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The Triboelectric Effect

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    What is the The Triboelectric Effect?

    The triboelectric effect occurs when materials become electrically charged after they come into contact with another different material through pressing together or friction (which greatly enhances the effect). For example, rubbing glass or a plastic comb with fur or wool can trigger triboelectricity.

    In a simplistic way it's possible to say that materials (in most cases insulating materials) are charged when electrons are rubbed off by the atoms of one material from another. But the actual process is quite complicated. After coming into contact by friction or rubbing, a chemical bond is formed between some parts of the two surfaces, called adhesion, and as a result electrical charges move from one material to the other in a complicated way.

    The material that "steals" electrons from the other is said to have a stronger affinity for electrons (negative charge). After separation this material has a surplus of electrons and the meaning is that its surface will become negatively charged and in the same way the other material which lost electrons will become positively charged.

    Different materials have different abilities to take electrons from other materials - what is called electron affinity. Materials with a higher electron affinity are supposed to "steal" electrons from materials with lower affinities and as a result to be negatively charged. Materials could be arranged in an ordinary way according to their relative strength of affinity - what we call triboelectric series.

    Different charged objects (negative - positive) will attract each other while objects with same charge will repel each other. For example, human hair becomes positively charged when combed with a plastic comb because the comb collects electrons from the hair. Since similar charges repel, the hair strands will repel each other. This is called "flyaway" hair. A negatively charged comb will also attract materials with no charge at all or electrically neutral - like small pieces of paper.

    Most everyday static electricity phenomena is triboelectric. Because the surface of a certain material is electrically charged by a rubbing effect, either negatively or positively, any contact with an uncharged conductive object or with an object having an opposite charge may cause an electrical discharge in an attempt to equalize the electrical charges and this triggers a spark.

    Video Demonstration

    When we rub a plastic comb or an ebony rod with a piece of wool, silk or a cloth of cotton they attract pieces of paper.

    The rubbed comb exerts a force on the pieces of paper and sets them into motion as a result of static electricity generated by the rubbing effect.

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    Last updated: October 2012
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