Paper shavings attracted by a charged CD

Electrostatics is the branch of physics that deals with the phenomena and properties of stationary or slow-moving (without acceleration) electric charges.

Since classical antiquity, it was known that some materials such as amber attract lightweight particles after rubbing. The Greek word for amber, ήλεκτρον electron, was the source of the word 'electricity'. Electrostatic phenomena arise from the forces that electric charges exert on each other. Such forces are described by Coulomb's law. Even though electrostatically induced forces seem to be rather weak, the electrostatic force between e.g. an electron and a proton, that together make up a hydrogen atom, is about 40 orders of magnitude stronger than the gravitational force acting between them.

Electrostatic phenomena include many examples as simple as the attraction of the plastic wrap to your hand after you remove it from a package, to the apparently spontaneous explosion of grain silos, to damage of electronic components during manufacturing, to the operation of photocopiers. Electrostatics involves the buildup of charge on the surface of objects due to contact with other surfaces. Although charge exchange happens whenever any two surfaces contact and separate, the effects of charge exchange are usually only noticed when at least one of the surfaces has a high resistance to electrical flow. This is because the charges that transfer to or from the highly resistive surface are more or less trapped there for a long enough time for their effects to be observed. These charges then remain on the object until they either bleed off to ground or are quickly neutralized by a discharge: e.g., the familiar phenomenon of a static 'shock' is caused by the neutralization of charge built up in the body from contact with nonconductive surfaces.


Fundamental concepts

Coulomb's law

The fundamental equation of electrostatics is Coulomb's law, which describes the force between two point charges. The magnitude of the electrostatic force between two point electric charges Q1 and Q2 is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of each charge and inversely proportional to the surface area of a sphere whose radius is equal to the distance between the charges:

F = \frac{Q_1Q_2}{4\pi r^2\varepsilon_0}\ ,

where ε0 is a constant called the permittivity of free space, a defined value:

 \varepsilon_0 \ \stackrel{\mathrm{def}}{=}\ \frac {1}{\mu_0 {c_0}^2} = 8.854\ 187\ 817\ \times 10^{-12}   in A2s4 kg-1m−3 or C2N−1m−2 or F m−1.

The electric field

The electric field (in units of volts per meter) at a point is defined as the force (in newtons) per unit charge (in coulombs) on a charge at that point:

\vec{E} = \frac{\vec{F}}{q}.\,

From this definition and Coulomb's law, it follows that the magnitude of the electric field E created by a single point charge Q is:

E(\vec r) = \frac{Q}{4\pi\  r^2\varepsilon_0}.

The electric field produced by a distribution of charges given by the volume charge density \rho (\vec r) is obtained by a triple integral of a vector function:

\vec E(\vec r) = \frac {1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \iiint \frac {\vec r - \vec r '}{\left \| \vec r - \vec r ' \right \|^3} \rho (\vec r ')\, \operatorname{d}^3 r'.

Gauss's law

Gauss' law states that "the total electric flux through a closed surface is proportional to the total electric charge enclosed within the surface".

Mathematically, Gauss's law takes the form of an integral equation:

\oint_S\vec{E} \cdot\mathrm{d}\vec{A} =  \int_V{\rho\over\varepsilon_0}\cdot\mathrm{d}V.

Alternatively, in differential form, the equation becomes

\vec{\nabla}\cdot\vec{E} = {\rho\over\varepsilon_0}.

where \vec{\nabla} \cdot is the divergence operator.

Poisson's equation

The definition of electrostatic potential, combined with the differential form of Gauss's law (above), provides a relationship between the potential φ and the charge density ρ:

{\nabla}^2 \phi = - {\rho\over\varepsilon_0}.

This relationship is a form of Poisson's equation. Where ε0 is vacuum permittivity.

Laplace's equation

In the absence of unpaired electric charge, the equation becomes

{\nabla}^2 \phi = 0,

which is Laplace's equation.

The electrostatic approximation

The validity of the electrostatic approximation rests on the assumption that the electric field is irrotational:

\vec{\nabla}\times\vec{E} = 0.

From Faraday's law, this assumption implies the absence or near-absence of time-varying magnetic fields:

{\partial\vec{B}\over\partial t} = 0.

