”

Someone's been reading this again...

Someone’s been reading this again…

Just a quick Caterpickle today, as Snoopy is in dire need of rescue.

According to The Nine-Year-Old, Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel have been trapped behind electrified enemy lines. The Nine-Year-Old needs someway to draw off all that electricity so that Snoopy can fly his Camel through, but I’ve been decluttering up a storm lately and all she can find is paper.

The Nine-Year-Old knew from her science class that paper is an insulator, not a conductor, but she was desperately hoping that with very great volumes of paper at hand, she might be able to MacGyver something up.

Before our tale goes any further, let’s pause for a moment to talk vocabulary. Conductors allow electricity to flow through them freely. Insulators do not. Metals like copper are excellent conductors. Paper, on the other hand, resists the flow of electricity, so it typically acts like an insulator (paper is flammable though, so it’s not a very safe insulator. That’s why our power cords don’t come wrapped in it).

Back to our story in progress…

The Nine-Year-Old, desperately: “Mommyo, help! Does paper conduct even a low level of electricity?”

After some diligent Googling, we discovered that it is possible to conduct electricity through paper, with the help of a graphite pencil.

To perform the experiment, you need:

  • A responsible adult
  • 1 volt LED
  • 6B graphite pencil
  • Paper
  • Electric wires with alligator clips
  • 12V Battery Eliminator

D Art of Science spells out the process in his YouTube video here. I don’t want to lead you astray here, so I’m going to force you to watch his video if you want to try this at home.

Basically, you use the electric wires with the alligator clips to start a circuit that includes the LED, the paper, and the positive and negative nodes on the battery eliminator. You then complete the circuit by using the graphite pencil to draw a thick line between the wire connected to the negative node on the battery eliminator and the wire linking the LED light with the battery eliminator’s positive node.

Screencapture from D Art of Science's tutorial on turning paper into an electric circuit. Watch the whole thing before you try this at home. (Source: D Art of Science)

Screencapture from D Art of Science’s tutorial on turning paper into an electric circuit. Watch the whole thing before you try this at home. (Source: D Art of Science)

The result? The connection is made and the LED lights up. The shorter the circuit drawn on the paper, the brighter the LED glows.

The current doesn’t really flow through the paper, it’s flowing through the graphite on the paper, but the effect is to transform your paper into part of an electric circuit. The shorter your drawn circuit, the better this works.

Sadly for Snoopy’s rescue, we don’t have a 12V battery eliminator at home. Cool though this experiment may be, we couldn’t replicate it in time for our rescue mission. But seeing the video reminded The Nine-Year-Old that she had received an Electronic Snap Circuit set for Christmas. So she rigged up a contraption with that.

The Nine-Year-Old's Rescue Thingamijiggy. (Photo: Shala Howell, Design: The Nine-Year-Old)

The Nine-Year-Old’s Rescue Thingamijiggy. (Photo: Shala Howell, Design: The Nine-Year-Old)

I am not allowed to tell you what the baseball is for.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
This entry was posted in Can we do that sometime?, Experiments, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Mommyo, help! Does paper conduct even a low level of electricity?”

  1. rayworth1973 says:

    Ahh, fun with electronics….


  2. Pingback: Five years gone already? | CATERPICKLES

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