UCSB Science Line
Sponge Spicules Nerve Cells Galaxy Abalone Shell Nickel Succinate X-ray Lens Lupine
UCSB Science Line
How it Works
Ask a Question
Search Topics
Our Scientists
Science Links
Contact Information
What is static electricity?
Question Date: 2018-01-02
Answer 1:

Great question! To answer it, we first have to understand that you're asking about one type of electricity--the static kind! But did you know that there are two types?

First, let's start with an understanding of electricity. Electricity is energy that comes from positively or negatively charged particles (i.e. protons and electrons) that either gather and "hang out" on the surface of a material (i.e. static electricity) or they move through the material dynamically (i.e. dynamic electricity).

Next, I used two words in the previous paragraph that you need to be absolutely clear on: static and dynamic. "Static" means that something doesn't move--like when you're eating chips on the couch, you're in a static state...because you're not moving. When we speak of static electricity, you can imagine charges (either positive or negative) hanging out on the surface of your body like couch potatoes.

On the other hand, "dynamic" means that something does move--like when you're running around a track! Most of the time when we talk about "electricity," like the kind that charges your smart phone, we really mean "dynamic electricity." When talking about dynamic electricity, you can imagine charges (either positive or negative) sprinting like runners through copper wires from one point to another.

So how does static electricity happen? Well like I said, static electricity is like having a bunch of charges hanging out on the surface of your skin. How do those charges get there? Well most of the time it comes from physically contacting two objects, allowing for electrons to hop from one object to the other. I can think of two pretty interesting examples that you may have come across:

1) Example 1: Lighting! Negative charges build up on the bottom of the cloud, while positive charges build up on the top of clouds as hot air from the ground rises and cools as it gets higher in the atmosphere. This is static electricity because the negative charges and positive charges are sitting still in the clouds, until the difference between their charges gets so big that "ZAP!" a burst of lightning shoots across the cloud, or even to the ground!

2) Example 2: A shocking experience with wool socks, carpet, and a metal doorknob! If you've ever walked across a carpet in wool socks, and then go to reach for the door handle you may have experienced an unpleasant "ZAP!" just as you touched the metal. Or perhaps if you have siblings, you've scurried around the carpet building up some charge before walking up to your sibling to..."ZAP!"...poke them with your electrically charged skin. The concept is very similar to lightning. Usually, your body has a neutral charge, right? Otherwise, you would go around shocking everyone and everything that you touched! When you go shuffling across the carpet though, you're stealing some of the carpets electrons, building up a negative charge until you find an object that you can unload your electrons on--be it your younger siblings or a metal doorknob!

If you're interested, there are some pretty cool experiments you can find online on how to make balloons move and bunch of other stuff. I hope this helps!


Answer 2:

Static electricity describes an imbalance of electric charge on a surface that cannot move away from the surface . The imbalance can come from contact when one object loses its electrons to another object on contact such that the object that loses electrons becomes positively charged and the other object becomes negatively charged. An example of this is balloons in contact with cat fur. The reason that the balloon cling to the cat is that the balloon and the cat are now oppositely charged and want to stay together to maintain electric neutrality. Neither the cat fur nor the balloon is a conductor, so the charges on these two surfaces cannot flow away in electric currents. These built-up charges can flow away when they encounter a conducting object, and this is the reason that sometimes we will feel a shock when we put on a wool sweater and then touch a metal doorknob. There is static electricity on our hand from rubbing the wool , which then discharges when we touch the conducting doorknob, causing us to register a shock with the nerves in our hands. This discharge is called static discharge.

Answer 3:

Static electricity is build up of electric charge that is either positive or negative. When the charge can flow to somewhere that evens it out, it sparks.

Answer 4:

Static electricity is a type of electric charge that occurs when an object gains or loses some charge, usually by friction. Most materials have an equal number of protons (+) and electrons (-) and so they are neutral, meaning that all the charges cancel out and there is no excess charge. Protons are located in the atomic nucleus and so are not free to move, but electrons are more mobile. Friction, such as rubbing two objects together, can pull electrons off of one object causing the one object to give up its electrons and become positive, while the other material collects electrons and becomes negative.

In dry weather rubber is particularly good at picking up electrons off of other object, and so if you rub a balloon on your shirt or hair, it will cause the balloon to become negatively charged and stick to other objects. Sometimes by walking on carpet for example, friction causes the rubber in your shoes to pick up electrons and then when you touch a metal doorknob (a conductor) you will feel a shock as the electrons jump from your body into the doorknob.

There is no real difference between static electricity and other electricity, just the conventional name comes from the fact that in static electricity the electrons are not flowing in a current like they would be in a wire, but they are static (not moving).

Answer 5:

To answer this question, it's important to know what regular (not static) electricity is: a bunch of electron particles (trillions and quadrillions) moving through an object to somewhere else they'd rather be. On Earth, their ideal destination is usually the ground. (For example, how lightning coming from the clouds. This is also why you hear the term "grounded" describing electrical equipment. The reasons for this are perhaps another question entirely.) It's a lot easier for these electrons to move through certain materials like copper (a "conductor") than others such as wood or air ("insulators").

Static means stationary. So static electricity is a bunch of these same electrons that can't move even if they'd rather be somewhere else like the ground. For example, electrons can get trapped on a metal doorknob. They can move around the metal part but not through the rest of the door's wood or the air around it. But if you touch such a knob these trapped electrons can move through you to the ground--in this case they stop being static and become regular electricity, which is the shock you feel!

Another way to trap electrons like this is running a balloon through your hair. The details of the process is complicated and depends on the precise situation. In fact, static electricity has been a topic of great interest since ancient Greece!

Click Here to return to the search form.

University of California, Santa Barbara Materials Research Laboratory National Science Foundation
This program is co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation and UCSB School-University Partnerships
Copyright © 2020 The Regents of the University of California,
All Rights Reserved.
UCSB Terms of Use