Physical Science - Other

Understanding Static Electricity

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"Understanding Static Electricity"
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On a cold day, you pull on your favorite wool sweater and suddenly, your hair is everywhere, you have shocked your playful pooch, and you can't shake that stubborn piece of paper off your clothes. No, it's not the curse of Ra. It's static electricity. Unlike the energy that drives our toaster, television and radios, static electricity is the casual, uncontrolled energy that makes phenomena like static cling, door knob shocks, and lightning possible.


Static electricity is defined as the accumulation of electrical charges on the surface of an insulating or non-conductive material (like water, wool, and paper). This form of electricity is called static, because did does not flow or follow a current.

To better understand static electricity, we have to understand atoms, the basic building blocks of all matter. Atoms consist of very small particles called protons, electrons and neutrons. All of these particles carry with them electrical charges. Protons are positive and neutrons are neutral. They lie in the core of the atom. Electrons are negative and circle in an orbit around the protons and neutrons. Think of an atom like a mini version of a solar system.

In atoms, the electrical charge remains stable and balanced. However, sometimes, electrons are stripped away. When the electrons are stripped, the atom becomes positively charged. That lost electron can attach to another atom and make it negatively charged. And, as we learned in grade school science class, like charges repel and opposite charges attract. This transfer of charges can occur from chemical processes or contact between objects.


Static electricity is caused by objects touching or rubbing against one another. Think dragging your feet across a carpet and then touching a metal door handle. Static electricity is released through this simple action. The contact between the carpet, a non-conductive material, lifts the accumulated charges off the floor and then POP. The spark or shock comes when the charge (extra electrons) transfers from your body to the next object you touch- your friend, a door, or your dog.


Static electricity is not like the electricity that powers things in your home, school or office. That type of electricity flows either using alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC.) Static electricity is casual and unpredictable.

Static electricity can manifest as a little spark or as powerful lightning during a rainstorm. It can attract and repel charged objects as well. Kids can see static electricity in science exhibits through Van De Graff generators or through interesting tricks like rubbing a balance against a wool sweater.


Static electricity is not all fun and games. Electrostatic discharges (ESD) can occur when people work with electronic equipment. ESD can cause damage. However, electrostatic energy can be useful. Electrostatic technology is used in cleaning, painting and printing. Even Nikola Tesla, the brilliant nineteenth century scientist and inventor who made revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism, devised plans to generate power for entire cities using electrostatic energy.

Static electricity is part of our normal daily experience. While anyone can create it with low tech means, it has high tech potential. Understanding static electricity helps us understand a little bit more about the nature of matter.

For more information on static electricity, there are excellent resources in local libraries and bookstores. The Internet offers useful resources as well. Some can be found at:

More about this author: Ramona Taylor

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