"Static Electricity" Misconceptions
How the Nature of Reality Has Been Occluded
By William J. Beaty
Some elementary science textbooks contain subtle errors which pose barriers to students' understanding. "Static Electricity" is one subject which is rife with errors. Since the errors in textbooks seem to act like "viruses" which can "infect" our minds, I hope that the following discussion will act as a sort of "antivirus." (grin!) It should help those who read this webpage, and with luck my article might utilize some of the same rumor-dynamics as the viruses. These ideas might take off and spread through the elementary education population, and "immunize" large numbers of people against these particular misconceptions. So, please feel free to print this out and pass it to everyone you know!
"STATIC ELECTRICITY" is electricity which is static? NO!
Instead, 'static electricity' is a collection of different electrical phenomena; phenomena where...
The amounts of positive and negative electric charge within a material are not perfectly equal.
Where voltage is high and current is low.
Where electrical forces (attraction and repulsion) are seen to reach across space. Widely spaced objects may attract or repel each other. Hair might stand on end!
Where electric fields (as opposed to magnetic fields) become very important. (Electric fields are also called "electrostatic fields" or "e-fields."
Electrostatics is about "charge," and about the attract/repel forces which electric charge creates. The motion or "staticness" of the charge is irrelevant. After all, the forces are still there even when the charges start flowing. And charges which are separated or imbalanced can sometimes flow along, yet the "static" effects are undiminished when the current begins. In other words, it's perfectly possible to create flows of so-called "static" electricity.
It's very misleading to concentrate on the "staticness" of the charges. It derails our explanations, and hides many important concepts such as charge separation, the density of imbalanced pos/neg charge, and the presence of voltage fields surrounding the imbalanced charges. These things are important even when the "static electricity" begins moving along as a current.
Electrostatics is not about "staticness," instead it's about charge and forces.
Imagine if water was explained just as badly as "static electricity." In that case, most people would believe in two special kinds of water called "static water" and "current water." We'd wrongly insist that "hydrostatics" was the study of static water. In that case, only the hydraulics expert would realize there's no such thing as "static water." Only the experts would realize that the so-called "static" water is really just pressurized water. The experts would also know that "static water" can even flow along, since pressurized water need not remain still or "static." Hydrostatics still applies to water when it begins to flow. In a similar way, "static electricity" has everything to do with pressurized charge, and nothing to do with "electricity at rest."
Here's another problem with the usual "static electricity" concept. First, think about everyday matter. Down inside its atoms, everyday matter contains equal numbers of positive and negative charges (Protons and Electrons) which are very close together. Are these charges the "static electricity?" After all, they're static and unmoving, right? They sit there inside each atom. And each individual electron and proton carries a charge of "static electricity." Shouldn't we say that physical matter is partly MADE out of "static electricity?"
But if we say that matter is made out of "static," then where are the sparks, where are the rising hair and crackling noises? There aren't any, and this shows that the "staticness" is not an important factor. Instead, the most important factor is the balance of opposite charges. Inside matter, the positive and negative charges are close together, and so their effects cancel out. Even though matter is full of charges which are "static" and unmoving, there is normally no "static electricity" to be seen. It's about IMBALANCE between opposite charges, not about staticness. Also, the presence of charged particles is not such an important factor, since matter is full of them, even when no "static electricity" appears. We need separated, imbalanced particle populations before interesting things start to happen. Just having charged particles is not enough.
How can we fix the confusion? Easy. Don't call it "static," instead call it "charge imbalance." It's the net electric charge which is important. Or put more simply: it is the separation between positive and negative particles which is the basis for "static electricity." When quantities of protons are separated from electrons across a large distance, then we'll get sparks and rising hair. Call this "electric charge", not "static charge," since the imbalance remains the same even when the charges flow along very non-statically.
