Articles

How to Stop Getting Zapped By Static

October 9, 2019


The world can be a minefield in the winter,
when just about anything metal can zap you with a painful electric shock. Shocks happen for the same reason balloons
stick to the ceiling after you rub them on your hair, which is also what causes lightning:
the triboelectric effect. People have experimented with it for thousands
of years, and we’ve come up with some pretty good ways of mitigating the shocks so you
don’t have to be afraid of doorknobs all the time. But despite millennia of experiments, there
are still some things about this everyday phenomenon that we don’t quite understand. The triboelectric effect happens when rubbing
two electrically neutral things together builds a static charge on them, so one becomes positively
charged and the other becomes negatively charged. Our oldest records of it come from Ancient
Greek philosophers, who knew that after you rubbed amber against fur, it would start attracting
feathers and hair. People have been playing with the triboelectric
effect ever since, making huge tables of which materials build charge the best. Mostly, they’re electrical insulators, because
that lets the charges build up in one place. In a conductor, they’d spread out. The moving charges themselves can be negatively
charged electrons, or they can be ions — whole atoms with an electric charge. It just depends on what kinds of materials
are involved and how they’re rubbed together. Even though I’ll be talking in terms of
electrons moving for the rest of the video, everything works pretty much exactly the same
if it’s ions moving around instead. So here’s how you get zapped: Some things, like polyester and rubber, are
good at holding onto extra electrons. Others, like wool, are good at giving electrons
away. When you shuffle your feet on the carpet,
you rub an electron-receiver against an electron-giver, so you get negatively charged shoes and a
positively charged carpet. Those extra electrons move up from your shoes
onto your skin, since humans are good electrical conductors. But metals are even better conductors, so
the electrons jump toward a doorknob when you go to grab it. When that happens, a tiny lightning bolt goes
between your hand and the doorknob. The moving electrons heat the air between
your hand and the knob, and you feel that heat as the pain of an electric shock. Shocks tend to be more of a problem in the
winter than the summer, because the cold air can’t hold as much water as warm air. When it’s warm, the extra water in the air
makes the air more conductive. So on a humid day, any charge you build up
leaks off into the wet air long before you touch metal. But even in the winter, there are things you
can do to avoid getting shocked. Wearing clothes that build up more charge
leads to worse sparks, and so does lots of rubbing or shuffling as you walk. Switch to full, wide steps and wear lots of
cotton, which hardly builds charge at all, and the shocks won’t be as bad You might get some weird looks waddling around
like that, but hey, at least it’ll hurt less. You can also try touching things with something
metal first, like a key, so electrons jump from there, and the key gets hit with the
burst of hot air instead of your hand. But even though we mostly know how to stop
the triboelectric effect from zapping you, there’s a lot we still don’t know about
why it happens in the first place. For one thing, electrons repel each other,
so any extras on one surface should make it harder to pile more on there. But the electrons build up anyway. This problem took scientists decades to solve,
and they’re still working out some of the finer details. It turns out that the electrons don’t just
hop between surfaces as they rub together — they jump because of friction. A lot of the time, friction comes from chemical
bonds that quickly form and break as two surfaces slide past each other. And chemical bonds often involve unequally
shared electrons, where electrons spend more time on one side of the bond than the other. Those sides are more likely to have an extra
electron or two when the bond breaks, so they become the electron-receivers. But since the electrons tend to stay with
their molecules, they don’t really keep other electrons from getting caught by nearby
molecules, and the charge builds up. We also don’t fully understand how the triboelectric
effect works in thunderstorms. We know the bottoms of thunderclouds tend
to get negatively charged as ice crystals and dust rub against each other, but we’re
not sure why. It’s possible that denser ice crystals tend
to get more negatively charged, so the negative charge follows them down as they sink to the
base of the cloud. Another option is that crystals charge differently
depending on the temperature, and the temperatures in different parts of a cloud lead to negative
charge on the bottom. Then there are the convection currents in
the clouds, which might affect the process as they mix the different kinds of crystals
and other particles together. All of these ideas probably play a role, but
we don’t really know if one is more important than the others. Plus, sometimes positive charge accumulates
on the bottom of clouds, which is even harder to explain. And it’s tough to study any of this directly,
since flying planes in storm clouds is … not very safe. We’re stuck with mostly small-scale experiments
that involve crashing ice crystals and water droplets together in labs So, we know that you get static shocks because
of the triboelectric effect, and we know that static shocks are just miniature lightning
bolts. But somewhere between shuffling feet on the
carpet and rubbing ice crystals in clouds, the physics gets a little more mysterious. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! If you’re interested in learning more about
how we figured out electricity, you can check out our episode about Benjamin Franklin, Founding
Nerd — including what really happened with that kite and key.

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