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Static electricity

Static electricity has been investigated for more than 2 thousand years. The earliest written scientific accounts of 'static electricity' are believed to be those of Thales of Miletus at around 600BC. He thought (correctly, but for the wrong reasons) that it was linked in some way to magnetism.

Explanations of the physical mechanisms behind the phenomenon are still under dispute.

“Electrostatics is an exciting area of science, as its most basic scientific questions remain unknown and highly controversial … and yet its consequences are widespread. For example, the identity of the species transferred to generate charge when materials rub is being hotly debated in the leading scientific journals – some researchers argue that it is electrons, others that it is ions, and yet others that it is bits of material.”

Source : Electrostatics Society of America

Some examples of the confusion around possible explanations :

The Wikipedia page for triboelectric contact charging states that :

If two different insulators are touched together, such as when a piece of rubber is touched against a piece of glass, then the surface of the rubber will acquire an excess negative charge, and the glass will acquire an equal positive charge. If the surfaces are then pulled apart, a very high voltage is produced. This so-called 'tribo' or 'rubbing' effect is not well understood. It may be caused by electron-stealing via quantum tunneling, or by transfer of surface ions."

Whilst another Wikipedia page on the phenomenon gives no hint that there is any controversy about the effect.

A 2016 paper for the specialist Journal of Electrostatics informs :

When two initially uncharged material surfaces come in contact and then separate, an exchange of charges can occur such that one surface becomes positively charged and the other becomes negatively charged. This basic description of “contact electrification” is one of the most well-known phenomena in physics, and examples arise in almost every industry. However, a scientific basis for contact charging remains unknown. It is not clear whether the species transferred between surfaces that lead to charging are electrons, ions, or bits of material, how the direction of netcharge transfer depends on material properties[, or why the charge is heterogeneous both in terms of polarity and magnitude across the surface.

See: First-principles calculation of contact electrification and validation by experiment Journal of Electrostatics 82(6–7):11-16

(Note: The term 'electricity' comes from ἤλεκτρον [ ēlektron ] meaning 'amber' - which was used to generate electrostatic charges by rubbing on cloth.)

Also see : Lightningplugin-autotooltip__plain plugin-autotooltip_bigLightning

High powered lightning discharges are happening somewhere on Earth 100 times every second.

A possible mechanism for the very substantial electrical charges within the clouds was put forward in 1978. Following lab-based experiments, it was suggested that the charges arise from the static-electric interactions of graupel (slush) and ice crystals moving within the cloud (due to convection currents caused by widely differing air temperatures) .

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