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
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
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.