What is the Definition of Static Electricity?

My grade nine textbook states:

Static electricity is the imbalance of positive and negative charges.

What exactly does this mean?

I understand how electrons can be added/removed from atoms making the atom negatively or positively charged.

Is the definition just saying that static electricity is when atoms become positively or negatively charged when electrons move between atoms?


Electricity is the flow of positive or negative charges in response to electric forces (an electric field). Static means something is not moving, but there is still an electric field.

What is happening is normally positive and negative charges occur in equal amounts everywhere, so there is no net charge. We say they cancel each other out. If you have more of one or the other, then there is a net charge (an imbalance, as your text states). Since opposite charges attract, another charge would feel a force towards this imbalance. Similarly, the imbalanced charge would feel a force due to other charges surrounding it (ones that aren't cancelled out). If you live in a dry climate you may know the sensation of your hair standing on end after rubbing a balloon on it. What happens is each hair has some extra charge deposited on it, and all these charges are repelling eachother, taking your hair with it.

We say it's static because the charges can't go anywhere. This is because the extra charge displaces the charges nearby it, pulling the opposite ones closer and pushing the same ones farther away. What's important is that it can't push these other charges very far (the material is not a conductor). We say it "polarizes" the material.

Even though the net charge of one of your strands of hair might be negative, and be repelled by other strands, the extra electrons have surrounded themselves with positive charges and are "stuck" in a sense. This is why you need friction to cause an imbalance of charges. You are overcoming this stickiness.

Now if you brought a conductor (e.g., metal) to the material, the charge can attach itself to the metal in the same way, (polarizing the material and then pulling itself towards opposite charges) but because charges on conductors can move around, the extra charge can flow more freely. The charge is still "stuck" to the conductor, but can move around inside the conductor.

  • $\begingroup$ It was a bit difficult to understand for a grade nine (I'm just starting the unit today) but you're saying that static electricity is when an atom loses / gains an electron and becomes positively or negatively charged and attracts or repels and object? $\endgroup$ – jiwonpark Nov 12 '13 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ Feel free to ask for clarification. You seem to get the gist of it. I would say that the material/object as a whole loses or gains charges that make it no longer neutral, or parts of it no longer neutral (e.g., your hair). The extra charge is not so much bound to any single atom (if you're thinking orbitals). Rather it is "hanging around" like a fly in your jam :) $\endgroup$ – lionelbrits Nov 12 '13 at 1:31

To put the definition simply, static electricity is when you have an ion with a net positive or a net negative charge, but it cannot move that charge because there is no other opposite polarity ion to move it to, so it is stationary, or static.

  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by the charge moving? Do you mean that its stationary because the electrons don't have any other object to move to? $\endgroup$ – jiwonpark Nov 12 '13 at 23:47
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Sorry if that was unclear. $\endgroup$ – ninjas28 Nov 15 '13 at 4:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.