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"Leading the Charge" -- The Discovery Files

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New research led by Case Western Reserve University indicates that tiny holes and cracks in a material -- changes in the microstructure -- can control how the material becomes electrically charged through friction. The research is a step toward understanding and, ultimately, managing the charging process for specific uses and to increase safety, the researchers say.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Getting some static

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

It's why packing peanuts seem to stick to everything and why after rubbing a balloon on your head, you can stick it on a wall. (Sound effect: static arc sound) Good ol' static electricity. Although science has a name for it -- "triboelectric charging" -- we still do not fully understand how it puts a charge into something.

A research team at Case Western Reserve University has taken a big step -- not shuffling in socks across a carpet -- but toward solving this centuries-old question.

Using sheets of film made from PTFE -- the stuff used on some non-stick cookware -- the researchers found that a strain in a material -- such as stretching -- causes changes in the microstructure and those strained surfaces were more likely to come away with a positive charge when rubbed against unstrained material. The strained material has tiny holes and cracks that seem to control how it becomes electrically charged through friction, (Sound effect: light static) fairly consistently, but not all the time. When rubbing either two strained or two unstrained films, charging was erratic.

Understanding and controlling triboelectric charging could help avoid static electricity-sparked explosions. Materials like paint or fertilizer could be charged so they stick better.

(Sound effect: industrial sprayer) Would it work on my spray tan?

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