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Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector

Time Required Short (2-5 days)
Prerequisites You should be familiar with the concepts of atoms, electrons, and voltage. Familiarity with building circuits with a breadboard is helpful, but not required.
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Average ($40 - $80)
Safety No issues


Wouldn't it be nice to avoid those nasty electric shocks you get after you have walked around on carpet and then shake a friend's hand, or all those crazy flyaways you get after brushing your hair? These are caused by static electricity. In this science fair project, you will build a super-sensitive charge detector to investigate the positive and negative electric fields created by static electricity. The detector can sense invisible electric fields, so try this science fair project to avoid the shock of shocks!


The objective of this science fair project is to build a super-sensitive charge detector and use it to investigate the nature of electric fields created by static electricity.


David Whyte, PhD, Science Buddies

  • Scotch® is a registered trademark of 3M.

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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 5 Dec. 2015. Web. 27 July 2016 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Elec_p050.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2015, December 5). Avoid the Shock of Shocks! Build Your Own Super-sensitive Electric Field Detector. Retrieved July 27, 2016 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Elec_p050.shtml

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Last edit date: 2015-12-05


Static electricity is the accumulation of electrical charges on a surface, produced by the contact and separation of dissimilar materials. If you have ever received a shock when touching a doorknob, you have some firsthand experience with static electricity. The sparks created by static electricity can cause real problems, such as when they "fry" an electronic component in a computer. You can read more about static electricity in the Science Buddies Electricity, Magnetism, & Electromagnetism Tutorial.

Objects are usually electrically neutral, meaning they have an equal number of positive charges and negative charges. When two different materials are rubbed against each other, one of the materials often donates electrons to the other one. Electrons are elementary particles that carry a negative charge. If an item gives up electrons to another item, the first item will end up with a net positive charge. On the other hand, the item that now has extra electrons will have a net negative charge.

The materials listed below are ranked in order of their ability to hold or give up electrons. This ranking is called the triboelectric series. If two materials are rubbed together, the one higher on the list will donate electrons and become positively charged.

Triboelectric Series

  • Positive (+)
  • Human hands
  • Glass
  • Human hair
  • Nylon
  • Wool
  • Fur
  • Lead
  • Silk
  • Paper
  • Cotton
  • Steel
  • Neutral (0)
  • Wood
  • Hard rubber
  • Nickel, copper
  • Brass, silver
  • Gold, platinum
  • Polyester
  • Plastic wrap
  • Polyurethane
  • Polyethylene (like Scotch® tape)
  • Polypropylene
  • Silicon
  • Teflon
  • Negative (-)

For this science fair project, you will build a simple, but extremely sensitive, charge detector (see Figure 1). When it is assembled, it will be able to sense the changes in the static electricity on your body as you walk over a carpet, when you pet your cat or dog, or when you touch a plastic pen or brush to your hair.

Electricity  Science Project circuit diagram for a solid-state charge detector
Figure 1. This is a circuit diagram for a solid-state charge detector. It can detect very weak electric fields. The circuit has three components: a 9-volt battery, a light-emitting diode (LED), and a field-effect transistor (FET), labeled MPF-102 in the diagram. The field-effect transistor has three leads: a source (S), a gate (G), and a drain (D).

As shown in Figure 1, the circuit has three components: a 9-volt battery, a light-emitting diode, and a field-effect transistor (FET). The field-effect transistor has three leads: a source (S), a gate (G), and a drain (D). A thorough description of how the field-effect transistor works would require delving into advanced electrical engineering, but the essential features can be seen in Figure 2. The field-effect transistor has a channel of N-type semiconducting material that allows electrons to carry a current. When the battery is connected to the transistor, a voltage is applied across this N-type semiconducting material. The material is call "N-type" because negative charges—electrons—are the charge carriers.

In semiconductors, electrons and holes act as charge carriers. The more-abundant charge carriers are called majority carriers. In N-type semiconductors they are electrons, while in P-type semiconductors they are holes.

Field-effect transistors are normally on devices, meaning that with no negative electric field, they allow maximum current to flow. In the middle of the N-channel is a region of P-type semiconductor. Around the P-type material, there is a depletion zone. There are fewer electrons in the depletion zone, so the bigger the depletion zone is, the higher the resistance. In the presence of a negative electric field, the depletion zone gets bigger, the current is decreased, and so the LED on the circuit is turned off.

