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HUMANS AND SPARKS
The Cause, Stopping the Pain, and "Electric People"

©1997 William J. Beaty

(jump down to "Solutions," "Car Sparks," "Electric People", and LINKS)

"Static electric" sparks can be irritating and their cause sometimes seems mysterious. Most people have encountered painful car-door sparks, as well as those wintertime sparks from doorknobs and large metal objects. What causes these? What can be done to stop them?

As children, most of us learn the trick of scuffing our shoes across the carpet in order to charge our bodies. Then we go to search for victims to "zap" with our electric fingers. Sparks from rug-scuffing are familiar. If you scuff your feet on the carpet, you expect to be zapped by the next doorknob you touch. But why do our bodies sometimes become charged from simply walking around?

ELECTRIFYING CAUSES

Actually, no friction or rug-scuffing is required in order to electrically charge your body. The need for friction is a widespread misconception. While it's true that the friction will increase the charge-separation process, friction isn't the cause. Whenever two different insulating surfaces touch together, opposite charges found within the two surfaces become separated. Simply walking across certain rugs or plastic flooring will cause your shoe soles to touch the dissimilar material of the rug. This is enough to separate the negatives from the positives and create imbalanced electric charges on the bottoms of your shoes.

"Static" electricity ( more correctly called "net electric charge" ) appears whenever the normal quantities of positive and negative electricity in a substance are not perfectly equal. Remember that everything is made of atoms, and atoms in turn are made of positive and negative electric charges. In other words, your body is just a collection of positive and negative electrical particles. Normally the positives cancel out the negatives, and everything behaves electrically "neutral." No mysterious sparking. But if you ever end up with more negative than positive, or with more positive than negative, then you have a charge-imbalance on your body. You will get zapped the next time you touch a large metal object.

Exactly how can this imbalance occur? Whenever we walk, the soles of our shoes steal some negative charge from the floor. We leave behind electrified positive footprints, and our bodies aquire an overall imbalance of negatives. (Or sometimes vice versa with the negative and positive, since polarity is determined by the type of shoe soles and the type of rug.) After many footsteps, our bodies attain a high level of electric charge and a high voltage.

ARTICLE: Measuring the "Static Electric" Voltage on your Body
Body-voltage can easily rise to several thousand volts, and the next time you touch someone else... ZAP!, the imbalanced charge gets shared between you and the other person. The spark is painful because it's extremely hot. It drills into your skin like a white-hot needle, creating a microscopic burned area.



NEXT: Part 2: SOLVING THE PROBLEM

 

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