Northwestern research team turns theory of static electricity on its head

Jun 29, 2011 by Bob Yirka report
Image: Chris Darling/Wikipedia

(PhysOrg.com) -- Bartosz Grzybowski, a physical chemist at Northwestern University, and his team of colleagues offer evidence in a paper published in Science, that shows that what scientists have believed to be true about the causes behind the creation of static electricity, is wrong. Instead of one object winding up with more or less electrons as a result of rubbing together, they claim, there is an actual transfer of slight amounts of actual material.

Scientists have been studying the cause of static electricity for thousands of years, going back to the early Greeks, but in spite of such work, little is known about the phenomena as Grzybowski points out in the paper. The accepted view is that there is a simple exchange of , leading to an imbalance in one or the other object, causing it to be attracted to other objects. Thinking there had to be more to it, Grzybowski decided to look a little closer.

Using Kelvin probe force microscopy, a technique whereby scientists are able to measure the level of charge on various parts of the surface of an object, he and his team were able to see that such charges on nearly any object are far less uniform than has been assumed. They found what they describe as a patchwork of both positive and negative charged clumps sitting randomly on the surface of the objects studied, and it is these clumps they believe that are transferred between objects when they come into contact with one another; bits of , for example, actually adhere to a child’s hair when rubbed, leaving behind an imbalance in the electrical patchwork on the balloon, which results in an attraction between the balloon and other objects, such as a sweater or wall.

As for an explanation of why their exists patches of positive and negative charges on objects, the authors can only speculate, suggesting that differences in the properties of differing objects and the resulting tearing away of each other’s patches when touched randomly would seem to explain the seeming randomness of the placement of the patches on the surfaces of those objects.

And while this research does definitively show that clumps of patches are indeed transferred between objects as a result of touching, not everyone is convinced that it fully answers the question of why is created, some going so far as to suggest that there may be other properties at work as well.

Explore further: At the origin of cell division: The features of living matter emerge from inanimate matter

More information: The Mosaic of Surface Charge in Contact Electrification, Science, Published Online 23 June 2011. DOI:10.1126/science.1201512

ABSTRACT
When dielectric materials are brought into contact and then separated, they develop static electricity. For centuries, it has been assumed that such contact charging derives from the spatially homogeneous material properties (along the material's surface) and that within a given pair of materials, one charges uniformly positively and the other negatively. We demonstrate that this picture of contact charging is incorrect. While each contact-electrified piece develops a net charge of either positive or negative polarity, each surface supports a random “mosaic” of oppositely charged regions of nanoscopic dimensions. These mosaics of surface charge have the same topological characteristics for different types of electrified dielectrics and accommodate significantly more charge per unit area than previously thought.

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User comments : 31

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Deadbolt
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Can we use a similar effect to repel?
SincerelyTwo
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2011
Can we use a similar effect to repel?


Static electricity as we casually experience it is not very strong, and especially when talking about levitating vehicles, however we do have this; "How Maglev Trains Work"
http://science.ho...rain.htm
stealthc
1.4 / 5 (5) Jun 29, 2011
indeed, little atoms of whatever the material is, even if it's solid, transfer all over. Electro-static forces can encourage transfer to occur by tipping the balance of stability so that less force induces transfer. What an obvious statement I don't see how this is a "DISCOVERY".
Welcome_Stone
4.3 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2011
@stealthc, do big atoms "transfer all over", too? This is a discovery because it is contrary to the accepted method of static charge buildup. As stated, previously ions were held responsible.

"As for an explanation of why *their* exists patches of positive and negative charges on objects..."

Call it hind-sight bias, but it doesn't seem logical to have expected orderly "neg plus neg plus" when a magnet is "neg neg plus plus" Also, wrong there, =P.

Hoping this brings us one step closer to Galt's engine.
jjoensuu
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
So previously it was thought that ions (negatively or positively charged atoms) were transferred. Now we know that patches of negatively or positively charged atoms are transferred?

Not much of a difference. Except for that issue that solid matter is a patchwork of negatively and positively charged atoms.

BTW, the only way I can see how a charge build up by a transfer of charged atoms is if all transferred atoms have the same charge. But in that case the atoms should repel each other, or attract the oppositely charged atoms to transfer as well. Unless there are other considerations that are not yet answered.
grgfraiser
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
does this mean static electricity is stronger then we thought, is there a size weight difference between an ion and atom that says it is a stronger force then we thought
zevkirsh
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2011
the next obvious research step: special designed particularly high surface area material surfaces that are designed to accumulate if not 'vacuum' off static electricity. from other objects.

i.e. a super static duster.
kaasinees
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Hoping this brings us one step closer to Galt's engine.
Never heard about it and google doesnt show much, can you explain it to me?
jason_wrinkle
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
Hoping this brings us one step closer to Galt's engine.
Never heard about it and google doesnt show much, can you explain it to me?


