Once again I was called upon for the public service of South Yorkshire and to help out Michelle Mustard on Hallam FM find an answer to a question that had been bugging her all week: What causes static shocks and how can you avoid them?
To understand what causes static shocks, those annoying zaps that seem to come from seemingly innocuous objects without warning, we have to look at what the universe and everything in it is made of.
Atoms, which are the building blocks for all matter in the universe, are made up themselves of particles that look this:
The centre, or nucleus, of the atom has electrons zipping around the outside. These electrons have a negative charge (think electricity). Any time two surfaces come in to contact with each other electrons are exchanged. Some materials are more likely to lose their electrons from their surfaces and others are more likely to gain electrons.
Ultimately this means that the material that has gained the electrons will have more of a negative charge. If these ions (charged particles) cannot move because the material doesn’t conduct electricity (i.e., it’s an insulator) then those electrons hang about (literally they are static, in the sense that they don’t move).
That is until something that DOES conduct electricity comes in to contact with them, this is any conductor that is ‘earthed’, so that the electrons can flow from the insulator through to earth. This usually isn’t a massive energy, but because it happens over such a short amount of time it can sometimes look like a spark of electricity, and more often than not is felt as a little shock.
So I’m painting this as harmless, but these are the babies of the daddies of static shocks: lightning. Static electricity builds up in big storm clouds where ice has formed and the particles rub against each other until the charge has built up to such an extent that it can no longer be contained and draws up positive ion streamers from the ground – when the negative and positive streamers meet the ions are discharged with such power that they super-heat the air creating light (lightning) and the air expands so quickly from the heat that it causes a a loud sound wave to be produced (thunder).
And it doesn’t end there… flour, as you may or may not know, is highly explosive. There have been recorded instances where a spark arising from static charge building up in grain silos where flour dust particles have rubbed against each other have actually caused massive and seemingly spontaneous explosions.
How do you avoid getting static shocks then? Well my advice is to not drag your feet on carpets, especially in those generic flat, sheep-skin boots, and then touch taps, radiators, or any other metallic, earthed object. Secondly, avoid travellators and escalators (those rubber handles brushing against the metal…) and finally avoid synthetic fibres, or at least rubbing around in them too much.