In other words, electrostatics does not require the absence of magnetic fields or electric currents. Rather, if magnetic fields or electric currents do exist, they must not change with time, or in the worst-case, they must change with time only very slowly. In some problems, both electrostatics and magnetostatics may be required for accurate predictions, but the coupling between the two can still be ignored.

Electrostatic potential

The electrostatic field (lines with arrows) of a nearby positive charge (+) causes the mobile charges in conductive objects to separate due to electrostatic induction. Negative charges (blue) are attracted and move to the surface of the object facing the external charge. Positive charges (red) are repelled and move to the surface facing away. These induced surface charges are exactly the right size and shape so their opposing electric field cancels the electric field of the external charge throughout the interior of the metal. Therefore the electrostatic field everywhere inside a conductive object is zero, and the electrostatic potential is constant.

Because the electric field is irrotational, it is possible to express the electric field as the gradient of a scalar function, called the electrostatic potential (also known as the voltage). An electric field, E, points from regions of high potential, φ, to regions of low potential, expressed mathematically as

\vec{E} = -\vec{\nabla}\phi.

The electrostatic potential at a point can be defined as the amount of work per unit charge required to move a charge from infinity to the given point.

Triboelectric series

The triboelectric effect is a type of contact electrification in which certain materials become electrically charged when they are brought into contact with a different material and then separated. One of the materials acquires a positive charge, and the other acquires an equal negative charge. The polarity and strength of the charges produced differ according to the materials, surface roughness, temperature, strain, and other properties. Amber, for example, can acquire an electric charge by friction with a material like wool. This property, first recorded by Thales of Miletus, was the first electrical phenomenon investigated by man. Other examples of materials that can acquire a significant charge when rubbed together include glass rubbed with silk, and hard rubber rubbed with fur.

Electrostatic generators

The presence of surface charge imbalance means that the objects will exhibit attractive or repulsive forces. This surface charge imbalance, which yields static electricity, can be generated by touching two differing surfaces together and then separating them due to the phenomena of contact electrification and the triboelectric effect. Rubbing two nonconductive objects generates a great amount of static electricity. This is not just the result of friction; two nonconductive surfaces can become charged by just being placed one on top of the other. Since most surfaces have a rough texture, it takes longer to achieve charging through contact than through rubbing. Rubbing objects together increases amount of adhesive contact between the two surfaces. Usually insulators, e.g., substances that do not conduct electricity, are good at both generating, and holding, a surface charge. Some examples of these substances are rubber, plastic, glass, and pith. Conductive objects only rarely generate charge imbalance except, for example, when a metal surface is impacted by solid or liquid nonconductors. The charge that is transferred during contact electrification is stored on the surface of each object. Static electric generators, devices which produce very high voltage at very low current and used for classroom physics demonstrations, rely on this effect.

Note that the presence of electric current does not detract from the electrostatic forces nor from the sparking, from the corona discharge, or other phenomena. Both phenomena can exist simultaneously in the same system.

See also: Friction machines, Wimshurst machines, and Van de Graaf generators.

Charge neutralization

Natural electrostatic phenomena are most familiar as an occasional annoyance in seasons of low humidity, but can be destructive and harmful in some situations (e.g. electronics manufacturing). When working in direct contact with integrated circuit electronics (especially delicate MOSFETs), or in the presence of flammable gas, care must be taken to avoid accumulating and suddenly discharging a static charge (see electrostatic discharge).

Charge induction

Charge induction occurs when a negatively charged object repels electrons from the surface of a second object. This creates a region in the second object that is more positively charged. An attractive force is then exerted between the objects. For example, when a balloon is rubbed, the balloon will stick to the wall as an attractive force is exerted by two oppositely charged surfaces (the surface of the wall gains an electric charge due to charge induction, as the free electrons at the surface of the wall are repelled by the negative balloon, creating a positive wall surface, which is subsequently attracted to the surface of the balloon). You can explore the effect with a simulation of the balloon and static electricity.

'Static' electricity

Before the year 1832, when Michael Faraday published the results of his experiment on the identity of electricities, physicists thought "static electricity" was somehow different from other electrical charges. Michael Faraday proved that the electricity induced from the magnet, voltaic electricity produced by a battery, and static electricity are all the same.

