Back to Basics – Atoms, Electrons and Electricity

Why Do We Need to Worry about Static Electricity?

In this lesson, you will learn more about how static electricity is formed and why you must be aware of static electricity risks when handling flammable fluids.

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How Does Different Material Behave in Terms of Static Electricity?

Conductivity differs between different materials. To know how to handle your equipment onboard, you will learn more about the classification of materials in this lesson.

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What Are the Sources of Static Electricity Onboard?

In this lesson, you will learn more about static accumulators and the importance of interting when handling flammable fluids.

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What Precautions Can Be Implemented to Mitigate the Risks Posed By Static Electricity?

What can you do to minimize the risks of static electricity? In this lesson, you will learn more about precautions to prevent incidents that electrostatic discharges may cause.

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Step 3 of 43 minutes read

Back to Basics – Atoms, Electrons and Electricity

To have a proper understanding of static electricity, we first need to revisit some basic science principles. This will help in building the knowledge blocks to build up towards the more complex terminology.

All everyday objects that can be touched and most of the matter in the universe are made of atoms. Atoms consist of two basic things; the nucleus and the so-called shells. The nucleus consists of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, and the shells consist of negatively charged electrons that orbit the nucleus. 

A sketch of an atomic diagram.

An atom in its normal state has an equal number of protons and electrons and thus is electrical potential is initially neutral in nature. An atom never loses particles from its nucleus unless there is an atomic reaction, therefore it does not normally lose any neutrons or protons.

Therefore, for an atom to become charged, it must either lose or gain electrons, to or from another material.

Due to the relatively low mass of the electrons, they are easily released with a small amount of energy. One common way how electrons transposition themselves is by friction. However, this is not the same for all atoms, while some atoms have the tendency to release electrons easily, others have a tendency to accept electrons easily. 

Without going into further details at the atomic level, a conductor of electricity has loosely bound electrons in the outer shell of its atom. These electrons are "eager" to escape from the atom. Therefore, conductors have the affinity to release their electrons easily and thus become positively charged since they lose some of their negatively charged particles.

Non-conductors which are also known as insulators, such as most types of plastic, have tightly bound electrons which do not release easily. However, they may still accept electrons once available. Thus, insulators tend to become negatively charged.

Thus summing up, when a material gains electrons, it becomes negatively charged, and when it loses electrons, it becomes positively charged.

The Relation between Electrons and Electricity

Electricity is the flow of energy and this energy is basically an electrical charge. As already discussed, due to their relative ease of movement and their negative charge, electrons are the carriers of this charge. This means that once electrons are freed from an atom and forced to move, we then have an electrical charge flow, which is known as electricity.

What Is Static Electricity?

Static electricity is the result of an imbalance between negative and positive charges in an object. These charges can build up on the surface of an object until they find a way to be released or discharged.

This may occur when two dissimilar materials experience friction, one gives up some of its electrons and the other receives them. The material that gives up electrons becomes positively charged and the one that receives electrons becomes negatively charged.

The charge continues to build up on the surface of the insulator if the process is continued until the charge becomes too large or until they find a way to be released or discharged. The charge may either be discharged to ground, a neutrally charged material, or towards a positively charged material.