Whenever these opposite charges in matter are sorted out and separated into groups of positive and negative, then we say that "static electricity" has been generated. What does this have to do with the charges remaining still or static? Nothing! In fact, if the charge imbalance can be made to flow along, it will still retain all of its unusual characteristics. It will still attract hair and lint, and cause sparks, etc., even while it is flowing. This puts us into the ridiculous situation of talking about "Static Electricity" ...which moves! It's unfortunate that the term "static electricity" has become so widely adopted as the name for the phenomena. If it had been called something else, "imbalanced electricity" for example, it wouldn't be nearly as misleading. It's easy to think about an imbalance which moves or stays still. But it's impossible to visualize an unmoving substance which flows. And it's even more unfortunate that textbooks have widely adopted the misleading practice of stating that "static electricity is electricity which is static and unmoving." This is a lie, and is no less a lie when many textbooks say the same thing. Reality is not determined by majority vote. No matter how many people agree otherwise, the Emperor's Clothes remain missing.
What we call "Static electricity" also has another name: "high voltage." All of the familiar electrostatic phenomena which we encounter in everyday situations always involve voltages above 1,000V, and ranging up to around 50,000 volts at the most. If it attracts lint or raises hair, it's definitely over 1,000 Volts. Rub a balloon on your head, and you generate tens of thousands of volts! This is voltage without a current. Here's a way to think about it: pure electric current involves a current with zero voltage, while pure "electrostatic" phenomena involve electrical voltages with zero current. Scuff your feet on a carpet and you create a voltage difference of many thousands of volts between your body and the carpet. Study "static electricity" and you study voltage itself.
It would be wonderful if the term "Static electricity" could be removed from the English language and replaced by "High Voltage Electricity." Or possibly by "Separated Charge," or "Charge Imbalance," or "The Science Called Electrostatics." This won't happen anytime soon, since the mistake is too deeply ingrained in books and teachers, and in the minds of the public. The best solution is to have everyone stay aware of this issue. Try to avoid using the terms "Static Electricity" and "Static Charge." And very definitely do not TEACH that "Static" and "Current" are opposite kinds of electricity. After all, charge imbalances still are "imbalances" even when they stop being static and they flow during an electric current.
Also, charge-flow and charge-imbalance can happen in the same wire at the same time. Therefore, anyone who believes that "static" and "current" are two types of opposite, mutually-exclusive electricity, those people will forever remain hopelessly confused about the true nature of any electrical phenomena.
Is static electricity "static?"
"STATIC ELECTRICITY" is caused by friction? WRONG.
"Static" electricity appears whenever two dissimilar insulating materials are placed into intimate contact and then separated again. All that's required is the touching. Chemical bonds are formed when the surfaces touch, and if the atoms in one surface tend to hold electrons more tightly, that surface will tend to steal charged particles from the other surface immediately as they touch. This causes the surfaces to become oppositely "charged"; they acquire imbalances of opposite polarity. One surface now has more electrons than protons, while the other has more protons than electrons. When the surfaces are later separated, the regions of opposite charge-imbalance also get separated.
For example, when adhesive tape is placed on an insulating surface and then peeled off, both the tape and the surface will become electrified. No friction was required.
Another example: when a thin material passes between rollers, sometimes the material becomes electrified. The rollers become oppositely electrified. For example, when newspaper passes between rubber rollers in a printing press, the paper becomes electrified and later on this can cause problems with cling and sparking. This situation in a large newspaper press inspired Robert VandeGraaff to design his famous generator.
Friction is not required. However, if one of the materials is rough or fibrous and does not give a very large footprint of contact area, then the process of rubbing one material upon another can greatly increase the total contact area. Friction may also remove thin layers of oil or oxide, exposing a more pure surface beneath. The peeling tape does not have to be rubbed in order to generate charge-imbalance, but the hair does need to be rubbed by the balloon. But the rubbing is not the cause of electrification, electrification can come about purely from contact. The term "Frictional electricity" is misleading. I try to instead use the terms "Contact Electricity" or "Electrification by Contact," or "separation of charge," or "creating charge imbalance."
