Coilgun with disposable camera capacitors

In high school, one of my favorite quick projects was this disposable camera coilgun.

The concept behind the coilgun is pretty simple: disposable cameras are very, very good at charging capacitors, and then rapidly discharging them through the flash tube. The spark that passes through the flash tube is related to the voltage and capacity of a large component in the charging circuit called the “photoflash capacitor,” which is a special type of electrolytic capacitor that has been optimized to ensure that it can release almost all of its stored charge nearly instantaneously. The output current of the photoflash capacitor can be amplified by taking multiple disposable cameras apart and soldering their capacitors together in parallel to produce a capacitor bank with capacitance equal to the number of capacitors times their individual rated capacities. Because the voltage of the assembly remains the same when capacitors are connected in parallel, the capacitor bank can be charged using the standard DC charging circuit from one of the cameras, which even contains a special LED indicator that alerts when the bank is fully charged.

Since the output current upon discharge scales roughly proportionately to the number of capacitors, a very large magnetic field can be generated by discharging the capacitor bank through a hollow coil of wire with low gauge (to minimize resistance). If the coil is kept short and positioned carefully, a magnetic projectile like a nail will be very rapidly pulled towards the center of the coil by the giant magnetic field produced by the capacitors discharging. However (and this is where the initial position and the geometry of the coil become important) if the discharge finishes right as the projectile reaches the center of the coil, there will be no restoring force to pull the nail back towards the center when it overshoots due to its inertia from rapidly being pulled into the coil. As a result, the projectile will keep going, past the center of the coil and out the other end, exiting the device and flying across the room.

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