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  • Sara Thompson

Shocking Facts About Static Electricity

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit Mike Run from Wikimedia Commons.

January 9th is National Static Electricity Day. All things in the universe are made up of atoms. These atoms have a positive charge in their center, or nucleus, and negative charged particles, called electrons, surrounding them. The combination of positive and negative help keeps the atoms neutral, but sometimes the electrons can bounce between atoms making the whole atom positively or negatively charged. This imbalance is what causes static electricity.

When electricity flows, such as from a wall plug to a light, it is called a current, similar to moving water. When there is a buildup of electrons on a surface, they are unmoving, or static. When two objects rub against one another, there is a transfer of electrons between the two. Sometimes this goes unnoticed, but other times it is more obvious. When brushing long hair or going down a plastic, tube slide and you notice your hair beginning to stand up. When the brush or the slide come into contact with the hair, they transfer electrons making one positively and the other negatively charged. Because the same charge repels itself, the hair will repel the charge of neighboring hair, causing it to stand up. But when you come into contact with another object of a different charge, the opposite charges will attract sometimes causing objects to stick, such as a balloon. Sometimes the electrons will neutralize, causing the small spark many of us have experienced when touching something.

When there is a small spark it is called static discharge. More static will accumulate or charge in certain conditions. Lighting is an example of a large static discharge. The particles in a storm cloud are active and will share charges as they interact. The particles then discharge onto objects on the ground, such as buildings and trees. The discharge is large enough to super heat the air around it creating the large flash of lighting, and the resulting shock wave produces the thunder we often hear with it.

Whether the static discharge is simply a prank on a friend after shuffling across a carpeted floor or the flash of lighting in a storm, the cause is the same for either: static electrons waiting to neutralize between two objects.

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