"STATIC ELECTRICITY" is a buildup of electrons? NOT EXACTLY.
It is not a buildup of anything, it is an IMBALANCE between quantities of positive and negative particles which existed beforehand. The electric particles were already there; they did not have to build up. It's an "un-cancelling," an event which occurs between the large quantities of oppositely-charged particles which were already present in matter. Contact electrification is more like "stretched atoms" than anything else. If we could take some atoms and pull their electrons far away from their protons, we would have created an imbalance of charge or "static electricity."
It's true that during "frictional electricity" or contact electrification, it's *usually* only the negative electrons which are moved from one surface to the other. But this transferring of electrons then results in two areas of imbalanced charge, not one. As negative particles are pulled away from the positive particles, the positives and negatives are no longer near each other and are no longer are able to cancel each other. Because of this, equal and opposite areas of imbalanced charge are always created during the un-canceling. If you take away a neutral object's electrons, you leave its protons exposed. For a visual demonstration of this, see my Red/Green electricity article .
And although the negative charges did the moving, this doesn't mean the positive charges are unimportant! Before the charges were separated, there were equal quantities of positive and negative charges present together within the materials. The positives null out the negatives, and the negatives null out the positives. After the separation of the charges is complete, the positive charges are just as important as the negative. In one place you'll have more protons than electrons, and this place will have an overall positive charge. In the other spot you'll have more electrons than protons, for an overall negative charge in that region.
You've not caused a "buildup of electrons", you've caused an imbalance, an un-canceling, a stretching-apart, a separation of opposites which otherwise would cancel each other. In fact, one appropriate term for static electrification is CHARGE SEPARATION. Think for a moment: if you put the positive and negative imbalances back together, where does the "buildup of electrons" go? Nowhere, there was no buildup there in the first place. Putting the two polarities of charge back together eliminates the imbalance and forms normal uncharged matter again.
ON THE CONTRARY, EVERYDAY 'STATIC ELECTRICITY' INVOLVES IMMENSE VOLTAGES
When two insulating surfaces are adhered (or rubbed) together, two opposite regions of imbalanced charge appear. When these surfaces are later pulled away from each other, a very strong "electric field" appears between them, and this e-field can raise hair, attract lint, etc. In addition, this e-field is an example of pure voltage, or voltage without current. The strength of this e-field is incredibly large when compared to the voltage of batteries and of common electronic circuitry. It is many thousands of times stronger, sometimes hundreds of thousands of times stronger. Everyday "static electricity" involves immense voltages. The tiniest "static spark" is caused by about 1000 volts. Longer "car door sparks" and "doorknob sparks" can involve as much as 10,000 volts. For more info, see: Measuring the "Static Electricity" on your body: also Car-door sparks, electric people
ACTUALLY, PHYSICAL OBJECTS ARE MADE OUT OF CHARGE
We always talk of matter as if it only had passing relation to electrical effects. Yet if we look in detail into the nature of matter, we find physical substances, made of molecules, made of atoms, made of positive and negative electric charge. Matter is not electrical? No, quite the opposite: electric charge is the major component of all atoms. Therefor matter is *made out of cancelled electric charge.* If we cancel out some opposite charge by placing positive charge together with negative charge, do we get NOTHING? No, instead we get material substance. Positive protons plus negative electrons equals neutral atoms. Physical objects normally have no charge? Wrong. The physical objects *are* the charge.
ELECTRICITY IS ENERGY? WRONG. ACTUALLY ELECTRICITY DOES NOT EXIST!
