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The Singaporean 'maker of lightning'

Mr Gao's Tesla coil will be showcased as a permanent exhibit at the Science Centre from June.
Mr Gao's Tesla coil will be showcased as a permanent exhibit at the Science Centre from June.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

MIT grad has built over 20 Tesla coils which produce high voltage electrical sparks; his latest can even play tunes

Most people see lightning only during a thunderstorm, but 26-year- old Gao Guangyan can create his own - with the push of a button.

Mr Gao has built more than 20 Tesla coils which produce high-voltage electrical sparks. They are made of coils of wire wound together to form a resonant circuit, which electricity passes through to produce arcs containing hundreds of thousands of volts.

His latest- to be showcased as a permanent exhibit at the Science Centre from June - creates sparks more than 3m in length that vibrate the air, creating sound, just like how lightning creates thunder. It even plays tunes like We Are Singapore and the theme of the Super Mario video game.

"I first read about this online and thought it seemed cool," said the Singaporean, who built his first coil in 2003. "It's almost like you can make your own lightning at home so I thought: why not try to build one?"

Invented by physicist Nikola Tesla, these instruments were initially used in experiments to study wireless electrical transmissions. Today, however, they are used mainly for special effects, entertainment and education.

Mr Gao, who graduated in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2014, said each of the coils he has produced is different.

His latest can be controlled via a computer, electric guitar or musical keyboard to play songs. Other models he is working on can produce straight, single sparks by modulating the power going into them.

"I've always liked to take things apart and find out how things work, much to the dismay of my parents. I've taken apart things (such as) television sets, toys and microwaves, to find out what makes them tick," said Mr Gao, now a software engineer at a tech firm in Seattle, the United States.

Many of his coils cost little to make and use leftover or scrap material like wires from old motors.

It is very possible to build a coil that works "reasonably well for several tens of dollars", he said. "That's certainly how I first started, using parts I scavenged from old electrical appliances, and then buying only the few components which were hard to find. I didn't have any real source of income other than my pocket-money savings, so I had to improvise with what I had on hand."

When making the coils, however, Mr Gao keeps a safe distance away to avoid being electrocuted. He warns those without the proper expertise to avoid making their own at home, although he encourages beginners to start by learning the basics of smaller circuits first.

The chief executive of Science Centre Singapore, Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, called Mr Gao "very inspiring".

"Curiosity is the start of knowledge acquisition and discovery. Many Nobel laureates share a strong trait of being very curious in nature. A curious mind asks probing questions which then compels a person to learn, to experiment, to tinker, to invent, to create."

Getting young people curious about how things work is what Mr Gao hopes to achieve with his Tesla coil once it becomes a permanent showcase at the Science Centre.

"I hope it gets people interested in science, technology and engineering, or even things they learn in school, and to be confident that they can apply this to create something new. I hope it makes them think: 'If Science Centre can build one, I can build one too'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2016, with the headline 'The S'porean 'maker' of lightning '. Print Edition | Subscribe