Everyday Mysteries

Question How does static electricity work?


An imbalance between negative and positive charges in objects.Two girls are “electrified” during an experiment at the Liberal Science Center “Camp-in”, February 5, 2002. The Story of the United States, Library of Congress. Perhaps you went out wearing a hat on a dry winter day and had a hair-raising experience! Or, maybe you created a sticky balloon on the wall after rubbing it with your clothes? Why do these things happen? Does it have magic? No, it’s not magic; it’s static electricity Before understanding static electricity, we first need to understand the basics of atoms and magnetism.holtz electrostatic 1Young man sitting next to a Holtz electrostatic machine, Dickinson College, 1889. Print and Photo Catalog, Library of Congress. All physical objects are made up of atoms. Inside the atom are protons, electrons and neutrons. Protons are positively charged, electrons are negatively charged, and neutrons are neutral. Therefore, everything is made up of electrical charges. Charges of opposite sign attract each other (negative to positive). Like charges repel each other (from positive to positive or from negative to negative). Most of the time positive and negative charges lie in balance in an object, which makes the object neutral. Static electricity is the result of an imbalance between negative and positive charges in an object. These charges can build up on the surface of an object until they find a way to release or discharge. One way to discharge them is through an electrical circuit.static women 2Group of young women studying static electricity in a regular school, Washington, DC Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer, 1899. Division of Printing & Photography, US Library of Congress The rubbing of certain materials with each other can transfer negative charges or electrons. For example, if you rub your shoes on the carpet, your body will collect more electrons. The electrons cling to your body until they can be released. When you approach and touch your furry friend, you’ll be shocked. Don’t worry, it’s just excess electrons being released from you to your unsuspecting pet. What about that “hair-raising” experience? When you take off the hat, electrons are transferred from the cap to the hair, creating that fun hairstyle! Remember, objects with the same electric charge repel each other. Since they have the same electrical charge, your hair will stand on end. Your strands of hair are simply trying to get as far apart as possible!staticmarine2 3A Marine uses an electrostatic discharge wand to discharge excess static electricity before attaching an M777 howitzer to a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during integrated slingload training at Marine Corps Base Pendleton, April 12, 2017. Cpl. Frank Cordoba, photographer. US Department of Defense Image Gallery When you rub a balloon against your clothes and it sticks to the wall, you are adding an excess of electrons (negative charge) to the surface of the balloon. The wall is now more positively charged than the ball. When the two come into contact, the balloon will stick due to the opposite rule of attraction (positive to negative). For more information and experiments on static electricity, see the list of Web Resources and the Read more section.staticpowderflask 4US Navy Release Powder Tank, made of brass to prevent any accidental ignition of powder due to sparks or static electricity. Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, 2010. United States National Park Service, NP Gallery Published: 11/19/2019. Author: Scientific Reference, Library of Congress

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