How To Make Lichtenberg Figures

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Lichtenberg figures trace the path electricity takes through a material.
Lichtenberg figures trace the path electricity takes through a material. PASIEKA / Getty Images

Lichtenberg figures are branching structures formed by an electrical discharge on or inside of an insulator. The structures take their name from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the physicist who discovered and studied them.

Although you can make your own Lichtenberg figure using polyethylene sheets and talcum powder, there is an easier method you may wish to try:

Lichtenberg Figure Materials

  • Sharp metal object (e.g., awl)
  • Insulator (e.g., sheet of acrylic)
  • Photocopier toner

Make a Lichtenberg Figure

  • Position the metal object so that only its tip is touching the surface of the insulator.
  • If you have a Wimshurst machine or Van de Graaff generator handy, discharge it through the metal point into the acrylic. (Gray Matter has a cool video of what happens if you use a particle accelerator to create the Lichtenberg figure. Note that the hammer is insulated, thus preventing that person's skin from displaying a Lichtenberg figure. Be careful!)
  • If you don't have a machine, you'll have to generate static electricity another way, like by dragging your feet through a shag carpet and zapping yourself on the metal object... fun!
  • In either case, you will create a Lichtenberg figure across the surface of the acrylic, radiating outward from the metal point. However, you probably won't be able to see it. If you (carefully) blow toner powder across the surface of the acrylic, the Lichtenberg figure will be revealed.