What is Static Electricity? - Definition, Causes & Uses

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  • 0:03 Definition of Static…
  • 1:00 The Tribolectric Effect
  • 3:14 Facts About Static Electricity
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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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.

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