Spinning Match – Table Trick

The science of static electricity and friction makes this matchstick rotate

Print this Experiment

When you cautiously balance a matchstick on the rim of a coin that has also been precariously balanced onto another coin, it might sound like rotating the matchstick will cause it all to come tumbling down. That might be the case if you were to use your hands. What if you were to use static electricity to rotate the matchstick? Would that even work? We’ll show how this isn’t just possible, it’s downright cool.


Experiment Videos

Here's What You'll Need

  • Clear plastic cup
  • Matchstick
  • 2 Nickels
  • Balloon
  • Adult supervision

Let's Try It

  1. Lay one nickel flat on a table and carefully balance the other nickel, vertically, on top of the nickel that is laying flat on the table.

  2. Balance a matchstick on the vertically balanced nickel.

  3. Being careful not to bump your balanced apparatus, place the plastic cup over the matchstick and nickels.

  4. Blow up and tie off a balloon.

  5. Rub the balloon against your shirt, hair, or against a rug to generate some static electricity.

  6. Maneuver the balloon around the outside of the cup and watch as the match follows the balloon. Neat!

How Does It Work

You probably guessed this by now, since you rubbed the balloon against your shirt, hair, or carpet, but this experiment revolves around static electricity. When you rub the balloon on a coarse surface, you give the balloon additional electrons, generating a negative static charge. Meanwhile, the match, delicately balancing inside of the cup, has a neutral charge.

When an object has a negative charge, it will repel the electrons of other objects and attract that object’s protons. When the neutrally charged object is light enough, like the match in this case, the negatively charged object will attract the lightweight object. But try attracting a match while it’s laying on a table… it doesn’t work! You need to reduce the amount of friction acting on the match for this experiment to work, and that’s why you balance the match on the rim of a nickel. Balancing the match enables less surface area to be directly effected by friction, which enables the match to rotate more freely.

Science Fair Connection

Performing the Spinning Match demonstration is pretty cool, but it isn’t a science fair project. You can create a science fair project by identifying a variable, or something that changes, in this experiment. Let’s take a look at some of the variable options that might work:
  • Try changing the amount of time that you rub the balloon or different objects that you rub against to give it static electricity.  How far away can you move the balloon from the cup and still get the match to spin?
That’s just an idea, but you aren’t limited to it! Try coming up with different ideas of variables and give them a try. Remember, you can only change one thing at a time. If you are testing different objects to create static, make sure that the other factors are remaining the same.

Browse more experiments by concept: