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Electric field patterns made visible with potassium permanganate

James Lincoln

Citation: The Physics Teacher 55, 74 (2017);

View online: https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4974114
View Table of Contents: http://aapt.scitation.org/toc/pte/55/2
Published by the American Association of Physics Teachers

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Electric field
patterns made
visible with
James Lincoln, Southern California
Section AAPT, James@PhysicsVideos.com

A s a physics teacher I became frus-

trated that there was no way to actu-
ally see an electric field; therefore, I chal-
lenged myself to create a video1 on the 10
best methods by which to demonstrate
electric fields to students. Perhaps the
best of these was inspired by an old article
about using potassium permanganate Fig. 1. A typical dipole pattern. Purple potassium permanganate crystals trace out the
magnitude and direction of the electric field; 225 V of potential difference creates an
crystals to make the electric field vis-
2 electric field mapped on a damp coffee filter that rests on an insulating plate.
ible in water. In this article, the author,
Michael Bernstein, says that “admittedly
the patterns are not as well defined as
we would like.” I have solved Bernstein’s
problem by using coffee filters instead of
water, similar to how chromatography
is done. In my experience these patterns
are very dramatic and highly illustrative
of E-fields. Once you understand how to
produce these patterns there is no limit to
what you can create.
Safety warning! This demonstration
involves high voltages and salt water, and
KMnO4 is a toxic oxidizer. I advise not al-
lowing students to handle the equipment
and that no one handles the setup when
the power is on. It is helpful to project the
demo via a document camera or other
live video feed.
My technique is to start with a 0.5%
salt water solution by mass. Use this to
moisten (not wet) a coffee filter. Place
Fig. 2. The movement of the dissolving crystals traces out the electric field lines over five
the filter on an insulator such as plastic minutes. Under the filter is a circular plastic disc that insulates the metal plate from the
with white paper beneath for clarity. central electrode. Note that the paths grow toward the positive electrode.
Touch electrodes to the filter and con-
nect them to 200-250 V DC. You should get a few milliamps. that it is the negative MnO4 ions that are migrating, but I
Now, sprinkle the potassium permanganate crystals evenly make no such claim. I do however recognize that the crystals
on the filter. I have tried a salt shaker, but I prefer to put some do get caught up in the movement of dissolved negative ions
crystals on a piece of paper and gently blow air across them (possibly it is the chlorine ions).
so they fall on the filter. The crystals will dissolve slowly and But why would ion migration do such a good job of “draw-
migrate toward the positive electrode. Note that this is the op- ing” an electric field? E-field lines do not normally show the
posite direction of the E-field. In his article, Bernstein claims direction of travel of objects; however, in a viscous medium

74 THE PHYSICS TEACHER ◆ Vol. 55, February 2017 DOI 10.1119/1.4974114

stains appear where the field is strongest, where the ion mi-
gration is happening faster. Your school’s chemistry teacher
probably already has KMnO4 in the oxidizer section of his
or her cabinet. The most beautiful patterns come from using
fewer crystals, evenly spaced. The patterns will be preserved
in the filter because potassium permanganate stains every-
thing—clothes, hands, tables, the floor. Watch out!
The demonstration takes about five minutes. Many cell
phones now come with a time-lapse video feature. Record the
demo and play it back for dramatic effect.
To create the radial pattern, I lined a metal base with a
circular insulator. Also using linear electrodes, you can get a
capacitor field.
Fig. 3. The electric field lines are perpendicular to the surface of This demonstration would be highly appropriate to ac-
conductors. Notice that the best-illustrated parts of the figure are company the well-known carbon paper field mapping lab.
where the crystals landed sparsely and evenly spaced. Note also An application of ion migration is DNA electrophoresis. The
that the single crystal spot on the left of the rail shows a nearly
zero electric field.
charged, broken pieces of DNA migrate through gels at differ-
ent speeds based on their lengths. This creates unique patterns
the net force on a slow moving object is very nearly in the that can be used to identify the owner of that DNA.
same direction as its motion. Any non-perpetuated velocities
are quickly slowed by fluid friction. Thus the electric force References
field on an ion will cause it to move with a drift velocity either 1. “10 Ways to SEE the ELECTRIC FIELD - Part 2,”
parallel or anti-parallel to the field itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOLd2KVK-Mo, and
“ELECTRIC FIELD Visualized with Crystals,”
Tips/Ideas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63FnT0W-Hxc.
2. Michael Bernstein, “Apparatus for Teaching Physics: Making
By looking closely at the patterns, you will recognize that
an electric field visible with KMnO4 crystals,” Phys. Teach. 7,
the strength of the electric field is also mapped. The longer 301 (May 1969).

THE PHYSICS TEACHER ◆ Vol. 55, February 2017 75