The Blotting Paper Chronicles, or How We Made—or Didn’t Make—a Battery

battery-project1 Faithful followers of The Dangerous Quest (and you ARE growing in number) deserve an apology because more than a month ago the boys and I started making a homemade battery. (See “Hearing the Voice” and “What the Heck is Blotting Paper?” to catch up.) But since then I have not said one peep about it. One reason for this is that with all the time I spend with the boys, I have trouble finding the time to write about all the time I spend with the boys. Then there’s this little matter of trying to make what I laughingly call a living as a writer. When a paying gig comes along (which, believe me, these days is about as often as a blue moon), I’ve got to jump to it.

But no more excuses. Our battery-making project turned out to be quite a lively affair, albeit a frustrating one. It began with a treasure hunt of sorts, with Hank, Gabe and I going on a fruitless search for blotting paper. To be honest I had no idea what blotting paper is, which occasioned at least two comments from readers (here’s one from Lillian Kaiser and here’s another from Karen Kath) straightening me out on the subject. I was happy to hear from them because as I’m finding out on virtually every quest we embark upon, there is a lot I don’t know about lots of things, blotting paper included.

Unable to find blotting paper at any of the stores we searched, friend and neighbor Lori Triplett suggested we substitute construction paper in its place. The boys’ grandfather, Bruno Kaiser, thought felt was the ticket. Even the Home Depot clerk had a suggestion for us after Jennifer told him that she was looking for a small LED for her son’s science project at school. “I have one question for you,” he said. “If it is for your son’s science project, why isn’t he here? I’ve had three mothers come in here for LEDs and not one of them-not one!-has brought their child in here with them. They should be the one asking the questions, not the parents.”

Jennifer bought a small LED plus two copper wires and some felt, and escaped without any more hard questions being asked of her. The miracle to me is that she even found a clerk at Home Depot to help her find what she needed.

Thanks to Jennifer, we now had a better LED for the job, and we spread it and all the rest of the ingredients—paper, coins, copper wire, aluminum foil, salt, masking tape—across the dining room table. Hank and I plunged in together, pouring the vinegar in a bowl and mixing it with salt. After this we started cutting the felt into pieces, Hank waving the scissors around and nearly stabbing me in the eye. We cut the felt into circles the size of quarters. Each felt circle was to be dipped into the vinegar and salt concoction and placed on a quarter. On the other side of the quarter was the foil, also cut into a circle. Then we would stack ten quarters in this fashion—felt, quarter, foil, felt, quarter, foil, felt, quarter, foil—attach the wire to either end of the stack, connect it to the LED, and light it up. That was the theory anyhow.

Unfortunately Hank is not as interested in scientific theory as he is in blowing things up or lightings things on fire. He grew quickly bored by all the cutting we had to do, although I was having a pretty good time. Being mainly a liberal arts guy when I was in school, I really hadn’t ever done anything like this before. I don’t even remember doing a science project like this as a boy. But when Hank attached the wires to the LED, no magic occurred. The light emitting diode emitted no light. Thinking that maybe the felt was to blame, we built another stack of quarters with construction paper. But again, nothing. The only thing produced by the LED were feelings of failure for the young scientist, who retreated into a book in disappointment.

We did not quit there, though. My wife got involved and we tried again. And again. And again. Hank hung in there and built more stacks of quarters and suggested new ways to make the thing work. We tried electrician’s tape instead of masking tape. We replaced the old set of quarters with fresh quarters. We tried new foil, thicker construction paper, cut bigger paper circles, soaked them less in the vinegar, added more salt to the recipe, shortened the wire leads. We even got a third LED, the tiniest of all, and it worked just as well as its two big brothers. That is, not at all.

We went on the Internet to see if anyone else had been able to do what we could not. We found one amusing video done by a Mom who tried to make a battery with their son (watch it here) but failed just as miserably as we did. In the spirit of Thomas Edison, who tested more than 3,000 theories on how to make an incandescent lamp before finding the right one, we let our battery “charge” for fifteen minutes before before trying it. You guessed it—nada. We could have let that battery charge for a week and it still wouldn’t have lit that damn LED.

batteryproject2Even so, I regarded the experiment as a success. Aggravating, frustrating, time-consuming, demanding the efforts of one child and two determined parents—but a success nonetheless. It did indeed make for an excellent science experiment that Hank presented at the school science fair. Asked to draw some conclusions about his project, Hank said, “Sometimes science projects don’t work out the way you want to.”

I’ll drink to that. A fourth-grader at Hank’s school made a science project similar to ours. But in an absolute stroke of brilliance, he did not attempt to light an LED. Rather he hooked his homemade battery up to a voltage meter or voltmeter, a little device that can test the power level of a battery. Its needle moves across a screen with numbers, indicating the amount of charge a battery is generating. So even though his battery couldn’t light an LED either, it still produced a measurable charge on a voltmeter. Take it from me: If you’re a parent who ever gets sucked into making a battery for a school science project, buy a voltmeter. It will enrich your child’s sense of accomplishment and reduce your headaches.

Need to catch up on The Dangerous Quest? Keep reading below, or here is every adventure so far, archived for your reading pleasure, from beginning to now … Go!


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