Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What is Static Electricity

You walk across the rug, reach for the doorknob and..........ZAP!!! You get a static shock.


Or, you come inside from the cold, pull off your hat and......BOING!!! Static hair - that static electricity makes your hair stand straight out from your head. What is going on here? And why is static more of a problem in the winter?
To understand static electricity, we have to learn a little bit about the nature of matter. Or in other words, what is all the stuff around us made of?


Imagine a pure gold ring. Divide it in half and give one of the halves away. Keep dividing and dividing and dividing. Soon you will have a piece so small you will not be able to see it without a microscope. It may be very, very small, but it is still a piece of gold. If you could keep dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces, you would finally get to the smallest piece of gold possible. It is called an atom. If you divided it into smaller pieces, it would no longer be gold.

Everything around us is made of atoms. Scientists so far have found only 115 different kinds of atoms. Everything you see is made of different combinations of these atoms.


So what are atoms made of? In the middle of each atom is a "nucleus." The nucleus contains two kinds of tiny particles, called protons and neutrons. Orbiting around the nucleus are even smaller particles called electrons. The 115 kinds of atoms are different from each other because they have different numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons.

& electrons

It is useful to think of a model of the atom as similar to the solar system. The nucleus is in the center of the atom, like the sun in the center of the solar system. The electrons orbit around the nucleus like the planets around the sun. Just like in the solar system, the nucleus is large compared to the electrons. The atom is mostly empty space. And the electrons are very far away from the nucleus. While this model is not completely accurate, we can use it to help us understand static electricity.

(Note: A more accurate model would show the electrons moving in 3- dimensional volumes with different shapes, called orbitals. This may be discussed in a future issue.)


Protons, neutrons and electrons are very different from each other. They have their own properties, or characteristics. One of these properties is called an electrical charge. Protons have what we call a "positive" (+) charge. Electrons have a "negative" (-) charge. Neutrons have no charge, they are neutral. The charge of one proton is equal in strength to the charge of one electron. When the number of protons in an atom equals the number of electrons, the atom itself has no overall charge, it is neutral.


The protons and neutrons in the nucleus are held together very tightly. Normally the nucleus does not change. But some of the outer electrons are held very loosely. They can move from one atom to another. An atom that looses electrons has more positive charges (protons) than negative charges (electrons). It is positively charged. An atom that gains electrons has more negative than positive particles. It has a negative charge. A charged atom is called an "ion."

electrical charges

Some materials hold their electrons very tightly. Electrons do not move through them very well. These things are called insulators. Plastic, cloth, glass and dry air are good insulators. Other materials have some loosely held electrons, which move through them very easily. These are called conductors. Most metals are good conductors.
How can we move electrons from one place to another? One very common way is to rub two objects together. If they are made of different materials, and are both insulators, electrons may be transferred (or moved) from one to the other. The more rubbing, the more electrons move, and the larger the static charge that builds up. (Scientists believe that it is not the rubbing or friction that causes electrons to move. It is simply the contact between two different materials. Rubbing just increases the contact area between them.)

Static electricity is the imbalance of
positive and negative charges.


Now, positive and negative charges behave in interesting ways. Did you ever hear the saying that opposites attract? Well, it's true. Two things with opposite, or different charges (a positive and a negative) will attract, or pull towards each other. Things with the same charge (two positives or two negatives) will repel, or push away from each other.

static charges

A charged object will also attract something that is neutral. Think about how you can make a balloon stick to the wall. If you charge a balloon by rubbing it on your hair, it picks up extra electrons and has a negative charge. Holding it near a neutral object will make the charges in that object move. If it is a conductor, many electrons move easily to the other side, as far from the balloon as possible. If it is an insulator, the electrons in the atoms and molecules can only move very slightly to one side, away from the balloon. In either case, there are more positive charges closer to the negative balloon. Opposites attract. The balloon sticks. (At least until the electrons on the balloon slowly leak off.) It works the same way for neutral and positively charged objects.

So what does all this have to do with static shocks? Or static electricity in hair? When you take off your wool hat, it rubs against your hair. Electrons move from your hair to the hat. A static charge builds up and now each of the hairs has the same positive charge. Remember, things with the same charge repel each other. So the hairs try to get as far from each other as possible. The farthest they can get is by standing up and away from the others. And that is how static electricity causes a bad hair day!

 hair (Get tips on how to eliminate
static electricity problems

in your home or office.)

As you walk across a carpet, electrons move from the rug to you. Now you have extra electrons and a negative static charge. Touch a door knob and ZAP! The door knob is a conductor. The electrons jump from you to the knob, and you feel the static shock.
We usually only notice static electricity in the winter when the air is very dry. During the summer, the air is more humid. The water in the air helps electrons move off you more quickly, so you can not build up as big a static charge. 