The term "electricity" is a catch-all word with many meanings. Unfortunately these meanings are contradictory, and this leads to the unsettling fact that there is no single substance or energy called "electricity." And the problem is not as simple as having different kinds of electricity. Instead, we wrongly use the word "electricity" to name completely different things. When we say "quantity of electricity," we could be talking about quantities of electrons or quantities of electrical energy. ...or quantity of potential, or forces, fields, net charge, current, power, or even talking about classes of electrical phenomena or fields of science. All of these are found under the definition of the word "electricity." This is a major mistake, it's like saying that miles, pounds, and degrees are measures of the same single "stuff." And can you have a cup full of "weather" or a bucket of "geology?" Part of this problem would vanish if we used the word "electricity" only to designate a field of science or class of phenomena; in the same way we use the words "physics" or "optics." We do use it this way occasionally. But then we immediately turn around and do the equivalent of teaching our kids that "optics" is a substance which comes out of light bulbs, or that cars can move because they are filled with "physics"! That's how we misuse the word "electricity."
Here are a few examples of errors caused by the contradictory meanings:
WHICH ONE IS THE "ELECTRICITY”?
In AC electric circuits the *charges* sit in one place and wiggle back and forth, but the *energy* moves continuously forward. This is analogous to the way that sound moves continuously forward while the air wiggles back and forth. By applying contradictory definitions to the term "electricity," we teach that electricity (charge) sits in one spot in the wires and wiggles, but at the same time electricity (energy) moves forward rapidly. Garbage! How can anyone possibly understand this?! It's like saying that sound and wind are the same thing! And the error is directly traceable to the bogus, contradictory "electricity" concept.
Another: There are two forms of electricity, positive electricity and negative. NO, the two forms of electricity are static and current. NO, there are many forms of electricity: triboelectricity, bioelectricity, myoelectricity, piezoelectricity. NO, there is only one electricity, the form of energy called Electromagnetism. NO, electricity is energy flow, haven't you ever heard of "watts of electricity?"
Which one is right? All of them and none, because the word "electricity" has more than one contradictory definition. None are right, since there is no "electricity" which can be the charge, energy, and phenomena all at once. And all these statements are correct, because the word "electricity" is commonly used to name all these different things, and dictionaries support this. Volts of electricity. Amperes of electricity. Kilowatt-hours of electricity. Watts of electricity. Coulombs of electricity. Meaningless and confusing when taken together, yet inextricably entwined in hundreds of textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. The solution? Say "amperes of electric current", not amperes of electricity. Say "kilowatt-hours of energy", and "coulombs of charge", and "Watts of power." To greatly improve the clarity of your explanations, simply don't mention 'electricity.'
Charging' a capacitor fills it with charge? Capacitors store electric charge?
NO, because 'CHARGED' AND 'UNCHARGED'
CAPACITORS ACTUALLY CONTAIN EQUAL AMOUNTS OF CHARGE!
The word "charge" has more than one contradictory meaning, so if you are using it, you are probably creating misconceptions. "Charge" refers to several things: to net-charge, to quantities of charged particles, and to "charges" of energy.
For example, even when metals are totally neutral, they contain vast quantities of movable electrons. You can imagine that all metals are soaked with a sort of "electric fluid" made of negative particles wandering among the "solid" positive particles. If copper is like a wet sponge, then the sponge is the protons, and the water is the electrons.
On the other hand, since the positives and negatives cancel, could we say that wires contain no charge at all? Or should we say the opposite: that they contain immense quantities of charge because they are constructed from electrons and protons? Are they "charged" because they're partly composed of "liquid" electric charges, or are they "uncharged" because they contain equal quantities of opposite charges which cancel out?
Which is 'right?' I don't know the answer. Maybe it's better to abandon the word "charged", and use other, less misleading terms. Don't say "charged", say "electrified." Speak of "charge imbalance" and "the cancelled charge within all matter." That removes the contradictions.
Another: if I place an electron and a proton together, do I have twice as much charge as before, or do I have a neutral hydrogen atom with no charge at all? What I DO have is confusion. Conflicting use of "charge" makes descriptions of electric circuits seem complex and abstract, when the explanations are really just wrong.
Another: electric currents in wires are a motion of *neutralized* charge, so if you teach that a wire is uncharged, and also teach that current is a flow of charge, how can anyone make sense of a situation where a wire has no charge at all, yet contains an enormous flow of charge? This situation arises everywhere in electric circuits, and so the confusion is spread everywhere too.
