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Engineering students build 10-foot Tesla coil

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 00:02


Members of the student organization X-Labs have built a 10-foot tall dual-resonant solid-state Tesla coil, an electrical transformer circuit, capable of producing alternating-current electricity. 

The group worked on the Tesla coil for two years, meeting weekly in the Engineering II Building to create a model with the ability to tune electric sparks that come off the dome to form various pitches and melodies.

The Tesla coil will be presented at the USF Engineering Expo on Feb. 22-23. 

“I wanted to have science demos to show kids at the Expo,” Joe Register, founder of X-Labs and a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, said. “Our goal is to have a Blue Man Group-like show.”

Earlier this month, the group tested the coil to see if it ran properly. 

Register said it takes an hour to set up the coil, which operates at a low frequency, with sparks ranging between 10 and 15 feet on full power.

X-Labs members used the space near the Engineering Building II to set up a tall metal pole in the grass and placed the Tesla on it. With a long extension cord, they plugged the coil into a high-power outlet in the building. 

They set up a metal rod a few feet away for the sparks to make contact. 

Nine-foot sparks emerged to the tune of Mario Brothers. 

Andy Suleskey, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering and member of X-Labs, said the sparks can produce an interesting visual display that can only be seen at night.

“It’s almost impossible to see the sparks during the day so we have to wait until it gets dark,” Suleskey said.

Coyt Barringer, X-Labs president and a freshman majoring in electrical engineering, said getting touched by a small Tesla coil would have a similar sensation to receiving a shock from a Taser

Andrew Raij, assistant professor for the department of electrical engineering, said he’s been advising the group since last fall. When Register took a course Raij taught, they talked about X-Labs’ goals to get high school students excited about science and engineering. 

Raij said X-Labs’ interests were similar to his own — taking apart and rebuilding things to learn how they work and improve them.

“One of the things I thought was amazing about them was they have a thing in mind they want to do and they do it,” Raij said. “They don’t need a lot of pushing from anybody. They’re very self-motivated and excited about what they do. ... The (Tesla coil) is so visible and cool-looking it automatically gets people interested.”

Last year’s Engineering Expo showcased the work of more than 30 different organizations, and X-Labs presented an uncompleted Tesla coil. The presentation included a small laser light show as well as a fire demonstration called a “Rubens’ tube,” in which flames danced to music on a metal pipe.

At this year’s event, however, X-Labs may not have a location to show their demos. In the past, USF had opened 10 auditoriums for the Expo, but this year only one is available. Barringer said he’s been trying to reach out to professors to see if they can move their classes for the day, but has not gotten a positive answer from any.

If they can get the Engineering building auditorium, the X-Labs will present their Tesla coil with the power running so students can view the sparks. 

In between working on the Tesla coil, the group tackled other projects, such as creating a high-altitude weather balloon that was launched into space off the Beard garage a few months ago.

“Their shows are always amazing and I think a lot students come out of it thinking ‘hmm, maybe USF is a good place to be’ or ‘hmm maybe engineering is something I want to try,’” Raij said. 

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