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What IS Static Electricity?
2005 William J. Beaty

The words "Static electricity" have no definition on which the experts agree. 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.



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 together.
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 electricity. 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 high voltage.
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 region of 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 "static electricity."

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?


Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: .