Another: when you charge a capacitor or a battery, you move charges from one plate to the other inside the device, and the device as a whole contains exactly the same charge whether it's "charged" or not. When speaking of "charging" batteries or capacitors, we've suddenly started to talk about energy rather than charge, and a "charged" battery has quite a bit more energy than an uncharged battery. Yet it contains exactly the same net-charge, and contains the same quantity of + and - particles. Before being "charged," a capacitor is neutral, and no matter how much "charge" you put into it, the capacitor remains neutral overall. One plate is positive, but the other plate is equally negative, so the capacitor's total charge never changes. In a capacitor, for every electron you remove from one plate, you inject an electron into the other plate, so none are gained or lost from the device. Capacitors and batteries are "charged" with energy, not with electric charge. This concept is very important for gaining a solid understanding simple circuitry, yet we rarely teach it specifically because the way is blocked by the misleading term "charge." Those rare people who figure it out become experts. But it's not hard to be an expert when nearly universal confusion rules a field of study.
'STATIC' IS RARE? NO. IN FACT, 'STATIC ELECTRICITY' IS ACTUALLY AS COMMON AS MATTER
If you believe typical explanations of "static electricity", you will come to see "static" as a fairly rare phenomena that has little connection with the rest of the world. Yes, yes, lightning is impressive, and copiers and laser printers are convenient, but if "static" didn't exist, the world wouldn't be much different, would it?
In fact, electrostatics is a bit more important than we commonly assume. Contrary to popular belief, standard "electric current" circuits are deeply connected with electrostatics. For one thing, it is the electrostatic force that drives electric current! "Voltage" is an electrostatic phenomena, voltage is electrostatic fields. Without electrostatics, there could be no voltage, hence no current and no electrical devices. It is totally wrong to build a false wall between "Static" and "Current", it's as silly as teaching that "pressure" and "movement" are two separate types of water. "Static" and "Current" are two fields of study, not two substances or energies. They are subject areas which were created entirely by humans, they don't *really* exist separately in the real world.
"Static electricity" is important in many other places besides lightning, photocopiers, and doorknob sparks. For example, your muscles are driven by long-chain molecules which are forced to slide across each other. This sliding is performed by electrostatic attraction and repulsion between parts of the molecule, and so your muscles are electrostatic motors! They are "linear motors", as opposed to the rotary electrostatic "pop bottle" motor found elsewhere on my website.
Another example: nerves function as tiny capacitors, with charge pumps to electrify them, and ion gates to discharge them. Imagine a nerve as being a long tubular "Leyden Jar" having billions of tiny "VandeGraaff generators" scattered across its surface, and with billions of "spark gaps" which always close in sequence as the nerve impulse travels forward.
Another one: when Uranium atoms are hit by neutrons and their nuclei split, the main source of released energy is the repulsion between alike-charged positive protons in the fragments of the nucleus. Therefor, nuclear reactors release the electrostatic energy of uranium nuclei. A plutonium bomb is actually a "static electric" repulsion bomb!
Another: when dissimilar materials touch, charge is separated. When dissimilar semiconductors touch, we get "contact potential", a microscopic electrostatic phenomenon which makes numerous devices possible: LEDs, solar cells, thermocouples, ...and diodes, transistors, computers, radios, television, internet, etc. Semiconductor electrostatics is essential to modern electronics.
Another: one type of transistor in particular, the FET or "field effect transistor", is purely an electrostatic device. Electrostatic fields within it are used to open and close the conductive channel which regulates current. See "Charge Detector" for some suggested experiments. Are these sorts of transistors rare? No. Every single transistor in the memory, CPU, and IO chips of modern PCs are FET transistors. Most of the transistors in modern TVs and stereos are FETs. Few people realize that "static electric" devices have taken over the electronics industry, or that PCs are made from microscopic electrostatic components, or that all the data in all the computers all over the world is stored as tiny patterns of electrostatic charges.
