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Definition of Static Electricity

Static electricity can be a nuisance or even a danger. Hair-raising energy can also damage electronic devices and cause explosions. However, properly controlled and handled, it can also be a great blessing to modern life. “Electric charge is a fundamental property of matter”. Almost all electric charge in the universe is carried by protons and electrons.

Protons are said to have a charge of +1 electron unit, while electrons have a charge of -1, although these signs are completely arbitrary. Because protons are generally confined to atomic nuclei, which are in turn embedded within atoms, they are not as free to move as electrons.

Therefore, when we speak of electrical current, we almost always refer to the flow of electrons, and when we speak of static electricity, we generally mean an imbalance between negative and positive charges on objects.

That is, static electricity exists when there is an accumulation of opposite charges on objects separated by an insulator. Static electricity (as in “at rest”) exists until the two groups of opposite charges can find a path to each other to balance the system.

Examples of Static Electricity

When the charges find a means of equalization, a static discharge occurs. The attraction of the charges becomes so great that they can pass through even the best insulators (air, glass, plastic, rubber, etc.).

Static discharges can be harmful depending on the medium through which the charges travel and to which surfaces the charges are transferred. Charges that are equalized across an air space can cause a visible shock as the traveling electrons collide with the electrons in the air, which are excited and release energy in the form of light.

One of the most dramatic examples of static discharge is lightning. When a cloud system accumulates enough charge relative to another cloud group or the earth, the charges will attempt to equalise. As the cloud discharges, massive amounts of positive (or sometimes negative) charges run through the air from the ground to the cloud causing the visible effect we are all familiar with.

Static electricity also exists familiarly when we rub balloons on our heads to make our hair stand on end, or when we drag our feet on the floor in fuzzy slippers and hit the family cat (accidentally, of course).

In each case, friction from rubbing different types of materials transfers electrons. The object that loses electrons is positively charged, while the object that gains electrons is negatively charged. The two objects are attracted to each other until they can find a way to match. When working with electronics, we usually don’t have to deal with static electricity. When we do, we are usually trying to protect our sensitive electronic components from being subjected to a static discharge.

Preventive measures against static electricity include the use of ESD (electrostatic discharge) wrist straps or the addition of special components in circuits to protect against very high peak charges.

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