What is Static Electricity? - Definition, Causes & Uses

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: What are the Different Types of Energy?

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:03 Definition of Static…
  • 1:00 The Tribolectric Effect
  • 3:14 Facts About Static Electricity
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Cardenas

Richard Cardenas has taught Physics for 15 years. He has a Ph.D. in Physics with a focus on Biological Physics.

In this lesson you will learn what static electricity is, what causes it, and what conditions prevent static electricity from occurring. You'll also see some fun and interesting real world situations and applications that involve static electricity.

Definition of Static Electricity

You have probably experienced the effects of static electricity. If you walk around on a carpeted floor then grab a metal doorknob, you might get a quick shock. That is static electricity in action. Most objects, like a table, a chair, and a person, are electrically neutral. This means that they have an equal number of positive and negative charges.

Objects are made up of atoms, with the nucleus at the center (composed of positive protons and neutral neutrons) and a cloud of electrons surrounding the nucleus. That means that the cloud of electrons sits on the surface of every object. When objects are rubbed against each other, some objects are prone to lose some electrons, while other objects are prone to gain electrons. This build-up of excess charge is what is called static electricity. The static charge build-up is temporary. The excess charge is usually lost through a discharge (shock), particularly when the object is near a conductor (like a metal doorknob).

The Tribolectric Effect

There are different ways charge can be separated from a neutral object: by heat (pyroelectric effect), by pressure (piezoelectric effect), by charge induction (electrostatic induction), and the most common way, by friction (triboelectric effect).

In this lesson, we will focus on the most common way to build up charge: the triboelectric effect. The triboelectric effect is a simple process in which an object becomes electrically charged by rubbing against another object. When objects rub against each other, some objects are more likely to lose electrons, while others are more likely to gain electrons. This table lists a variety of materials listed as positive (lose electrons) or negative (gain electrons).

Triboelectricity chart

How does the table work? If two of these objects are rubbed against each other, the object higher on the list will lose electrons, and the one lower on the list will gain electrons. So how do you prevent or get rid of static electricity?

You may be familiar with an everyday task that gets rid of static electricity. When you wash clothes, you put in a fabric softener. The fabric softener reduces or completely removes static cling from your clothes. When clothes are in the dryer, they rub up against each other, and the friction due to this contact causes a build-up of electrons on the clothes, giving the clothes a charge. If you've ever forgotten to use fabric softener, you know that the clothes would stick to each other and even discharge (give you a shock) when you put them on. What the fabric softener does is coat the clothes with a thin layer of chemicals that makes the clothes smoother (reducing friction), preventing the build-up of charge on the clothes.

Humidity is also a remedy for static build-up. Humidity makes the air conductive, allowing the excess charge to move from the object to the air. You may notice that you are more likely to get a static shock in the winter than in the summer. This is mainly because summer air is more humid, and winter air is drier in many regions. The absence of moisture in the air causes a static build-up.

Removing static is important for micro-electronic devices, which is why they are always packaged in conductive bags. In these bags, the charge is allowed to move away from the device.

Facts About Static Electricity

Let's cover some facts about static electricity.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account