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Bazooka

Lockdown Challenge: Join the A-Team and make a vacuum bazooka

Image credit: Neil Downie

This week we challenge you and your locked-down family to recreate the invention of the A-Team, as well as their tendency to resort to guns!

This week, we are joined by Neil Downie, the author of (among other things) ‘The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science’. He brings more experimental fun to the party and kicks off this week with how to turn a domestic appliance (the vacuum cleaner) into a serviceable weapon. Important: you do this at your own risk.

Before that, Cris Andrews replicates the combined mentality of both the A-Team and the Wombles encouraging the use of ‘garage garbage’ to solve problems, first identifying what the problems are that need to be solved.

The IET also has a host of resources which adults can use to engage children with the world of STEM.

We would love it if people sent in photos and videos of their 'Lockdown Challenge' efforts, as well as suggestions about how to make these challenges better and ideas for new ones. Email your contributions to tfryer@theiet.org.

Lockdown Challenge #6: A-Team Challenge

Every week, in the 1980s TV show, the heroic former soldiers turned altruistic mercenaries would get locked in a garage with seemingly nothing useful in it. More often than not, they would they end up making something that not only enabled them to bust out of the garage, but also to defeat the bad guys, rescue the damsel in distress and clear off before the military police caught up with them.

Our challenge would be to go into the garage and take whatever is there to make something that helps someone in the family with an issue they’re facing over lockdown - and, at the same time, get the kids to help you clean and organise the place.

First, get the problem-solving juices flowing by brainstorming what problems people are facing in the household under lockdown. If your kids don’t get that, ask them to remember what everyone else in the house is moaning about. A chance to moan about the moaners is enough to get any kid going.

Garages these days have a habit of doubling up as garden sheds, storage spaces or general dumping grounds. There’s no telling what you’ll find in there: cardboard boxes; containers; maybe an old sports bag or three; magazines and newspapers; paint; glue; DIY materials; tyres; wheels and more. Who really knows what’ll be lurking in some remote corner?

There’s almost certainly going to be some sort of a plastic container, big enough for the youngest children to sit in. If so, maybe this could be transformed into a pull sled?

Just attach a rope to the front of the container - which might involve a bit of drilling - and you’ve got something that the little one can sit in and either you or one of the older children can pull. Think about what soft materials are lying around in the garage that can make the sled more comfortable to sit in. If you want the sled to double up as a litter-picker or leaf-collector, maybe attach the end of an old garden fork or broom.

For slightly older kids, a bit of cutting, welding and drilling and you could make a larger cart out of two or more smaller containers. If you want to be adventurous, add wheels taken from one of those old toddler’s pushbikes that no one ever seems to throw out.

If you really want to emulate Hannibal Smith and his A-Team buddies, why not attach empty washing-up liquid bottles to the side of the vehicle, fill them with water and get your kid to burst out of the garage all ‘guns’ blazing.

Elsewhere around the garage, you could turn that old sports bag on wheels into a portable container for garden or household tools  pockets and side containers are ideal for smaller items. If the container doesn’t have pockets, use and attach empty plastic bottles. Old newspapers laid over soil, covered with mulch, will help retain moisture and suffocate weeds. Old tyres, fixed to external walls could save a bit on hanging baskets. Clean them up, knit some sort of cover out of yarn or wood and you’ve got a footrest or a washing basket.

The scope to make garage junk useful is almost endless. It just depends what’s in there and how creative you’re all feeling.

Lockdown Challenge #7: The Vacuum Bazooka

A Vacuum Bazooka uses the power of atmospheric pressure. It’s difficult to think about it, but the air around us is pushing with 10 tonnes on every square metre. That’s two tons on your body! That force doesn’t do much in the normal scheme of things, because it is exactly balanced by a force on the other side of that square metre. Take away some or all of that force on the other side, though, and… WHOOOOOSH!  

How can you take away some of the atmospheric air? You can pump it away with the powerful blower inside your household vacuum cleaner. Then, the force of the atmosphere can push a bullet down a barrel and you nearly have a Vacuum Bazooka! Why only nearly? Because you can only shoot your bullet up the barrel and down the hose into the vacuum cleaner. Oops!

The solution is a tee-piece. The bullet will first whizz down the barrel and then either: 

(a) shoot off into the air towards your target

or

(b) turn left and go down the hose.

Actually, it will do (a). If the projectile is going fast enough, the power of inertia – the tendency of things to carry on in the direction they are going – will carry it straight through the tee-piece to fly through the air.

However, the Vacuum Bazooka still won’t work? Why not? Because the hole in the tee-piece at the muzzle end is so big that the air rushes in and goes down the hose, giving only tiny pressure reduction in the barrel. The last piece of the puzzle you need is a ‘muzzle paper’ to go over the tee. With this added, you are ready.

Now switch on the vacuum cleaner, put the muzzle paper on and ask your assistant Vacuum Bazooka-ist to put a cork bullet – holding on to it tightly – into the other end. Now take aim and shout ‘Fire!’.  The cork bullet should whoosh down the barrel, the muzzle paper will fly off and the bullet shoots out and flies towards the target. 

Stuff you need:

  • A length of tube, say 32mm plastic drain tubing for the barrel.
  • A tee-piece to match the tube*.
  • Corks, such as champagne-type corks, for the bullets.
  • Mouldable soft but heavier stuff for the front of the corks, such as Blu-tack, Plasticine or Play-Doh held on with tape.
  • Pieces of tough paper for the muzzle papers.
  • Some tape to attach the vacuum cleaner to the tee-piece.
  • A target, e.g. rings drawn in felt-tip pen on a large piece of paper.

(*You can also make a hole at the end of tube and then glue/tape a short piece of pipe, or the vacuum cleaner nozzle itself on, but without getting in the way of the bullet, of course. Taping this home-made tee to some wood support may help)  

Challenges:

  • How many bulls-eyes can you score from 2m away? Then from 4m, 6m etc? Is it better with heavily weighted corks?
  • Out in the garden, how far can the corks go? Don’t forget to fire at an upward angle – maybe 30 or 40°. Again, is it better with heavily weighted corks?

Some tips:

You don’t need the bag inside the vacuum cleaner! You could put a new one in, in case you forget to put the bag back later. Check that the tee-piece you have chosen has a clear bore, not narrowing or with ridges smaller in diameter than the barrel (most are OK).

Finally, you may find that you have a bunch of champagne corks that are too small to fit the barrel neatly. If so, try putting them in the microwave for a few seconds at a time and you will find that you can make them swell a little. If they are too big, you'll need to sandpaper them down a little.

For more ideas, try my books ‘Vacuum Bazookas’, ‘Ultimate Book of Saturday Science’, or the countless vacuum bazooka experiments on YouTube (see video below) which have been published all over the world since the book. For lots of other things, and a free copy of my ‘Exploding Disk Cannons’ book, check out www.saturdayscience.org

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