. 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.
. If I pinch a sheet of aluminized Mylar between two concentric circular rings and weight the middle of the sheet with water so that it sags into a curved shape, like a parabola, is there an adhesive such as fiberglass which I can adhere to the back surface to stiffen it so that I can make a giant reflective surface to serve as a solar collector? — AM, Weldon, CA
What a great idea! Mylar is DuPont's brand of PET film, where "PET" is Poly(ethylene terephthalate)—the same plastic used in most plastic beverage containers (look for "PET" or "PETE" in the recycling triangle on the bottom). PET isn't a particularly inert plastic and you shouldn't have any trouble gluing to it. To form a rigid structure, you need either a glassy plastic backing (one that is stiff and brittle at room temperature) or a stiff composite backing. I'd go with fiberglass—mount the Mylar in a large quilting or needlepoint frame, coat the back of the Mylar with the glass and epoxy mixture, invert it, weight it with water, and let it harden. Mylar doesn't stretch easily, so you'll get a very shallow curve and a very long focal length mirror. While the mirror will probably have some imperfections and a non-parabolic shape, it should still do a decent job of concentrating sunlight.
. How does a light-detecting diode create voltage when light hits it? — T
Diodes are one-way devices for electric current and are thus capable of separating positive charges from negative charges and keeping them apart. Those charges can separate by moving away from one another in the diode's allowed direction and then can't get back together because doing so would require them to move through the diode in the forbidden direction. Given a diode's ability to keep separated charges apart, all that's needed to start collecting separated charges is a source of energy. This energy is required to drive the positive and negative charges apart in the first place. One such energy source is a particle of light—a photon. When a photon with the right amount of energy is absorbed near the one-way junction of the diode, it can produce an electron-hole pair (a hole is a positively charged quasiparticle that is actually nothing more than a missing electron). The junction will allow only one of these charged particles to cross it and, having crossed, that particle cannot return. Thus when the diode is exposed to light, separated charge begins to accumulate on its two ends and a voltage difference appears between those ends.
. How can I make an electric generator from scratch? — OD
Generators and motors are very closely related and many motors that contain permanent magnets can also act as generators. If you move a permanent magnet past a coil of wire that is part of an electric circuit, you will cause current to flow through that coil and circuit. That's because a changing magnetic field, such as that near a moving magnet, is always accompanied in nature by an electric field. While magnetic fields push on magnetic poles, electric fields push on electric charges. With a coil of wire near the moving magnet, the moving magnet's electric field pushes charges through the coil and eventually through the entire circuit.
A convenient arrangement for generating electricity endlessly is to mount a permanent magnet on a spindle and to place a coil of wire nearby. Then as the magnet spins, it will turn past the coil of wire and propel currents through that coil. With a little more engineering, you'll have a system that looks remarkably like the guts of a typical permanent magnet based motor. In fact, if you take a common DC motor out of a toy and connect its two electrical terminals to a 1.5 V light bulb or a light emitting diode (try both directions with an LED because it can only carry current in one direction), you'll probably be able to light that bulb or LED by spinning the motor's shaft rapidly. A DC motor has a special switching system that converts the AC produced in the motor's coils into DC for delivery to the motor's terminals, but it's still a generator. So the easiest answer to your question is: "find a nice DC motor and turn its shaft".