Static electricity is usually caused when certain materials are rubbed against each other, like wool on plastic or the soles of shoes on carpet. The process causes electrons to be pulled from the surface of one material and relocated on the surface of the other material.

A static shock occurs when the surface of the second material, negatively charged with electrons, touches a positively-charged conductor, or vice-versa.

Static electricity is commonly used in xerography, air filters, and some automotive paints. Static electricity is a build up of electric charges on two objects that have become separated from each other. Small electrical components can easily be damaged by static electricity. Component manufacturers use a number of antistatic devices to avoid this.

Static electricity and chemical industry

When different materials are brought together and then separated, an accumulation of electric charge can occur which leaves one material positively charged while the other becomes negatively charged. The mild shock that you receive when touching a grounded object after walking on carpet is an example of excess electrical charge accumulating in your body from frictional charging between your shoes and the carpet. The resulting charge build-up upon your body can generate a strong electrical discharge. Although experimenting with static electricity may be fun, similar sparks create severe hazards in those industries dealing with flammable substances, where a small electrical spark may ignite explosive mixtures with devastating consequences.

A similar charging mechanism can occur within low conductivity fluids flowing through pipelines—a process called flow electrification. Fluids which have low electrical conductivity (below 50 picosiemens per meter, where picosiemens per meter is a measure of electrical conductivity), are called accumulators. Fluids having conductivities above 50 pS/m are called non-accumulators. In non-accumulators, charges recombine as fast as they are separated and hence electrostatic charge generation is not significant. In the petrochemical industry, 50 pS/m is the recommended minimum value of electrical conductivity for adequate removal of charge from a fluid.

An important concept for insulating fluids is the static relaxation time. This is similar to the time constant (tau) within an RC circuit. For insulating materials, it is the ratio of the static dielectric constant divided by the electrical conductivity of the material. For hydrocarbon fluids, this is sometimes approximated by dividing the number 18 by the electrical conductivity of the fluid. Thus a fluid that has an electrical conductivity of 1 pS/cm (100 pS/m) will have an estimated relaxation time of about 18 seconds. The excess charge within a fluid will be almost completely dissipated after 4 to 5 times the relaxation time, or 90 seconds for the fluid in the above example.

Charge generation increases at higher fluid velocities and larger pipe diameters, becoming quite significant in pipes 8 inches (200 mm) or larger. Static charge generation in these systems is best controlled by limiting fluid velocity. The British standard BS PD CLC/TR 50404:2003 (formerly BS-5958-Part 2) Code of Practice for Control of Undesirable Static Electricity prescribes velocity limits. Because of its large impact on dielectric constant, the recommended velocity for hydrocarbon fluids containing water should be limited to 1 m/s.

Bonding and earthing are the usual ways by which charge buildup can be prevented. For fluids with electrical conductivity below 10 pS/m, bonding and earthing are not adequate for charge dissipation, and anti-static additives may be required.

Applicable standards

1.BS PD CLC/TR 50404:2003 Code of Practice for Control of Undesirable Static Electricity

2.NFPA 77 (2007) Recommended Practice on Static Electricity

3.API RP 2003 (1998) Protection Against Ignitions Arising Out of Static, Lightning, and Stray Currents

Electrostatic induction in commercial applications

The principle of electrostatic induction has been harnessed to beneficial effect in industry for many years, beginning with the introduction of electrostatic industrial painting systems for the economical and even application of enamel and polyurethane paints to consumer goods, including automobiles, bicycles, and other products.

See also



  • Faraday, Michael (1839). Experimental Researches in Electricity. London: Royal Inst. 
  • e-book at Project Gutenberg
  • Halliday, David; Robert Resnick; Kenneth S. Krane (1992). Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-80457-6. 
  • Griffiths, David J. (1999). Introduction to Electrodynamics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-805326-X. 
  • Hermann A. Haus and James R. Melcher (1989). Electromagnetic Fields and Energy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-249020-X. 

Further reading


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Electrostatics — E*lec tro*stat ics, n. (Physics) That branch of science which treats of statical electricity or electric force in a state of rest. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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