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Curtin research reveals the mysterious cause of static electricity

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Curtin University chemists have explained the enigmatic everyday phenomenon of static electricity and why it occurs, with the breakthrough offering potential benefits to the mining, electronics and printing industries.

In new research published in the Journal of The American Chemical Society, the researchers demonstrated that the breaking of chemical bonds – a pair of electrons – is what causes the surface of two objects to gain an excess of electrical charges when rubbed together, resulting in static electricity.

Lead researcher Dr Simone Ciampi, from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences and Curtin Institute for Functional Molecules and Interfaces, said that while the visible effects of static charging were commonplace, the molecular origin of the electrification process remained hotly debated.

Dr Ciampi said a particularly contentious aspect of the debate included explaining why some plastics were more easily charged than others, and why some acquired a net positive electrical charge while others charged to negative values.

“Children’s hair attracted to a party balloon, the static zap you get when stepping out of your car and the transfer of ink to the toner of a laser printer are all everyday examples of static electricity yet there is much that remains unanswered about the phenomenon,” Dr Ciampi said.

“The key discovery of this research was the revelation of a material-specific relationship between a plastic sample’s net charge and its ability to turn charged soluble metal ions into metallic solid deposits.

“This research extends our chemical understanding of static electricity, and also paves the way for a design of plastic materials where electrification upon contact – deliberate or not – can be either maximised or prevented.”

Dr Ciampi said the research findings had potential implications for safer operations and greater efficiencies across various industries, including the mining, electronics and printing sectors.

“These findings have many potential applications, including in the design of pipes transporting flammable hydrocarbons where charging and sparks are unwanted, in nanotechnology and in the design of laser printer toners,” Dr Ciampi said.

For the research, experiments were conducted at the surface chemistry laboratories of Curtin while theoretical work took place at the Australian National University under the guidance of study co-author Professor Michelle Coote.

The article, ‘Electrochemistry on Tribocharged Polymers Is Governed by the Stability of Surface Charges Rather than Charging Magnitude’ can be found online here.

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