The following article was prepared by Anne Hailes, a reporter for the Irish News (Belfast) newspaper. Expert comment and knowledge on the subject of static electricity for public dissemination was provided upon request. The draft article was subsequently edited for technical accuracy and issued to the reporter for newpaper publication :
IRISH NEWS – static electricity – ANNE HAILES - June 2010
I had seven shocks in a supermarket recently. Electrifying experience as Travolta would say. The lift button was worst, a scarf with metal thread woven through it was most surprising but as I left I set the alarms off and when I inadvertently touch the security guards fingers, I belted him with an electric shock. ‘Mrs.’ He said seriously, ‘you’d need to be careful, and you could combust if you’re not careful.’
It’s the story of my life. Watches loose or gain an hour at a time, I have to close the car door by the window; when I worked in the BBC and went out with the Uher tape recorder, no matter if there were new batteries and it was just been checked, inevitably it refused to work. I had to leave it in the room, go outside and count to ten, return and then it was OK. During a big job I was doing in England, a personal mike was attached to my jacket and someone shouted cue and I was off, but the mike remained silent. It was replaced – again it wouldn’t work. I knew what was wrong but the sound engineer was almost in tears, time is money. He went back to base and returned with a new mike. It worked perfectly, we’d been separated for long enough. Another thing, a brand new state of the art machine at Queen’s University; I sat beside it to record a commentary and suddenly it stopped working. There was a lot of fiddling with knobs but I had the solution. “I’ll just go outside for a few minutes and when I come back it will work.” And it did. Now I know it’s because I am prone to static electricity. Many people are like me.
What is Static Electricity?
I turned to Queen’s University for this answer. Now pay attention!
‘Everything we see is made up of tiny little parts called atoms. The atoms are made of even smaller parts. These are called protons, electrons and neutrons. One way in which they differ is their "charge." Protons have a positive (+) charge. Electrons have a negative (-) charge. Neutrons have no charge. You see these symbols on batteries and when they are positioned properly they form a circuit so the power will run the radio or torch or Nintendo.
Usually, atoms have the same number of electrons and protons in which case the atom has no charge, it is "neutral." But if you rub things together, electrons can move from one object to another and unbalance the situation. You know the way your hair stands up on end when you pull a nylon blouse or shirt or over your hair? This is because electrons are upsetting everything by moving from your hair to the material, so they all stand up in protest.
Remember that game with the balloon. Rub it against your hair and you’ll hear a crackle and the balloon will stick to the wall. In layman’s terms, this is the negative electrons and the positive protons acting like a magnet. Try brushing your hair vigorously and then holding it over a piece of paper and the paper will lift up and attach itself to the brush.
Relate this to men and women. Some people repel you, you just don’t jell and there is no attraction. Others attract you immediately, something ‘sparks’, you’re ‘switched on’. That’s because our atoms are in tune!
Here’s the nub of the question. When atoms get extra electrons they have a negative charge. When other atoms lose electrons they have a positive charge. When charges are separated like this, it’s called static electricity. Static electricity is normally established by the accumulation of electrons, which can build up and ‘charge’ an object, often to quite a high voltage. In the summer there is generally less ground-level static as the moisture in the air provides a way to discharge this electricity, as water can conduct the charge. One type of static electricity is lightening.
Lightening is a very much more powerful version of static and of course very dangerous.
Throughout history there have been some spectacular strikes. In Italy in 1769 lightening struck the Church of St. Nazaire igniting 100 tonnes of gunpowder stored in its vaults. The explosion killed 3000 people and destroyed one sixth of the city. Famously in 1902 lightning damaged the upper section of the Eiffel Tower and more recently in 1994, lightening struck fuel tanks in Egypt and caused 469 fatalities. We’re advised not to stand under trees, put up an umbrella, use a telephone or a computer during a storm as this can provide a path for atmospheric discharge, so lightening is a natural and potent force to be reckoned with!
Thankfully our every day experience with static is much less dramatic. If you walk across a carpet, electrons move from the rug to you. Now you have extra electrons. Touch a door knob and ZAP! The electrons move from you to the knob. You get a shock. The same thing happens in a supermarket when you hold the escalator rail or touch a metal shelf – or a scarf with metallic thread. Sometimes you’ll see a rubber strap hanging down underneath a car, this is to discharge static from the metal into the ground. Some people will wear an ankle or wrist band, an ‘earth strap’, useful when working at electronic equipment like computers not to protect you but to protect components within the machine, and you can even get straps which slip over your shoe and is secured by Velcro.
Other basic advice includes increasing the humidity in the house or office. Air is much drier in the winter, which increases the frequency and severity of shocks so use a humidifier. Change your wardrobe, switch to natural fibers, since synthetics pick up more of a static charge. Change shoes - there are special conductive shoes in a variety of styles. They are made for people working in the electronics industry. You will need to find a store or catalogue that sells or can order them for you. (Search online for "ESD shoes") If your skin is very dry - try an anti-static hand lotion also available for the electronics industry. Walk barefoot or cover your shoes with aluminum foil to reduce the static buildup. Wear a thimble on your finger, or carry a coin, and use them to touch grounded metal objects as often as possible. This will not eliminate the static discharge but will stop the tingling pain you feel in your fingertips.
Thanks to Tim Littler and Donna McCullough for their advice. I’m away to buy tinfoil!
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