More about Static Electricity


When we rub two different materials together, which becomes positively charged and which becomes negative? Scientists have ranked materials in order of their ability to hold or give up electrons. This ranking is called the triboelectric series. A list of some common materials is shown here. Under ideal conditions, if two materials are rubbed together, the one higher on the list should give up electrons and become positively charged. You can experiment with things on this list for yourself


your hand
your hair
hard rubber
polyvinylchloride plastic


When we charge something with static electricity, no electrons are made or destroyed. No new protons appear or disappear. Electrons are just moved from one place to another. The net, or total, electric charge stays the same. This is called the principle of conservation of charge.


Charged objects create an invisible electric force field around themselves. The strength of this field depends on many things, including the amount of charge, distance involved, and shape of the objects. This can become very complicated. We can simplify things by working with "point sources" of charge. Point sources are charged objects which are much, much smaller than the distance between them.
Charles Coulomb first described electric field strengths in the 1780's. He found that for point charges, the electrical force varies directly with the product of the charges. In other words, the greater the charges, the stronger the field. And the field varies inversely with the square of the distance between the charges. This means that the greater the distance, the weaker the force becomes. This can be written as the formula:

F = k (q1 X q2) / d2

where F is the force, q1 and q2 are the charges, and d is the distance between the charges. k is the proportionality constant, and depends on the material separating the charges.

Experiments on Static Electricity
SAFETY NOTE: Please read all instructions completely before starting the projects. Observe all safety precautions.

Tip: Try to use the part of the charged object that has the biggest charge (the part that was rubbed the most) when doing these experiments. Also, Projects 1-3 work best on dry days.

PROJECT 1 - Swinging cereal

What you need:
a hard rubber or plastic comb, or a balloon
thread, small pieces of dry cereal (O-shapes, or puffed rice of wheat)
What to do:
  1. Tie a piece of the cereal to one end of a 12 inch piece of thread. Find a place to attach the other end so that the cereal does not hang close to anything else. (You can tape the thread to the edge of a table but check with your parents first.)
  2. Wash the comb to remove any oils and dry it well.
  3. Charge the comb by running it through long, dry hair several times, or vigorously rub the comb on a wool sweater.
  4. Slowly bring the comb near the cereal. It will swing to touch the comb. Hold it still until the cereal jumps away by itself.
  5. Now try to touch the comb to the cereal again. It will move away as the comb approaches.
  6. This project can also be done by substituting a balloon for the comb.
What Happened: Combing your hair moved electrons from your hair to the comb. The comb had a negative static charge. The neutral cereal was attracted to it. When they touched, electrons slowly moved from the comb to the cereal. Now both objects had the same negative charge, and the cereal was repelled.

PROJECT 2 - Bending water

What you need:
a hard rubber or plastic comb, or a balloon
a sink and water faucet.
What to do:
  1. Turn on the faucet so that the water runs out in a small, steady stream, about 1/8 inch thick.
  2. Charge the comb by running it through long, dry hair several times or rub it vigorously on a sweater.
  3. Slowly bring the comb near the water and watch the water "bend."
  4. This project can also be done using a balloon instead of the comb.
What happened: The neutral water was attracted to the charged comb, and moved towards it.

PROJECT 3 - Light a light bulb with a balloon

You Need:
hard rubber comb or balloon
a dark room
fluorescent light bulb (not an incandescent bulb)

SAFETY NOTE: DO NOT USE ELECTRICITY FROM A WALL OUTLET FOR THIS EXPERIMENT. Handle the glass light bulb with care to avoid breakage. The bulb can be wrapped in sticky, transparent tape to reduce the chance of injury if it does break.

What to do:
  1. Take the light bulb and comb into the dark room.
  2. Charge the comb on your hair or sweater. Make sure to build up a lot of charge for this experiment.
  3. Touch the charged part of the comb to the light bulb and watch very carefully. You should be able to see small sparks. Experiment with touching different parts of the bulb.
What happened: When the charged comb touched the bulb, electrons moved from it to the bulb, causing the small sparks of light inside. In normal operation, the electrons to light the bulb come from the electrical power lines through a wire in the end of the tube. (Fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs will be discussed in a future issue.)

PROJECT 4 - Static in the Summer

What you need:
a balloon, and a watch or clock
What you do:
  1. Rub the balloon on your hair or sweater. Stick it to a wall and time how long it stays before falling down.
  2. Repeat step (1) in the bathroom, just after someone has taken a hot, steamy shower.
What happened: In the bathroom, water in the air and on the walls helped move electrons away from the balloon more quickly. In the summer, the air is more humid, and static electricity does not build up as much as during the winter, when the air is very dry.


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