"ATP" is the fuel which drives living things, from bacteria to humans. One part of the 1997 Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to the researchers Boyer and Walker who discovered how energy is placed into ATP. It turns out that ATP is assembled by an enzyme which is run by a tiny rotating electrostatic motor! The "spring" in each ATP is "cocked" by a little rotating molecular machine run by electrostatics. The reaction is reversible, and ATP can drive the motor, changing it into an electrostatic generator. A typical human body contains around 10^16 of these rotary electrostatic motors.
A big one next. The world is molecules. And molecules are atoms, and atoms are themselves composed of positive and negative charged particles. Atoms are held together by electrostatic attraction. If matter is made of little dots, then the "bars" that connect all the dots together are made of electrostatic fields. Also, atoms are connected to each other through chemical bonding, and chemical bonding is based upon electrostatic attraction/repulsion forces. Without "Static Electricity" there would be no chemistry, no living things. Without "Static Electricity", solids and liquids would be gas, the molecules of the gas would fall apart into atoms, and the atoms would turn into separate electrons and nuclei. Without electrostatics, the entire universe would be a boring, featureless cloud of neutral-particle gas. Some people consider electrostatics to be boring. On the contrary, electrostatics is the very thing that lets this universe be an interesting place!
NO, ELECTROSTATICS DOES NOT INVOLVE "ELECTRICITY AT REST."
First let's look at an analogy which might help clear up our thinking. Within the science of Hydraulics there are sections called Hydrodynamics and Hydrostatics. Hydrostatics is the study of fluid pressure and forces. It's not the study of static water, it's the study of water pressure. When pressurized pipes are swelling, or when a piston is driving water ahead of it, those are situations involving Hydrostatics. If you draw maps of the distribution of pressure upon a surface, that's "Hydrostatics."
Does Hydrostatics involve water at rest? No, because fluid forces still exist even when water is moving. Just because water starts flowing, that doesn't mean that hydrostatic pressure must vanish. Does Hydrostatics involve a special kind of water called "Static Water?" No, that's just silly. "Static water" is a field of science otherwise known as Hydrostatics. Hydrostatics is not a stuff!
OK, now look at the science called "Electricity." It has sections called "Electrodynamics" and "Electrostatics." Is Electrostatics the study of non-moving electricity? First think about Hydrostatics before you try to answer this question.
As you suspect, Electrostatics is similar to Hydrostatics: it is the study of electric forces and the Electric Charge which creates those forces. It is the study of imbalanced charges in matter, and of voltage and electric fields. Notice that I didn't say anything about "charges at rest." This is intentional, since electrostatic forces don't go away when the charges start flowing in a current. And while electric voltage falls under the heading "Electrostatics," electric voltage is intimately involved with flowing charges. (Analogy: water pressure is intimately involved with water flow.)
Is there a kind of electricity called "static electricity?" No. That's just silly. It's just as silly as believing in a special kind of water called Static Water. There's a field of science called "Static Electricity," there's no such stuff as "Static."
Where did this crazy misconception about "motionless charges" come from? There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of books which blatantly state "Electrostatics is the study of charges at rest." How can they say such things? I have a good idea. Look at the difference between Hydrodynamics and Hydrostatics. Hydrostatics IGNORES THE CHANGING PARTS and concentrates only on the fluid and the distribution of forces. On the other hand Hydrodynamics IGNORES THE UNCHANGING PARTS; it studies changing or "dynamic" events like fluid flow patterns, turbulence, etc.
If we became slightly confused, we might decide that hydrodynamics was about moving water while hydrostatics was about motionless water. It's an easy mistake. Yet it's a serious one, since the actual difference between "statics" and "dynamics" is something made up by human minds, not something that really exists out in the real world. It has almost nothing to do with water's movement. For example, if I look at a river and I ignore the flowing water while only observing the fluid forces, then I've made that river "Hydrostatic." If Hydrostatics was REALLY about motionless water, then I couldn't think about common Hydrostatic topics such as the pressure in a moving river or the forces applied by curving flows.
