A Shocking Discovery

June 24, 2011

Rheanna Sand


So much of science is about tackling new and narrow problems. Ask any grad student what their thesis is about, and you'll either get an answer so specific it ceases to be English ("A multi-faceted look at the voltage-sensing ability of Kv proteins, using comparative, experimental, and pharmacological approaches"), or something so simplified it becomes meaningless ("uh, proteins"). And yes, most of the time we give one answer when we should be giving the other.

This is what made a particular science news story stand out in my mind this week. A paper published in yesterday's issue of Science has revealed the true nature of static electricity! Forget about new problems, how about solving a mystery that is at least 2500 years old?

Static electricity, or "contact electrification" to the cool kids, is usually described as electrons being transferred from one object to the other, making one positively charged and the other negatively charged. For example, when you shuffle across the carpet, your body picks up electrons and discharges them when you touch a conductor, like a doorknob or your cat's nose. Scientists thought this whole time that each object had an even distribution of charges on it's surface, but if that was the case, two pieces of the exact same material should not build up static electricity when rubbed together. They in fact can.

These Northwestern researchers took it upon themselves to use a fancy technique called Kelvin force microscopy that can scan the surface of a material and read the amount of charge on every tiny square nanometer. When they did this with a material that had been charged by static electricity, they found a "mosaic" of charge, or a patchwork of positive and negative areas that, in the end, balance out to either a net negative or net positive charge. Each patch had an unexpectedly high amount of charge, as well.



It's not every day you see a paper addressing a concept as old as fly-away hair!


DOI: 10.1126/science.1201512

Image via Flickr



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