The field-effect transistor circuit can be compared to a water faucet. In this analogy, the voltage is like the water pressure, and the field-effect transistor is like a faucet. When you open a faucet, water flows because of water pressure. The water will keep flowing until the faucet is closed. In the circuit, electrons flow through the FET and LED. The electrons flow because of the voltage supplied by the battery. Because electrons are flowing through the LED, it glows red. When the FET is "closed"—by bringing an object with a negative charge near the FET—electrons cannot flow through the circuit, and the LED light dims.

Electricity  Science Project schematic of an N-channel junction field-effect transistor
Figure 2. Shown is a schematic of an N-channel junction field-effect transistor. It is made from a single piece of N-type semiconductor constricted in the middle by P-type material forming the gate. Varying the gate voltage modulates the current flow through the device. When the gate voltage is made more negative, it constricts the current path in the region of the gate, increasing its resistance and reducing the current flow.

Terms and Concepts

Before you begin this science fair project, you should be familiar with these concepts:

  • Static electricity
  • Charge
  • Electron
  • Triboelectric series
  • Electric field
  • Transistor
  • N-type semiconductor
  • P-type semiconductor
  • Depletion zone
  • Solid state


  • Which holes in the breadboard are connected to each other?
  • How does distance affect the strength of the electric field?
  • In your own words, explain how the field-effect transistor compares to a water faucet.


This is a great introduction on breadboards:

This website is the source for the circuit used in this project. The website also has some entertaining variations of the basic project.

Check out these websites for additional information.

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Materials and Equipment

  • Solderless breadboard, available from Jameco Electronics.
  • 9-volt battery, available from Jameco Electronics.
  • N-channel field-effect transistor (FET), MPF-102, available from Jameco Electronics. Note: since it is possible to accidentally damage the FET via static discharge, and they are relatively inexpensive, we recommend ordering several FETs in case you damage one.
  • Red light-emitting diode (LED), available from Jameco Electronics. Note that the minimum order quantity is 10 LEDs, but you only need one for this project.
  • 9-volt battery connector. You can use a snap connector (cheapest), a 9 V battery holder, or a 9 V battery holder with a cover and power switch (slightly more expensive but will allow you to turn your circuit on and off without disconnecting the battery).
  • Clear tape
  • Plastic pen
  • Several objects from the triboelectric series listed on the Background tab
    • Make sure to get at least 2 objects from both the positive (+) and the negative (-) ends of the triboelectric series.
  • Optional: an anti-static mat and anti-static wrist strap can help prevent buildup of static electricity that can damage sensitive electronic components like the FETs.
  • Lab notebook

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Experimental Procedure

Note Before Beginning: This science fair project requires you to hook up one or more devices in an electrical circuit. Basic help can be found in the Electronics Primer. However, if you do not have experience in putting together electrical circuits you may find it helpful to have someone who can answer questions and help you troubleshoot if your project is not working. A science teacher or parent may be a good resource. If you need to find another mentor, try to find someone who has hobbies like robotics, electronics, or building and fixing computers. You may also need to work your way up to this project by starting with an electronics project that has a lower level of difficulty.

Additional Notes:
  • To start this science fair project, you should be familiar with the concepts of electrons, charges, and electric fields. You will be using a field-effect transistor, so some knowledge of semiconductors would be helpful, but is not essential.
  • You can easily build the circuit on a solderless breadboard. You can learn how to use a breadboard in the Science Buddies How to Use a Breadboard..
  • Try to avoid touching the gate wire, which is the wire used as the antenna, unless absolutely necessary, since this could send a damaging charge into the transistor.
  • If you purchased an anti-static mat and wrist strap, read the directions that came with them and use them when assembling your circuit. This will help prevent the buildup of static electricity, which can damage your dircuit. If you did not purchase them, do your best to be careful to avoid buildup of static electricity when building your circuit (for example, avoid shuffling your feet on carpet).
  • Do not connect the battery directly to the LED, as this will burn it out. In the circuit, the FET acts as a resistor to limit current through the LED.

