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New Fulbright scholar unlocking the mystery of static electricity

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A distinguished American scholar in the field of materials science and engineering is collaborating with Curtin University researchers to unravel the curious and sometimes dangerous phenomenon of static electricity, which has long eluded a universally accepted scientific explanation.

Professor Laurence Marks from Northwestern University will spend six months in Australia after securing a prestigious Fulbright US Scholar fellowship from the US Department of State and the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

Curtin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne said she was delighted to welcome Professor Marks to Curtin as he continues his study of how static electricity forms.

“Professor Marks has established himself as a leading authority in the study of surface science, nanotechnology and computational materials science and I look forward to seeing the real-world impacts of this exciting collaboration over the coming year,” Professor Hayne said.

Professor Marks will work alongside Associate Professor Simone Ciampi and Professors Julian Gale and Paolo Raiteri from Curtin’s School of Molecular and Life Sciences, to deepen our understanding of static electricity which could have broad implications.

“Most people have experienced the hair-raising act of rubbing hair with a balloon or the unexpected jolt when shuffling across carpet, but static electricity is more than just a curiosity,” Professor Marks said.

“I’m particularly excited to be in Western Australia and working with Curtin University experts to provide new scientific insights that could pave the way to better controlling static electricity in hazardous environments where a spark could cause a deadly fire or explosion. This research could even open new opportunities for energy harvesting.”

In 2019, Professor Marks and his team discovered when two objects are rubbed together, the bending of tiny protrusions on their surfaces creates voltage – something called triboelectricity or static electricity. The findings were published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Associate Professor Simone Ciampi, whose research focuses on sustainable energy sources, particularly innovative methods for converting mechanical motion into electrical energy, said he was excited to explore static electricity’s untapped potential.

“The complex mechanisms and behaviours of the phenomenon are unpredictable and are not fully understood. This collaboration is one of the most promising avenues in global static electricity research,” Associate Professor Ciampi said.

“I am thrilled to be working alongside Professor Marks on this fascinating journey of discovery.”

Fulbright award recipients, chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential, play a pivotal role in fostering international cooperation and scholarly exchange. Professor Marks is the fifth international academic to visit Curtin as part of the Fulbright program.

For more information about the Fulbright scholarships, visit here.

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