I believe he is referring to a fictional static electricity engine invented by 'John Galt' that is a plot driver in the book _Atlas Shrugged_ by Aynn Rand.
Pyle
5 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2011
@dutchboy: Galt is a fictional character from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Galt's "engine" is google-able as Galt's Motor. It is a motor that runs on static electricity. Pretty much nonsense, but that is just my opinion.
It takes mechanical work to create static electricity so it seems silly to think you could effectively use it to make more mechanical work. Mostly I think of static electricity with wind, and a windmill is much more effective at creating work than gathering static electricity created by the wind.

Quick question. I thought the prevailing thought was static electricity was the transfer of electrons, not ions (bold header gets it right, while article body has it wrong I think). Ions vs. atoms seems trivial. Ions/atoms vs. electron transfer is not trivial and really looks like a new theory.
FrankHerbert
2.5 / 5 (13) Jun 29, 2011
It's pretty funny that Ayn Rand unintentionally admits that the only way her ideology could work would be with a perpetual motion machine ;-)
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2011
Pyle, you really can use an aerial to capture enough atmospheric electricity to spin a 'minimal' electrostatic motor, but that's not the issue here.
IIRC, a lot of industrial problems come from 'induced' charges, where a slight, apparently trivial 'frictional' charge is amplified by material in motion. The classic example may be the CO2 extinguisher, where the nozzle must be conductive to prevent shocks when used. This is probably the process that causes grain silos to explode...
Uh, check out...
http://en.wikiped..._dropper
Pyle
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
@Nik, I don't deny that "static" EM forces can do all kinds of stuff. EM forces play a huge role in in Solar system formation, for instance. However, you have to "set-up" the situation to pull the work out. For instance, from your link:
As with other forms of hydroelectric power, the energy here ultimately comes from the gravitational energy released by letting the water drops fall.
You have to put water in the upper reservoir to pull the work out. Maybe you can squeeze some small percentage more work out of a hydroelectric power plant this way? I think a traditional turbine to convert the gravitational potential energy to electricity makes the most sense.

We will no doubt find ways to harness static electricity (from grain silos to lightning), but I don't think Rand's perpetual motion machine (nod to @FH) is going to change the world.
Shelgeyr
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Galt's "engine" is google-able as Galt's Motor. It is a motor that runs on static electricity. Pretty much nonsense, but that is just my opinion.


Pyle, I'm pretty sure your opinion is correct, at least concerning the viability of such a concept. I think it would be rather hard (by which I mean "impossible") to sustain a potential difference, while creating a motive force, in an electrostatic-but-not-electrodynamic enviroment.

I think it worked well as a literary plot device, but it WAS just a plot device.
Shelgeyr
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
We will no doubt find ways to harness static electricity (from grain silos to lightning)...


To paraphrase the character Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark, "Static electricity in grain silos... very dangerous. You go first."

Also, evidence is continuously mounting that lightning isn't caused by static electricity, but rather that it is (possibly or very likely) part of the "global electric circuit" per se, that's causing so much angst in some rarified circles where even mentioning such a thing risks getting you labeled and ostracized as an "Electric Universe" nut.

Full disclosure: Pyle, honestly, you could probably safely consider me an "Electric Universe" nut without giving offense.
Pyle
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2011
Don't worry Shelgeyr. Already had you pegged as one based on the previous thread. You seem to be of the more benign variety though. I have to say that lightning effecting the "global electric current" would seem like a "well duh" to me though. Makes sense that thunderstorms would represent an opportunity for the current to hit the ground via the static electric potential building up in the cloud. From the Wikipedia article on lightning:
"NASA scientists have found that electromagnetic radiation created by lightning in clouds only a few miles high can create a "safe zone" in the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the earth."
Shelgeyr
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Pyle, thanks for the "more benign variety" label. Yeah, I'm not a Velikovsky disciple (I also don't think I know any), not into "Saturn Theory", and am very "show me hard evidence not just models"-oriented. But I've got to tell you, it was the examination of (ever-growing) authoritative evidence - mostly but not exclusively from NASA (which is hilarious considering they're almost totally "not on board" with EU theory) that brought me to my current views, and continues to reinforce them.

I will NOT turn this into an attempt at "EU-evangelizing". Instead I'll simply say that I'm constantly on guard for falsification, and against confirmation bias and self-delusion. I actually really want to know when I'm provably dead wrong about something, and so far the few EU-oriented stances I've planted my flag on are holding up well. The areas/premises that I'm either unsure or unlearned about, I'll admit. I don't feel threatened by contrary opinions, and welcome contrary hard evidence.
Walter_Mrak
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
Static electricity, "not very strong ! ?"

The gravitational pull of the planet earth is tugging away at the balloon, which would rather stick to you because of its greater affinity for you. Either you are that "attractive," or that ballon is greatly misguided!
TheFlynn
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
So, what I'm getting is this: The patchwork of positive and negative charges are rubbed against each other (ie: balloon and drywall ceiling) and through this interaction these patches get stirred up and pushed around. As they seek equilibrium with their neighbors, the 'patchwork charge' is overpowered on each surface by contact with the other. Over time, the balance shifts such that one surface favors a positive charge and the other favors a negative charge. I would still expect the patchwork to exist on both surfaces after separation, but each having a bias, which would eventually return to a homogeneous state through something very much like entropy. Either that or it's easier to entangle electrons than I thought. Makes me want a bowl of magnetic ball-bearings...
irjsiq
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011


We will no doubt find ways to harness static electricity (from grain silos to lightning), but I don't think Rand's perpetual motion machine...

