Static Electricity Page 1

Static Electricity: I don't like the term static electricity because there's nothing static about it. I guess they ran out of terms to describe it but, static electricity can move around. So what would I rather call it? I would call it an electron charge because that is what it is, an electron charge. Almost everyone thinks that static electricity is electricity and to them electricity is something that comes out of the wall or is stored in a battery. Which is another reason why I don't like the term static electricity, it is a static electron charge that can be balanced in a instant. What really is different between static electricity and electricity is that static electricity can flow over or through an insulative material where electricity can not.

Static electricity is actually an imbalance of electron charges on the surface (debatable), between different materials. A static charge is created when a material that has an abundance of electrons in it's shells and easily gives up those electrons, comes into contact (usually) and then moves away from a material that has a shortage of electrons in it's shells and easily takes up electrons. Electrons travel in shells (orbits) around the outside of a nucleus. All molecules have electrons and you can have neutral, positive, and negative biased molecules depending on the molecule's atomic structure. We can create ions by adding or removing electrons from molecules. We can also simulate static electricity by creating high voltage electric fields and when we do so we then have something useful. Older TV's and monitors (CRT's), laser printers, copier machines and such would not work if we didn't have static charges or the humble capacitor. But there is a difference between static electricity and a generated electric field. With the generated field we need conductance and it can be either inductive, capacitive, or both. With static electricity we can have a charge between 2 insulating materials and with AC or DC electricity generally only have one insulator between charged plates in a capacitor. So static electricity is not electricity because there is no useful current flow available, zap and it's gone, it's an electron charge. I have been working with static electricity for over 30 years in my different careers/jobs and I have seen some really weird stuff, even almost killed by it. So be careful with it and check out my 'Static Bonding' page and 'Resources' page on how to control it.


One of the best explanations I have read is by William J. Beaty, BSEE on his website.  And so I quote:

"Static electricity" is not electricity which is static and unmoving. Neither is it a form of energy.

Actually, the thing we call Static electricity is an imbalance. It's an imbalance in the amounts of positive and negative charges found within the surface of an object. Only the imbalance between opposite charges is important, and their motion or "static-ness" is irrelevant. For example, the imbalance can flow along as an electric current, yet it loses none of its familiar "static electrical" properties. While it is flowing the charge still crackles, glows, and attracts dust and lint. But how can we have "static" electricity that flows? Motionless motion? Simple. "Static electricity" is all about the charge-imbalance, and it has nothing to do with charges at rest. "Static electricity" was misnamed.

OK, then what exactly is "static" electricity? Here's a big clue. There's always a strong e-field (electric field) surrounding these charges, whether the charges are moving or still. This strong field is the main feature of so-called "static" electricity. But what's an e-field? One way to say it: an e-field is like a magnetic field, but it's electrical in nature. Another simple answer: an electric field is a voltage without a current. Whenever you have pure voltage, then you have a pure electric field with no magnetism involved: you have "electrostatics" without "magneto-statics."

Here's still another way to say it:

"Static Electricity" is not unmoving, it really means "High-voltage Electricity."
That's the answer. Static electricity is simply high voltage. High voltage has all the characteristics of "static electricity." And when grade-school textbooks are trying to teach us about "static," they are really trying to teach us about pure voltage: voltage without current.

When we scuff our shoes upon a rug on a dry winter day, our bodies typically charge up to a potential of several thousand volts with respect to the ground. This is a well-known fact in physics, and is easily verified by meter measurements. Touch a grounded object, and a spark will leap between the object and your fingertip. This type of long electric spark can only exist when a high voltage is present. The shortest, tiniest spark requires about 500 volts. Big, nasty, painful sparks require lots more voltage, up to several thousand volts. But even when no sparks are jumping, there's still a high voltage between your charged body and the ground. Your charged body is surrounded with an invisible electric field.

During low-humidity weather, scuffing of shoes upon rugs can put a huge voltage on your body. It is fairly easy to detect this voltage (try RIDICULOUSLY SENSITIVE CHARGE DETECTOR) However, this voltage is fairly difficult for students to measure. A normal voltmeter won't work: the electrical resistance of a normal voltmeter will discharge your body almost instantly (it places a 10-megohm resistor across a 200pF body capacitance, and by T=RC we calculate that the meter's resistor drains out your body's stored energy in two thousandths of a second.)

There is tons of information on the internet and libraries about static electricity but, I find that even with this immense amount of information that most people do not understand the basics of it. When I give lectures about static electricity I start of with asking questions to get a feel for what my audience generally know about static electricity. I find people know some of the basics and some folklores about static electricity, it's about 50/50 for basic and folklore.

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