Back to electricity again: "statics" and "dynamics" have almost nothing to do with the speed of flowing charges. I can look at a flashlight and, if I concentrate on voltage and electrical forces while ignoring electric current, I can transform it into an "electrostatic" device with my mind. "Electrostatics" is a way of thinking; a kind of viewpoint. It's a field of science. If I thought it was REALLY about "charges at rest", it would mentally damage me as an engineer. I'd no longer be able to understand common Electrostatic situations such as the forces driving electrons across a TV tube, or the voltage fields within the acid of a car battery. I'd end up with little understanding of Voltage at all. I'd think that the entire topic of Electrostatics was about Ben Franklin and fur rubbed on balloons, and I'd ignore it as useless historical stuff, never knowing that it was actually the study of voltage. I'd end up crippled in my understanding electricity, and I'd never know why.
ELECTRIC CIRCUITS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH "STATIC ELECTRICITY?" WRONG.
Electric currents are caused by voltage, and the voltage in a circuit is caused by the imbalances of charge which are present on the surface of the metal wires. "Static electricity" is what makes circuits operate! Without the "static electricity" supplied by batteries or generators, modern electrical devices could not exist. This shouldn't be a big surprise, since voltage and electrostatics are intimately intertwined.
Here's another way to think about it: when you rub some fur on plastic, you generate many thousands of volts, while common batteries only generate a few volts. But both of these create surface charge imbalances. And both create electrostatic attraction and repulsion forces. It's the electrostatic forces which drives the charges through the wires in a circuit. Electric currents are pumped by "static electricity."
'STATIC ELECTRICITY' IS TOO WEAK AND FEEBLE TO BE USEFUL? WRONG.
Some authors tell us that "static electricity" is much weaker than batteries and normal electric generators. They say that 'static' is only able to raise hair, or it can slightly repel some pieces of aluminum foil. Wrong! Electrostatic force is not inherently weaker than magnetic force. But they do have a point.
First of all let's make one thing clear: all motors involve "static electricity." After all, voltage and surface-charge is the cause of electric currents, so all electric circuits and all electric motors are based on "static electricity." So what do they really mean when they say that static electricity is weak and feeble?
They're actually talking about the attraction of opposite electric charges, versus the attraction of opposite magnetic poles. They're talking about the difference between coil motors which use magnetic fields, versus capacitor motors which use electric fields. Conventional coil motors are powerful because their electromagnet coils can strongly push or pull against magnets or other coils. But if we build a motor using charged aluminum foil, that motor will be quite feeble.
But wait a minute! That's wrong, since magnetism isn't inherently more powerful than electric force. Don't forget that electric force is what holds solid steel together. Magnetism can even be feeble. The first magnetism motors were invented by Michael Faraday, and they were incredibly feeble. It took many years before anyone figured out how to construct powerful magnetic motors. First, they had to ignore the weak magnetic forces made by electric currents and liquid mercury, and instead invent the electromagnet coil. Then the inventors had to stop trying to build motors with flywheels turned by crankshafts with magnet pistons. Instead they discovered how to use small rotating coils wrapped by larger coils. Modern electric motors are extremely powerful, but they're very different than Faraday's original feeble motor discovery.
Ben Franklin invented the first motor which used electric charges that attract and repel. His "Franklin wheel" was extremely feeble, just as feeble as the "Soda-bottle Electrostatic Motor." Scientists and inventors eventually built much better capacitor motors. They used interleaved stacks of metal plates rotating in a vacuum chamber. These motors are as powerful as coil/magnet motors, but they're too expensive. Also they require very high voltage rather than high current. For these reasons you can't buy a one-horsepower capacitor motor, while 1HP coil motors are cheap and common.
So make an honest comparison between 'static electricity' and batteries and generators, we must compare the force between two charged metal plates with the force between two current-carrying wires. Both forces are quite feeble. But there are ways to build powerful motors which are based upon coils *or* capacitors.
