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Question:

     How does static electricity work?

Answer:    

    An imbalance between negative and positive
    charges in objects.

Have you ever walked across the room to pet your dog, but got a shock instead? Perhaps you took your hat off on a dry winter's day and had a "hair raising" experience! Or, maybe you have made a balloon stick on the wall after rubbing it against your clothes?

Why do these things happen? Is it 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.

All physical objects are made up of atoms. Inside an atom are protons, electrons and neutrons. The protons are positively charged, the electrons are negatively charged, and the neutrons are neutral.

Therefore, all things are made up of charges. Opposite charges attract each other (negative to positive). Like charges repel each other (positive to positive or negative to negative). Most of the time positive and negative charges are balanced in an object, which makes that 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 be released or discharged. One way to discharge them is through a circuit.

The rubbing of certain materials against one another can transfer negative charges, or electrons. For example, if you rub your shoe on the carpet, your body collects extra electrons. The electrons cling to your body until they can be released. As you reach and touch your furry friend, you get a shock. Don't worry, it is only the surplus electrons being released from you to your unsuspecting pet.

And what about that "hair raising" experience? As you remove your hat, electrons are transferred from hat to hair, creating that interesting hairdo! Remember, objects with the same charge repel each other. Because they have the same charge, your hair will stand on end. Your hairs are simply trying to get as far away from each other as possible!

When you rub a balloon against your clothes and it sticks to the wall, you are adding a surplus of electrons (negative charges) to the surface of the balloon. The wall is now more positively charged than the balloon. As the two come in contact, the balloon will stick because of the rule that opposites attract (positive to negative).

For more static electricity information and experiments, see the list of Web Resources and Further Reading sections.

Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • Science Made Simple: What is static electricity? - There are four sections to Science Made Simple's Static Electricity Page: "1) The main section gives a clear, detailed answer to the question. 2) 'I Can Read' pages are written in simple, clear language for young readers. 3) 'Learn More About It' pages are more difficult and cover additional information in more depth 4) Projects are included for each topic."
  • Static Electricity Page created by Bill Beaty - This Web site contains a list of Web links for static electricity build it projects, articles, Web sites, companies, and much more.
  • Kids Science News Network: What is static electricity? Sponsored by NASA, The Kids Science News Network (KSSN) teaches mathematics, science, and technology to students, teachers, and parents in a fun, entertaining, and educational manner. There is a downloadable "newsbreak" film which answers the question "What is static electricity?". Also included are activities, a quiz, additional resources & a list of related Web links. Kids Science News Network Homepage has a complete list of questions and answers, such as, "Why is the sky blue?".

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Moore, A.D. Electrostatics: exploring, controlling, and using static electricity. 1st ed. Garden City, NJ, Doubleday,1968. 240 p.
  • Oxlade, Chris. Electricity & magnetism. Des Plaines, IL, Heinemann Library, c.2000. 32 p. (Juvenile literature)
  • Sootin, Harry. Experiments with static electricity. New York, Norton, 1969. 85 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "electricity ," or "electrostatics." in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Image: two girls electrified

Two girls are "electrified" during an experiment at the Liberty Science Center "Camp-in", February 5, 2002. America's Story, Liberty Science Center "Camp-in"

 

Photo: man seated next to a machine with two poles extending up from teh top, which  hold rotating parts.

Young man seated next to a Holtz electrostatic influence machine, Dickinson College, 1889. From the Prints and Photographs Catalog, Library of Congress.

 

Group of young women studying static electricity in normal school, Washington, D.C. Photo - c. 1899. From the Prints and Photographs Catalog, Library of Congress.

 

Photo:  Fire trucks are dwarfed by a huge fire with billowing clouds of black smoke.

Static Spark Set Off Fire and Explosions at Barton Solvents Des Moines Facility. From the Government Safety Board Web site.

Also from the Government Safety Board Web site, a link to a video of a fire from static electricity at a storage facility in Kansas in 2008.

 

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  June 1, 2011
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