  1. Assemble the circuit on your breadboard as shown in Figure 3.
    1. Push the battery connector wires into the breadboard. In Figure 3, the red wire is inserted at E2. (All of the holes in row 2, from A to E, are now connected to the positive lead from the battery). Insert the black wire into the breadboard (hole E4). All row 4 holes from A to E are now connected to the negative battery lead.
    2. Do not connect the battery to the battery holder yet. Connect the battery on the last step to avoid burning out either the LED or the FET.
    3. Connect the middle transistor lead (the source) to the red battery lead. This is in hole A2 in Figure 3.
    4. Insert the drain lead from the FET (left-most wire when viewing with the flat end in front) into the breadboard (hole A3 in Figure 3).
    5. The gate wire serves as the antenna, so it is not connected to the breadboard. Bend it so that it points away from the other leads.
      1. Important: if you are not using an anti-static mat and wrist strap, make sure you have discharged yourself by touching a nearby large, metal object before touching the gate wire. Avoid motions that can cause excessive buildup of static electricity, like shuffling your feet across carpet. You could also use an insulating material, like a wooden toothpick or piece of plastic, to touch the gate wire, to decrease the odds of discharging static electricity into it.
    6. Connect the LED's shorter lead (the cathode, or negative side) to the black battery wire (negative). This is hole C4 in Figure 3.
    7. Connect the LED's longer lead (the anode, or positive side) to the drain lead of the FET. This is hole C3 in Figure 3.
    8. Double-check the connections, then connect the battery. The LED should glow red.
    9. Use clear tape to hold down the battery, and also to secure the two leads from the battery. Your assembled circuit should look like the one in Figure 4.
    10. You are now ready to experiment with electric fields!
electric field detector diagram
Figure 3. Breadboard diagram for the charge detector circuit.

electric field detector circuit
Figure 4. Picture of completed charge detector circuit. Your circuit might look slightly different depending on which type of battery holder you purchased.
  1. Choose two objects from the triboelectric series and predict which objects will have a negative and which will have a positive charge after they are rubbed together. Write your predictions down in your lab notebook.
  2. Now rub the two objects together. For example, run a plastic pen through your hair and hold the pen near the antenna (the unattached gate wire). Record your observations in your lab notebook.
    1. The charge on an object will dissipate if you handle it, especially if your hands are slightly damp. By handling the object, the charged particles are transferred from the object to your skin. You can keep the charge from being lost by isolating the charged object; for example, by suspending the object with string made out of nylon or some other insulating material.
    2. Remember, objects with a negative charge will make the LED get dimmer as they are brought near the antenna. Objects with a positive charge will make the LED brighter. It is harder to see the LED getting brighter since is already pretty bright, but it is possible if you are careful.
    3. The LED might turn off after the circuit is exposed to a strong positive field. It can be turned on again by waving a negatively charged object (such as a plastic pen that has been run through your hair) near the antenna.
  3. Try each pair of items at least three times. Are your results consistent? Record your observations in your lab notebook.
  4. Try walking across a carpeted floor then bringing your hand near the circuit. Try this wearing tennis shoes, just socks, or your bare feet. What happens? Why?
  5. Try rubbing one end of a plastic ruler with a piece of cloth. How far does the negative charge extend over the ruler? (You can "neutralize" the ruler between trials by touching it all over with your hands. This works best if you have slightly damp socks on.)

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  • Attach an insulated wire to the antenna to increase the sensitivity of the charge detector (for example, a 24-inch insulated test jumper lead with alligator clip, Radio Shack part # 278-1157). Investigate how the length of the wire affects the sensitivity.
  • Keep track of the humidity and record how it affects your static electricity experiments.
  • Build the circuit using solder to make the connections. One option is to strip the plastic top off of the battery connector and solder the components onto the exposed plus and minus terminals. See a picture here.
  • Electrify an object, for example, by running a pen through your hair. Now support the pen with different materials and place it near the antenna to see which is best at keeping the object charged.
  • Can you detect electric fields that are created when you pet your cat or dog?
  • Electrify an object, hold it near the antenna to dim the LED light, and then pass objects between the object and the antenna. What happens?

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