Positive Charge: Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Types of Electric Charge
  • 1:22 Static Electricity
  • 2:20 Conductors and Insulators
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Positive charges cause your hair to stand up on a cold day and can give you a shock when you touch a doorknob, but they also are responsible for holding atoms together. In this lesson, we'll learn what creates a positive charge and how it interacts with negative charges.

Types of Electric Charge

There are two fundamental types of electric charges in the universe: positive charges and negative charges. If an object is positively charged, it will repel other positively charged objects, and it will attract negatively charged objects.

Atoms, which are the basic unit of matter, have a dense nucleus made up of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons. Surrounding the nucleus are negatively charged electrons. Although electrons are much smaller and lighter than protons, they have the same amount of charge. That means that an equal number of protons and electrons cancel each other out in terms of the total charge of the atom. Because neutrons are neutral (not positively or negatively charged), their number does not affect the total charge at all.

The attraction between protons and electrons helps to hold the atom together, but it is possible for there to be an unequal number of protons and electrons. In that case, the atom is said to be charged. If the number of protons is bigger than the number of electrons, the atom has a net positive charge, and if the number of electrons is bigger than the number of protons, the atom has a net negative charge. This is also what causes larger objects, made up of those charged atoms, to become charged. If an object has a positive charge, that means it has lost some electrons and now has more protons than electrons.

Static Electricity

Objects can become charged by contact with other objects. The transfer of charges between objects is called static electricity. One way to make objects become charged is to rub two initially neutral objects together so that electrons are transferred from one to the other.

To see how this works for yourself, you can do a quick and easy experiment at home. First, get a plastic comb or a balloon and then rub your hair with it. What happened? Did your hair stand up and then stick to the balloon? This happens because the plastic of the comb or balloon picks up electrons from your hair. That means that the plastic becomes negatively charged and your hair becomes positively charged because it now has more protons than electrons. Because each piece of hair has the same positive charge, they all repel each other! Your hair is also attracted to the plastic because it has an opposite negative charge, so it will stick to the balloon or comb. This is an example of static electricity.

Conductors and Insulators

An insulator is a material that does not have any freely mobile electrons, so it does not allow charges to flow through it. This does not mean that an insulator cannot be charged, however. Insulators can hold a charge for a very long time, in fact, because the charge is stuck in one place and cannot easily be transferred to other objects. Some common insulators are plastic, air, glass, and wood.

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