Science 2 min read

Researchers Unravel the Mystery of Static Electricity

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

You may have experienced the subtle spark that comes with dragging your feet across a carpet or the hair-raising effect of rubbing a balloon on your head. These are classic cases of inducing static electricity through friction – also known as triboelectricity.

As typical as these experiences are, a detailed understanding of how they occur has eluded scientists for centuries. Well, a team of researchers from Northwestern University is about to change that.

According to the researcher’s new model, rubbing two objects together produces static electricity by bending the tiny protrusions on the surface of materials.

The new understanding can potentially change several existing electrostatic applications such as energy harvesting and printing. It could also help us avoid potential dangers which include fires started by sparks from static electricity.

How Friction Leads to Static Electricity

Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus noticed that when he rubbed amber with fur, the fur attracted specks of dust. He became the first to report friction-induced static electricity in 600 BC.

Lead author of the study, Laurence Marks said:

“Since then, it has become clear that rubbing induces static charging in all insulators — not just fur. However, this is more or less where the scientific consensus ended.”

Now, Marks and his team have a new explanation for the phenomenon.

At a nanoscale, all materials have rough surfaces which include numerous tiny protrusions. So, when two elements rub against each other, the protrusions form and deform to generate voltages, which ultimately induces static charging.

The phenomenon is known as the flexoelectric effect, and it occurs when deforming an insulator – such as bending – causes the charge to separate.

Using a simple model, the researchers proved that the bending protrusions during rubbing generated enough voltage to cause static electricity.

Mark, who is also a professor of materials science and engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering concluded:

“Our finding suggests that triboelectricity, flexoelectricity and friction are inextricably linked. This provides much insight into tailoring triboelectric performance for current applications and expanding functionality to new technologies.”

The researchers published their findings in the journal Physical Review Letters.

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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