. Why do carbonated beverages "burn" your throat? — TS
When carbon dioxide gas (CO2) dissolves in water (H2O), its molecules often cling to water molecules in such a way that they form carbonic acid molecules (H2CO3). Carbonic acid is a weak acid, an acid in which most molecules are completely intact at any given moment. But some of those molecules are dissociated and exist as two dissolved fragments: a negatively charged HCO3- ion and a positively charged H+ ion. The H+ ions are responsible for acidity—the higher their concentration in a solution, the more acidic that solution is. The presence of carbonic acid in carbonated water makes that water acidic—the more carbonated, the more acidic. What you're feeling when you drink a carbonated beverage is the moderate acidity of that beverage "irritating" your throat.
. I have read articles about research into anti-gravity. Do you think it is really possible? — JG
No, I don't think that anti-gravity is possible. The interpretation of gravity found in Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is as a curvature of space-time around a concentration of mass/energy. That curvature has a specific sign, leading to what can be viewed as an attractive force. There is no mechanism for reversing the sign of the curvature and creating a repulsive force—anti-gravity. I know of only one case, involving a collision between two rapidly spinning black holes, in which two objects repel one another through gravitational effects. But that bizarre case is hardly the anti-gravity that people would hope to find.
. I've used metal detectors that only pick up gold signals. How does that work? — MB
While metal detectors can easily distinguish between ferromagnetic metals such as steel and non-ferromagnetic metals such as aluminum, gold, silver, and copper, it is difficult for them to distinguish between the particular members of those two classes. Ferromagnetic metals are ones that have intrinsic magnetic structure and respond very strongly to outside magnetic fields. The non-ferromagnetic metals have no intrinsic magnetic structure but can be made magnetic when electric currents are driven through them.
Good metal detectors produce electromagnetic fields that cause currents to flow through nearby metal objects and then detect the magnetism that results. Unfortunately, identifying what type of non-ferromagnetic metal is responding to a metal detector is hard. Mark Rowan, Chief Engineer at White's Electronics of Sweet Home, Oregon, a manufacturer of consumer metal detecting equipment, notes that their detectors are able to classify non-ferromagnetic metal objects based on the ratio of an object's inductance to its resistivity. They can reliably distinguish between all denominations of U.S. coins—for example, nickels are relatively more resistive than copper and clad coins, and quarters are more inductive than smaller dimes. The primary mechanism they use in these measurements is to look at the phase shift between transmitted and received signals (signals typically at, or slightly above, audio frequencies). However, they are unable to identify objects like gold nuggets where the size, shape, and alloy composition are unknown.
. I am doing a science fair project on conductors and insulators. What are some of the best and worst conductors of electricity? — LM
The best conventional conductors are silver, copper, gold, and aluminum. What makes them good conductors is that electrons move through them for relatively long distances without colliding with anything that wastes their energy. These materials become better conductors as their purities increase and as their temperatures decrease. A cold, near-perfect crystal is ideal, because all of the atoms are then neatly arranged and nearly motionless, and the electrons can move through them with minimal disruption. However, there is a class of even better conductors: the so-called "superconductors." These materials allow electric current to travel through them will absolutely no loss of energy. The carriers of electric current are no longer simply independent electrons; they are typically pairs of electrons. Still, superconductivity appears because the moving charged particles can no longer suffer collisions that waste their energy-they move with perfect ease. We would be using superconductors everywhere in place of copper or aluminum wires if it weren't for the fact that superconductors only behave that way at low temperatures.
As for the best insulators, I'd vote for good crystals of salts like lithium fluoride and sodium chloride (table salt), and covalently-bound substances like aluminum oxide (sapphire) or diamond. All of these materials are pretty nearly perfect insulators.
. Does a moving magnet use up its energy when it generates electricity? Does this mean that the term "permanent magnet" is a misnomer because its magnetism can be used up? — MT, San Antonio, TX
When a moving magnet generates electricity, it does transfer energy to the electric current. However, that energy comes from either the magnet's kinetic energy (its energy of motion) or from whatever is pushing the magnet forward. The magnet's magnetism is basically unchanged by this process.
Nonetheless, a large permanent magnet isn't really permanent. The random fluctuations of thermal energy and the influences of passing magnetic fields gradually demagnetize large permanent magnets. However, good permanent magnets demagnetize so slowly that the changes are completely undetectable. You might have to wait a billion years to detect any significant weakening in the magnetic field around such a magnet.