Perhaps People, myself included, should alter our perception of what constitutes a "Perpetual Motion Machine".
Maintenance/Service will be required.
Though the 'Art' is rudimentary, 'Self-Powered' Aircraft and ground Vehicles already exist!

Roy J Stewart,
Phoenix AZ

TheQuietMan
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2011
I'm not sure I buy into the articles premise. At this point it is a theory with experimental evidence that needs verification, this is the cornerstone of science.

Statements like lightening is not static electricity are so far out as to be ludicrous. Where does this stuff come from? It is right up there with overunity.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Jun 29, 2011
Interesting that this line of thought was overlooked for so long.
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Can we use a similar effect to repel?

David Swenson of 3M Corporation describes an anomaly where workers encountered a strange "invisible wall" in the area under a fast-moving sheet of electrically charged polypropelene film in a factory. This "invisible wall" was strong enough to prevent humans from passing through. A person near this "wall" was unable to turn, and so had to walk backwards to retreat from it.
http://amasci.com...all.html
Telekinetic
1 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2011
Galt's "engine" is google-able as Galt's Motor. It is a motor that runs on static electricity. Pretty much nonsense, but that is just my opinion.


Pyle, I'm pretty sure your opinion is correct, at least concerning the viability of such a concept. I think it would be rather hard (by which I mean "impossible") to sustain a potential difference, while creating a motive force, in an electrostatic-but-not-electrodynamic enviroment.

I think it worked well as a literary plot device, but it WAS just a plot device.

Rand's Galt character was most likely based on the very real genius Nikola Tesla. The "plot" against Tesla was also very real when he proposed a method of producing "free" energy, making Big Electric feel very uneasy.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Jun 30, 2011
@Pyle
A number of points:
Galt's "engine" is google-able as Galt's Motor.
Thanks for the link
It takes mechanical work to create static electricity so it seems silly to think you could effectively use it to make more mechanical work.
Generators of all sorts turn mech energy into electrical energy. And didn't you guys ever play with these in science class?
http://en.wikiped...enerator

-these can generate significant charge.

TheGhostofOtto1923
1.2 / 5 (6) Jun 30, 2011
From the wiki article

'Influence machine' - That sounds like steampunk mind control
Pyle
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
Generators of all sorts turn mech energy into electrical energy.
Yes. But this idea is waiting for mech energy into electrical energy and then capturing that. Why not just capture the mech energy? Even better, what causes the mech energy? Oh yeah the sun. Space based solar is the answer. You know this Otto. I heard you say it several times. Governments are just afraid of the potential to use microwave lasers we'd use as transmission as a weapon. Frankly, so am I.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2011
Otto also says
"If something is Inevitable then you had better be the first one to have it." Gunpowder, ocean navigation, steam power, railroads, autobahns, air travel, nuke plants... All were developed primarily because of their military applications.

All are fearsome. Civilization has benefited immensely from them whereas the Uncontrolled development of any of them could certainly have brought about it's destruction. This was NO ACCIDENT. Trust in our Shepherds. They know what They're doing.
http://m.inhabitat.com/japan-plans-21-billion-solar-space-post-to-power-294000-homes/

-Interesting that this has been in the works, and japan now has a nuclear crisis to give it incentive. How'd they pull THAT off? Maybe yakuza knows.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Jul 03, 2011
And who better to build large space construction projects and clean up mega nuke disasters than the robot masters themselves? They've got nothing better to do. Imagine what Benefit will be derived from this compulsory Incentive.

Nobody is going to be using space-based power stations as weapons against civilian populations. Unless of course that is the PLAN. Don't worry they're far too vulnerable - too easy to destroy in any number of ways.

Which is why Obama wants the US space program to focus on taking the high ground - the asteroid belt and the martian moons. A proper military Objective. Whoever owns them will own the entire inner system.
JHartikka
not rated yet Jul 10, 2011
'Static' Always Pulls

Can we use a similar effect to repel?


No. In reality, static electricity only attracts. Contrary to school books, static electricity does not repel.

The static electricity 'repel' is based on historical misinterpretation: In early experiments electrostatic pull towards environment in different potential was thought to be repel.

Quite like the child's hair in the photo: Hair does not repel. Actually, it is attracted to the environment in different potential.

With practical electrostatic experimets we can see that electrostatic force attraction is caused by potential difference. I.e. voltage difference. Electrostatic always pulls. Only magnetic force can attract.

Regards,

J. Hartikka

Finland
JHartikka@hotmail.com
JHartikka
not rated yet Jul 10, 2011

Triboelectric Voltage Increase

...clumps of patches are indeed transferred between objects as a result of touching...


That sounds reasonable. I could think of these clumps leaving the basic triboelectric material with a slight initial electric charge.

When the charged clumps are separated their initial charges of course makes voltage capacitively increase.

Quite like voltage increases between capacitor plates when they are separated. Pretty simple, isn't it..? :)

Regards,

J. Hartikka

Finland
JHartikka@hotmail.com

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