The Van de Graaff generator is a source of high voltage at low current based on the transfer of static electricity, and its higher current successor the Pelletron could deliver more current by replacing the belt with a "chain" of alternating conducting and insulating link, allowing it to run at a higher speed than the Van de Graaff's belt.

They have been used in accelerators for ion beams so I assume they can deliver at least tens of nanoamps and possibly as much as a microamps, but there could be other paths that current can flow as well (corona, surface leakage, etc.) so I am not sure that beam current would be a proper measure of the total current that the generator could supply.

Question: Roughly, ballpark figures only, how much current can be produced by Van de Graaff generators or Pelletrons that have actually been built?

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    $\begingroup$ I remember milliamperes in proton beams. SAMES was a French company making such machines. $\endgroup$
    – user137289
    Apr 18, 2019 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Pieter yikes, I had no idea! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2019 at 7:38
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    $\begingroup$ On a small scale the VdG generators of the size used in schools can produce continuous currents of order microamps. $\endgroup$
    – Farcher
    Apr 18, 2019 at 7:46
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    $\begingroup$ I'll note that the Pelletron chain is at the core made of plastic, and consists of cylinders connected by links. Each cylinder is plated with metal to carry the charge. Looking at a chain, by length it is mostly the cylinders. The speed isn't very different than the HVE belt systems, but you get a lot more charge per unit length. A 30-cm wide rubber belt can be replaced with one chain (less than 2.5cm wide) easily. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ For accelerator experiments where the ions hit a foil target, the ability of the target to dissipate heat is often the limiting factor, not the ion source. IIRC we typically ran currents of about 1 particle nanoamp (i.e., n nanoamps, where n was the charge state), and this was about at the limit of most targets to dissipate heat. Thin targets have to dissipate their heat by radiation, which is inefficient. For some experiments, where very high beam currents are desired, people make big rotating target wheels. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Apr 18, 2019 at 15:44

1 Answer 1


Having until recently run an ion beam lab with both a High Voltage Engineering accelerator and a National Electrostatics Pelletron system, and having run a number of other similar systems over the years, I have a reasonable idea of what can be done.

Before going too far, I'd like to touch on a few factors that might not be well understood. First, an ion accelerator is not normally run like the lab-display generators, which just charge up a sphere and leak current somewhere/somehow. Instead, one wants a steady voltage on the terminal and that is only achieved through matching the current going both to the terminal and away from the terminal. At steady state (constant voltage) the two are the same. So, in the absence of an actual ion beam, the charging systems sends X amount of current up, (X-C) goes down the accelerator tube through precision resistors to set a steady voltage gradient, and C goes out as corona current, an intentional flow of charge from the terminal to the corona points. The corona current is used as the fast feedback loop on the voltage (much faster than throwing more/less charge on the belt/chain and waiting for it to be mechanically transported to the terminal). Once you add an ion beam in, you need to add more current going up to the terminal while keeping the column and corona currents the same (to keep the same potential on terminal). Should the beam current be too large a proportion of the charging current, the machine can become unstable to variation in the ion source. If you run the terminal at lower voltage, the current required is smaller (V = IR down the column). So, you might get more beam current possible at lower terminal voltages.

Second, there are two types of Van de Graaff type accelerators to consider, the single-ended systems and tandem accelerators. In a single ended machine, the ion source is housed in the terminal, making positive ions which are then accelerated down to ground. The tandem accelerator puts the terminal in the middle of the tank, and accelerates negative ions to the terminal, strips electrons in the terminal, and accelerates all the various positive charge states back to ground. So, two things with a tandem - you have two accelerating columns, so twice the column current, only one corona, and even more possible variation in beam current if the source blinks (since an ion traversing the machine goes both up and down). I will add that a positive ion source makes a lot more current than a negative ion source - it is just the nature of the beast. So, max current will be possible out of a single ended machine.

Third, modern systems like the Pelletron actually double the charge capacity of the chain by taking positive charge up to the terminal, and negative charge down from the terminal. The rubber-belted classic High Voltage Engineering machines don't do that.

So, what can a modern machine do? Well, NEC will sell you a duoplasmatron source rated at 10mA of H+ output. Since those are meant for their systems (including in-tank mounting), one can be sure they can be used at those ratings in one of their machines, provided there is enough charge available. For high current applications, NEC sells machines outfitted with up to 4 separate charging chains, so they can move a lot of charge quickly. (Now, I'm not sure I know anybody who has wanted to max out their single ended system - the real reason the source is rated at 10mA of H+ is that other ions are harder to get out of the source, so it is way over-spec'ed for H.) (I also bet that one could get more than 10mA H+ out of the source, it just might not last as long or be as steady.)

A tandem is, as noted above, trickier, since you need both high negative ion current and you worry more about beam fluctuations. I have gotten 1mA of Si- out of an NEC SNICS source and run that into a high current (4 chain) 1.7MeV tandem. I was trying to get reasonable beam current for the +9 charge state (so 17MeV Si ions). During one run, a stray lower charge state beam managed to melt a hole in the magnet chamber since it was depositing enough power in a small spot on sheet steel. For lower charge states, one would not bother to run that high an input current - it just wasn't needed. I also only ran that beam once I had lots of experience with the machine and the source and was confident it was all reliable. One flicker of the source and there would have been a big tank spark.

So - beams of up to 10mA from a single ended machine are viable, but terminal voltage, charging capacity, and machine type all play into the equation.

  • $\begingroup$ This is a handful of zeros larger than I'd expected; thank you for the thorough answer and backgounding! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ It makes me scared to imagine the radiation levels when a 10 mA proton beam hits a beam stop. $\endgroup$
    – user4552
    Apr 18, 2019 at 15:41

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