What IS Static Electricity?
2005 William J. Beaty
The words "Static electricity" have no definition on which the experts
What is static electricity? To answer this question, first I'd have to
know what you mean by the words "static electricity!" <grin>
I could answer your question by choosing just one of the several
meanings. I'll probably choose a different one than the one you
want. Then my answer will be correct... yet it will confuse you. And I
won't be answering your actual question.
CONFLICTING DEFINITIONS FOR "STATIC ELECTRICITY"
1. Static electricity is a field of science. Some people call it "Electrostatics." Same thing.
So, if Static Electricity is a kind of science, then it can't be made by
generators. In a similar way, you can slice open a dead frog, but you'll
never find any biology inside. And rocks don't contain any tiny pieces of
"geology." Remember: Hydrostatics is the study of fluid pressure,
Newtonian Statics is the study of physical forces, and Static Electricity
is the study of charge, voltage, and electrical forces. Where can we find
static electricity? Physics books are full of static electricity. So
are certain buildings at the University!
2. Static electricity is a set of events which humans have grouped
Sparks and lightning are "static electricity," even though sparks and
lightning are about the most dynamic
things imaginable. Also, "dryer
cling" is static electricity. Make no mistake, the "static" isn't inside
the clothes, since "static" is not a stuff. The cling effect, THAT is the
After all, "electricity" can mean "a class of phenomenon." And having
your socks stick to the back of your sweater is certainly a phenomenon.
Where does static electricity come from? From human minds: same as with
"weather" and "bureaucracy" and all other classes of phenomenon.
3. Static electricity is another word for
Whenever we have high voltage, then we also have electrostatic attraction
and repulsion. High voltage can attract lint or tiny bits of paper, and
it can make hair stand up.
With high voltage we also get long sparks, crackling noises, and blue
glows and flashes. High voltage makes ozone; the stuff that gives that
funny chlorine smell. These things are the hallmarks of Static
Electricity, but they are never caused by the "static-ness" of
electric charges. Instead they
are caused by intense e-fields. Intense e-fields are another way of
saying "high votlage." If you can scuff your shoes on the carpet and then
zap people with your finger, then you've been charging your body to
several thousand volts.
4.Static Electricity means an imbalance of electric charge
An electrically "charged" object contains more protons than electrons, or
it contains more electrons than protons.
Electrically neutral matter is made of positive and negative charges.
Matter is made of atoms, and atoms contain
closely-spaced electrons and protons.
The "positives" and the "negatives" are very close together, so their
effects cancel out. That's
why electrical phenomena don't seem obvious in
the everyday world. But if we accidentally remove a bunch of electrons
from their atoms, and then we put these electrons in a distant spot, we'll
leave behind a region of positive net charge. We'll also create an equal
negative net charge. These imbalances of charge will surround themselves
with intense electrical fields or "e-fields."
5.Static Electricity means FRICTIONAL charge-imbalance
There are several ways to create an imbalance of charge upon an
object. Suppose we use
a high voltage power supply to separate some charge? No friction was
involved, yet our
charged object can attract paper and raise arm-hair.
Sometimes we use the words "static electricity" to mean
"triboelectricity" or "frictional electricity." But this means that...
if it wasn't created by friction, then it's not static electricity.
But this definition is a little ridiculous! For example, if we rub a
piece of rubber upon a piece of plastic, then "static electricity"
appears, but suppose we press a rapidly spinning rubber roller against a
plastic roller, and both of them spin without slipping. They become
strongly charged. But there is no friction. The charges were separated
through "electrification by contact," by touching-and-peeling. Because
the rollers did not rub against each other, doesn't this mean that the
imbalanced charge on the rollers IS NOT static electricity?!! Clearly
it's silly to require friction as part of the definition of the term
Let't try to cut through the morass and clear things up. Just
carefully avoid asking about "static," since any answers are confusing.
Instead, here are several clearer questions to ask:
- Clinging clothes make cracking noises when peeled apart. Why?!!!
- In general, what is this stuff known as "electric charge?"
- I touched the doorknob and made a spark. What was that?
- I can zap people after scuffing my shoes on the rug? Why?
- The air around a rubbed balloon feels weird. What's going on?