Static electricity

Contact with the slide has left this child's hair positively charged so that the individual hairs repel one another. The hair can also be attracted to the negatively charged slide surface.

Static electricity is an imbalance of electric charges within or on the surface of a material. The charge remains until it is able to move away by means of an electric current or electrical discharge. Static electricity is named in contrast with current electricity, which flows through wires or other conductors and transmits energy. [1]

A static electric charge can be created whenever two surfaces contact and separate, and at least one of the surfaces has a high resistance to electric current (and is therefore an electrical insulator). The effects of static electricity are familiar to most people because people can feel, hear, and even see the spark as the excess charge is neutralized when brought close to a large electrical conductor (for example, a path to ground), or a region with an excess charge of the opposite polarity (positive or negative). The familiar phenomenon of a static shock – more specifically, an electrostatic discharge – is caused by the neutralization of charge.


Materials are made of atoms that are normally electrically neutral because they contain equal numbers of positive charges ( protons in their nuclei) and negative charges ( electrons in " shells" surrounding the nucleus). The phenomenon of static electricity requires a separation of positive and negative charges. When two materials are in contact, electrons may move from one material to the other, which leaves an excess of positive charge on one material, and an equal negative charge on the other. When the materials are separated they retain this charge imbalance.

Contact-induced charge separation

Styrofoam peanuts clinging to a cat's fur due to static electricity. The triboelectric effect causes an electrostatic charge to build up on the fur due to the cat's motions. The electric field of the charge causes polarization of the molecules of the styrofoam due to electrostatic induction, resulting in a slight attraction of the light plastic pieces to the charged fur. This effect is also the cause of static cling in clothes.

Electrons can be exchanged between materials on contact; materials with weakly bound electrons tend to lose them while materials with sparsely filled outer shells tend to gain them. This is known as the triboelectric effect and results in one material becoming positively charged and the other negatively charged. The polarity and strength of the charge on a material once they are separated depends on their relative positions in the triboelectric series. The triboelectric effect is the main cause of static electricity as observed in everyday life, and in common high-school science demonstrations involving rubbing different materials together (e.g., fur against an acrylic rod). Contact-induced charge separation causes your hair to stand up and causes " static cling" (for example, a balloon rubbed against the hair becomes negatively charged; when near a wall, the charged balloon is attracted to positively charged particles in the wall, and can "cling" to it, appearing to be suspended against gravity).

Pressure-induced charge separation

Applied mechanical stress generates a separation of charge in certain types of crystals and ceramics molecules.

Heat-induced charge separation

Heating generates a separation of charge in the atoms or molecules of certain materials. All pyroelectric materials are also piezoelectric. The atomic or molecular properties of heat and pressure response are closely related.

Charge-induced charge separation

A charged object brought close to an electrically neutral object causes a separation of charge within the neutral object. Charges of the same polarity are repelled and charges of the opposite polarity are attracted. As the force due to the interaction of electric charges falls off rapidly with increasing distance, the effect of the closer (opposite polarity) charges is greater and the two objects feel a force of attraction. The effect is most pronounced when the neutral object is an electrical conductor as the charges are more free to move around. Careful grounding of part of an object with a charge-induced charge separation can permanently add or remove electrons, leaving the object with a global, permanent charge. This process is integral to the workings of the Van de Graaff generator, a device commonly used to demonstrate the effects of static electricity.

Other Languages