BEN FRANKLIN'S KITE WAS STRUCK BY LIGHTNING? NEVER HAPPENED.
Many people believe that Ben Franklin's kite was hit by a lightning bolt, and this was how he proved that lightning is electrical. A number of books and even some encyclopedias say the same thing. They are wrong. They have fallen victim to an infectious myth, an "urban legend of science" which is slowly spreading to more and more books. When lightning strikes a kite, the spreading electric currents in the ground can kill anyone standing nearby, to say nothing of the person holding the string!
Franklin wrote about "drawing down the lightning" from a thunderstorm. What he actually did was to show that a kite would collect a tiny bit of imbalanced electric charge out of the sky during the early parts of a thunderstorm, before lightning strikes became a danger. Feeble electric leakage through the air caused his kite and string to become electrified, and the hairs on the twine stood outwards. Twine is slightly conductive on a humid day, and the twine served as Franklin's "antenna wire." The twine was then used to electrify a metal key, and tiny sparks could then be drawn from the key. (A metal object is needed because sparks cannot be directly drawn from the twine. The twine is slightly conductive, but not conductive enough to allow sparking.) No noise, no big flash, just boring yet earthshaking science experimenting. The presence of sparks suggested to Franklin that some stormclouds carry strong electrical charges, and it IMPLIED that lightning was just a large electrical spark.
The common belief that Franklin easily survived a lightning strike is not just wrong, it is dangerous: it may convince kids that it's OK to duplicate the kite experiment as long as they "protect" themselves by holding a silk ribbon with a key tied in the middle. Make no mistake, Franklin's experiment was extremely dangerous. He could have been killed at any moment, and if lightning had actually hit his kite, today he would be regarded as a colonial politician who was killed by stupidity, not as a famous scientist who founded a major new research area.
OK, so what IS Static Electricity?!!!
1. Static electricity is a field of science. Some people call it "Electrostatics." Same thing.
So, if Static Electricity is a kind of science, then it can't be made by generators. In a similar way, you can dissect a dead frog, but you'll never find any biology. And rocks don't contain any tiny pieces of "geology." Remember: hydrostatics is the study of fluid pressure, Newtonian Statics is the study of physical forces, and Static Electricity is the study of charge, voltage, and electrical forces. Where can we find static electricity? In physics books... and in buildings at the University!
2. Static electricity is a set of events which humans have grouped together.
Sparks and lightning are "static electricity," even though sparks and lightning are about the most dynamic things imaginable. Also, "dryer cling" is static electricity. The cling effect, THAT is the electricity. After all, "electricity" can mean "a class of phenomenon," and having your socks stick to the back of your sweater is certainly a phenomenon. Where does static electricity come from? From human minds: same as with "weather" and "bureaucracy" and other classes of phenomenon.
3. Static electricity is another word for high voltage.
Whenever we have high voltage, then we also have electrostatic attraction and repulsion. High voltage can attract lint or tiny bits of paper, and it can make hair stand up. With high voltage we also get long sparks, crackling noises, and blue glows and flashes. High voltage makes ozone; the stuff that gives that funny chlorine smell. These things are the hallmarks of Static Electricity, but they are never caused by the "static-ness" of electric charges. Instead they are caused by intense e-fields. Intense e-fields are another way of saying "high votlage." If you can scuff your shoes on the carpet and then zap people with your finger, then you've been charging your body to several thousand volts.
4.Static Electricity means an imbalance of electric charge
Electrically neutral matter contains closely-spaced electrons and protons. The "positives" and the "negatives" are very close together, so their effects cancel out. That's why electrical phenomena don't seem obvious in the everyday world. But if we accidentally remove a bunch of electrons from their atoms, then put these electrons in a distant spot, we'll create a region of positive net charge. We'll also create an equal region of negative net charge. These imbalances of charge will surround themselves with intense e-fields.
Created by Bill Beaty.
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