plasma ball

Plasma ball

As a young boy, I was fascinated by static electricity. Electricity that I could produce! I wondered why some scientist hadn’t figured out how to harness this power to make electrical devices go. Those pops and zaps and sparks when we rub our feet on the carpet or take clothing off or out of the dryer seemed to come from nowhere.

I don’t recall ever having a science lesson in school about static electricity, though I have tenuous memories of rubbing balloons to produce it that may have been a class demonstration.

This morning there was a zap when I kissed my wife good morning. Ah, a spark is still there! I don’t want science to kill romance, but it led me to do some research into what was really happening.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena people observed and described. Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus made the first account; in his sixth century B.C. writings, he noted that if amber was rubbed hard enough, small dust particles will start sticking to it. Three hundred years later, Theophrastus followed up on Thales’ experiments by rubbing various kinds of stone and also observed the “power of attraction.” But neither of these natural philosophers found a satisfactory explanation for what they saw.                 Source 

Of course, it would be another two thousand years before the English word “electricity” was coined (from Latin “electricus,” meaning “like amber”). In that time, static electricity was more of a magic trick used to make things magically attract – like a paper to a charged hand.

Static electricity come from some electrons that are on the surface of any material. When certain materials rub against each other, electrons are pulled from the weaker material to the stronger binding force. Shuffle your feet along a carpet and then touch the metal doorknob and Zap, a small lightning bolt.

In winter or any time when the humidity is low, we notice it more because dry air is an electrical insulator. (Moist air acts as a conductor. )

How much power is in that spark? Typically, the amount is low. Well, the voltage can actually be very high – 100 times that of the outlet on the wall. But voltage is just a measure of the charge difference between objects. The thing you have to worry about is current. That is the measure of how many electrons are flowing and in your static electricity zaps it is just a few electrons. But those few electrons can have an impact.

On one dry winter day, I returned from a walk with my iPod Shuffle earbuds still in my ears listening to a podcast, and pulled off by zip-up sweatshirt and then touched the iPod. Pop! Not only did I feel a charge that ran up the wires to my ears, but the data stored on the device was damaged.

antistatic wristband

My experience didn’t damage the device itself, but static electricity can deliver a fatal charge to sensitive electronics. When people work on some electronics (such as inside a computer), they often wear an antistatic wristband. The wristband is grounded to some safe metal object nearby that wouldn’t be damaged by a static zap.  You could also ground yourself by touch a metal object or holding one (think of Ben Franklin’s key at the end of a kite string). Metal is a great conductor and the electrons are very happy to jump there.

A more serious though less likely threat is when you discharge electricity near flammable gases. My father showed me when I was quite young that when he was working on his car’s engine or around gasoline (including near a gas station pump), he would ground himself before touching the pumps or engine or car battery. I still do it when I’m working around my lawn mower and snowblower, though the risk is probably quite minimal.

People have humidifiers in their homes in winter for the positive effect it has on your skin and nasal passages, but it also reduces charge buildups. You might add fabric softener sheets to your dryer load to not only soften the clothing but to lessen static charges that make clothing cling. They actually tend to help balance out the electrons.

Woolen winter clothing and rubber-soled shoes will give you more of a static charge than cotton clothing and leather-soled shoes.

Does static electricity have any practical uses, as I had wondered in my childhood?  We have probably all seen a electrostatic generator make someone’s hair stand up or touched a ball that then produced lightning bolts from our fingers. But we can’t use it to power our smartphone – high voltage, low current. Still, it does have practical applications.

Electrostatic generators such as the Van de Graaff generator, and variations as the Pelletron, are used in physics research.

Many photocopiers use electric attraction to adhere charged toner particles onto paper. Some air fresheners (such as Fabreze) add more than a nice artificial fragrance because they are also discharging static electricity on dust particles which dissembles the bad smell.

Charged plates are used in some home heating and cooling systems and in industrial applications to capture dust, smoke and other minute particles. As particles move through the system, they pick up negative charges from a metal grid and are attracted to plates that are positively charged where they can be disposed of manually.

Static electricity is used in nanotechnology to pick up single atoms by laser beams. Nanoballoons can be switched between an inflated and a collapsed state using static electricity, and one day they might be used to deliver medication to specific tissues within the body.

On a more personal level, you may also see some more New Age than scientific applications, such as wearing a negative ion band on your wrist. These wristbands are promoted as being useful for sports and any time or activity where you need a power boost or increased energy. In this stressed world, that probably means all day, every day.

The claim – which may be definitively unproven but has some science behind it – is that the negative ions can “balance” you and can help sleep, sinuses, hay fever, asthma, the immune system, relaxation, stability, energy levels, concentration, joint and muscle aches, arthritis, circulation and more. Sounds rather miraculous.

Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules and we inhale them in abundance in certain places (those waterfalls, beaches, mountain streams).  When I’m watching the ocean waves on a beach or standing by falling water, I do feel “better.” Of course, some of that feeling comes from the natural beauty of the setting, but research also seems to indicate that some of that positivity in me comes from the higher number of negative ions there. Yes, this negative is positive in another sense. The opposite effects occur in a sealed office building: more positive ions, less aesthetics, more stress.

On the website, I read that negative ions that get into our bloodstream are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.

I wrote an entire post some years ago about the positive effects of negative ions, but I didn’t make the connection to static electricity.

We know that the dispersion of water from waterfalls, waves, or even lightning and water evaporation from plants, create hydrogen ions by splitting water molecules. The negative electrons join up with other free positive electrons in the air neutralizing their electrical charge.

An air ionizer (or negative ion generator) is a device that uses a high voltage charge to ionize air molecules and generate negative ions. Air ionizers are often used in air purifiers so that particles are attracted to the electrode in an effect similar to static electricity. These devices can cost hundreds of dollars for “professional” ionizers and less for household room devices.

One trendy application I see in offices lately are Himalayan salt lamps.
These are made from Himalayan pink salt which has minerals and is supposedly free from toxins. Lit and heated by a small lightbulb inside the hollowed out salt, it releases negative ions.

In a new Age way, these are said to create harmony and balance mind, body, and soul , and so make a good addition to a place used for meditation, yoga, or sleeping. I suppose the idea of having them in offices is to balance the positive ions that dominate those sterile spaces. Maybe they add some earth and fire elements to the feng shui of the space.

I say “New Age” when explaining these lamps because I could find no scientific evidence that they have any positive effects on people near them. But I don’t dismiss any possible placebo effect.

Can any type of device that produces negative ions have a positive effect on people and perhaps even act like a mild antidepressant? It seems too early to know for sure. Does filtering out dust mites and dander improve health? Sounds logical. Does putting negative ions into the air improve your mood? There is some evidence that it does.

Of course, the negative ions when I’m standing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River blow away the ones coming off a salt lamp, so I will stick to natural negative ion producers for the time being.

The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey by Wally Gobet on Flickr