An electrostatic generator used to produce a high voltage, usually in the megavolt range. It consists of a large metal dome-shaped terminal mounted on a hollow insulating support. An endless insulating belt runs through the support from the base to a pulley within the spherical terminal. In the original type, charge is sprayed by point discharge from metal needles, held at a potential of about 10 kV, on to the bottom of the belt. A row of needles near the upper belt pulley removes the charge from the belt and passes it to the outer surface of the spherical terminal. The voltage achieved by the device is proportional to the radius of the spherical terminal. A typical device with a terminal having a radius of 1 m will produce about 1 MV. However, terminals can be made smaller, for a given voltage, by enclosing the apparatus in nitrogen at a pressure of 10–20 atmospheres (1–2 MPa) to reduce sparking. Generators having a positive-ion source are fitted with an evacuated tube through which the particles can be accelerated for research purposes (see linear accelerator). Machines having an electron source are used for various medical and industrial purposes. The generator was invented by R. J. Van de Graaff (1901–67).
Modern patterns of the generator have a chainlike belt of alternate links of metal and insulator. The metal links are charged by contact with a metal pulley, and discharge to the dome in the same way. This permits much higher current drain that the point discharge.
Van de Graaff generator.