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Static Electricity and Static Discharge

The relationship between the buildup of electrons and the sudden flow of electrons from one charged object to another.

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Using Static

Using Static


Credit: Mark Barker
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BosMusOSci_VanDGLightening.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

This odd-looking machine is called a Van de Graaf generator. It’s located in the Boston Museum of Science. Like other Van de Graaf generators, it generates static electricity. When enough static electricity builds up on its surface, it discharges the electricity as an artificial bolt of lightning.

The Back Story

  • Static electricity can be entertaining. Not only can you use it to generate artificial lightning with a Van de Graaf generator. You can use it to stick a balloon to a wall or to cause your hair to stand on end. Static electricity is also responsible for the shock you may get when you reach out to touch a metal doorknob.
  • Credit: andrechinn
    Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrec/7827516246/
    License: CC BY-NC 3.0

    The hairs on her head repel one another, causing them to stand up [Figure2]

  • How does a Van de Graaf generator work, and what causes static electricity? Watch this Bill Nye the Science Guy video to find out:


Show What You Know

Learn more about static electricity, including some practical uses for it, at the link below. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. What is static electricity? Where does this type of electricity get its name?
  2. How does a Van de Graaf generator create static electricity?
  3. If a person touches a Van de Graaf generator, his or her hair stands on end. Explain why.
  4. What is static cling? Why do clothes develop static cling in a clothes dryer?
  5. What causes you to hear static on a radio?
  6. What is static discharge? Where do electrons in static electricity go when the static electricity is discharged?
  7. Explain what happens when you vigorously comb your hair and then hold the comb near water flowing from a tap.
  8. Describe three real-world applications of static electricity.
  9. Would it be practical to capture, store, and use static electricity to power homes? Why or why not?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Mark Barker; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BosMusOSci_VanDGLightening.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: andrechinn; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrec/7827516246/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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