. If you wrap a three-phase power cord into a coil and allow it to deliver power to equipment, will the coil develop magnetic fields and, as a consequence exhibit both an inductive reactance and a voltage drop? — JH
If any current reaching the equipment through the three-phase power cord returns through that same power cord, then the net current in the cord is always exactly zero. Despite the complicated voltage and current relationships between the three power wires, one simple fact remains: the equipment can't store electric charge. As a result, any current that flows toward the equipment must be balanced by a current flowing away from the equipment, and if both flows are in the same power cord, they'll cancel perfectly. Since there is no net current flowing through the power cord, it develops no magnetic field and exhibits no inductive reactance or voltage drop.
. In a three-phase induction motor, there is a rotating magnetic field in the stator, which induces a rotating magnetic field in the rotor. Those two magnetic fields will interact together to make the rotor turn. Is the interaction attractive or repulsive? — G
The magnetic interaction between the stator and the rotor is repulsive—the rotor is pushed around in a circle by the stator's magnetic field; it is not pulled. To see why this is so, imagine unwrapping the curved motor so that instead of having a magnetic field that circles around a circular metal rotor you have a magnet (or magnetic field) that moves along a flat metal plate. As you move this magnet across the plate, it will induce electric currents in that plate and the plate will develop magnetic poles that are reversed from those of the moving magnet-the two will repel one another. That choice of pole orientation is the only one consistent with energy conservation and is recognized formally in "Lenz's Law". For reasons having to do with resistive energy loss and heating, the repulsive forces in front of and behind the moving magnet don't cancel perfectly, leading to a magnetic drag force between the moving magnet and the stationary plate. This drag force tends to push the plate along with the moving magnet. In the induction motor, that same magnetic drag force tends to push the rotor around with the rotating magnetic field of the stator. In all of these cases, the forces involved are repulsive-pushes not pulls.
. Why does a single phase 220 volt motor run off two legs of a three-phase circuit?
In three-phase power, the voltages of the three power wires fluctuate up and down cyclically so that they are "120 degrees" apart. By "120 degrees" apart, I mean that each wire reaches its peak voltage at a separate time—first the X wire, then the Y wire, and then the Z wire—with the Y wire reaching its peak 1/3 of the 360 degree cycle (or 120 degrees) after the X wire and the Z wire reaching its peak 1/3 of the 360 degree cycle (or 120 degrees) after the Y wire.
The specific voltages and their relationships with ground or a possible fourth "neutral" wire depend on the exact type of transformer arrangement that supplies your home or business. In the standard "Delta" arrangement (which you can find discussed at sites dealing with power distribution), the voltage differences between any pair of the three phases is typically 240 VAC. In the standard "Wye" arrangement, the typical voltage difference between any pair of phases is 208 VAC and the voltage difference between any single phase and ground is 120 VAC. And in the "Center-Tapped Grounded Delta" arrangement, the voltage difference between any pair of phases is 240 VAC and the voltage difference between a single phase and neutral is 120, 120, and 208 VAC respectively (yes, the three phases behave differently in this third arrangement).
If you run a single-phase 220 VAC motor from two wires of a Delta arrangement power outlet, that motor will receive a little more voltage (240 VAC) than it was designed for and if you run it from two wires of a Wye arrangement outlet, it will receive a little less voltage (208 VAC) than appropriate. Still, the motor will probably run adequately and it's unlikely that you'll ever notice the difference.
. The frequency at which microwave ovens operate is about 2.45 GHz, which is about the resonant frequency of the free water molecule. Can you calculate this resonant frequency or was it determined experimentally? — GW
While most microwave ovens operate at 2.45 GHz, that frequency is not a resonant frequency for the water molecule. In fact, using a frequency that water molecules responded to strongly (as in a resonance) would be a serious mistake—the microwaves would all be absorbed by water molecules at the surface of the food and the center of the food would remain raw. Instead, the 2.45 GHz frequency was chosen because it is absorbed weakly enough in liquid water (not free water molecules) that the waves maintain good strength even deep inside a typical piece of food. Higher frequencies would penetrate less well and cook less evenly. Lower frequencies would penetrate better, but would be absorbed so weakly that they wouldn't cook well. The 2.45 GHz frequency is a reasonable compromise between the two extremes.
. How does the carbon in an organic material affect the flow of light through it? — TM
When light passes into a material, it interacts primarily with the negatively charged electrons in that material. Since light consists in part of electric fields and electric fields push on charged particles, light pushes on electrons. If the electrons in a material can't move long distances and can't shift from one quantum state to another as the result of the light forces, then all that will happen to the light as it passes through the material is that it will be delayed and possibly redirected. But if the electrons in the material can move long distance or shift between states, then there is the chance that the light will be absorbed by the material and that the light energy will become some other type of energy inside the material.
Which of these possibilities occurs in a particular organic material depends on the precise structure of that material. Carbon atoms can be part of transparent organic materials, such as sugar, or of opaque organic materials, such as asphalt. The carbon atoms and their neighbors determine the behaviors of their electrons and these electrons in turn determine the optical properties of the materials.