Trampoline vs. Lightning – What You Should Know About Static Electricity

Kid on a Trampoline with hair standing up due to static electricity

What a cute kid!

What is happening to his hair?

lightning

Little baby hair is so much better at showing static buildup than adult hair.  My little guy loves crawling on the trampoline (I think it is much softer on his little chubby knees), which results in this fantastic do.  Of course I have to use this adorable moment to expand on science.  Electrons are AMAZING! They are so versatile; making this little up-do relate completely to this dangerous bolt of lightning.

 

Brandon Morgan

Atoms make up everything

Before we get started, lets do a quick review of atomic structure.  Atoms are the building blocks of everything.  (Yes, atoms are made of smaller parts but those smaller parts don’t act like the matter we are used to dealing with so it just isn’t worth worrying over these smaller parts).

You can't trust an Atom, they make up everything

They contain a basic structure that scientists have been working to discover and describe since Aristotle.  They contain larger particles known as protons and neutrons bound tightly together in the center around which fly the much smaller electrons.  The protons are positively charged and attract the negatively charged electrons.  The electrons don’t fly into the nucleus and stick to the protons due to their velocity.  They are just going too fast.

 

Now that we recall the anatomy of an atom, let’s talk about static electricity and hair standing-on-end.

 

Someone did a ton of measuring and came up with a list of materials ordered in a way that shows which material is more conductive (or a better insulator.  It depends on how you look at the list.)

Are you asking yourself, “What does this have to do with static hair?”

Electron affinity is how good an atom is at stealing electrons from another atom

Well let me tell you…

It all has to do with an imbalance of electrons on different materials, with different amounts of conductivity.

Isn’t it amazing how we can affect something as small as an atom?

Static on the trampoline

When my little boy rubs his knees across the trampoline he pushes hard enough (which isn’t that hard right? cuz he isn’t even one-year old) that it causes the atoms to squish into each other and lose electrons.  The material that is a better conductor will lose the electrons to the material that is not as good of a conductor (also known as an insulator).

Triboelectric series from soft-matter.seas.harvard.edu
Image Reference:[ http://www.esdsystems.com/whitepapers/wp_tribocharging.html] via soft-matter.seas.harvard.edu
This is the point at which the list of conductive materials comes in handy.  Most trampoline mats are made of some form of polypropylene.  On these lists, known as a triboelectric series, polypropylene is found as one of the best
insulating materials (not the best, but close. and therefore isn’t good at conducting electrons at all). This means that the trampoline mat will steal electrons from my son’s clothing and even skin.  (Did I hear a big gasp? Do you feel alarmed? Well you shouldn’t.  It will all work out.  You’ll see)

This leaves my son positively charged and the mat negatively charged.valence shell is the location of the electrons that are held most loosely by the protons

Static charge

Hopefully you remember that opposites attract and therefore similar charges repel.  Well, each individual hair on his head is now positively charged and will repel all of the other hairs.  Standing on end like that allows the hairs to be as far apart as possible.

Now the really cool part…

Lightning

This is similar to what happens to create lightning.  Before lightning can actually happen, there has to be some electron stealing.  Just like the trampoline mat stole electrons from my boy, water droplets in clouds steal electrons from each other.  This causes the lower part of a storm cloud to become concentrated with negative charge. The top of the storm cloud is positively charged.  Remember, opposites attract and similar charges repel.  The bottom of the cloud becomes so negatively charged that it actually repels the electrons in the ground below it.  The ground then becomes positively charged.

AMAZING! Electrons are tiny, beyond microscopic and they do sooooo. much. work.

Balancing out electrons

Like all of us, electrons need balance in their lives.  For electrons, that balance usually comes when the ground helps out.  When my son gets off the trampoline, the electrons can balance themselves out.

Think of the earth as an infinite supply of electrons; always accepting or delivering electrons where they need to go.

When the storm cloud builds up enough charge, the electrons can actually travel through the air to make a connection with the ground (sometimes this is THROUGH buildings or trees etc.) and balance out the charges.

Electrons, not Protons

Electrons are the ones moving, not the protons.  Lack of electrons leaves more protons hanging around which results in an overall positive charge.  It is NOT a result of more protons showing up to the party.

Everything will always work out

Building up charge on a trampoline or by scuffing along a carpet or during a thunderstorm will always end up balancing itself out. Once a connection with the ground is made, the electrons will move to where they need to be to even out the charges. Hopefully with no harm done. (Really you only need to worry about the lightning. Trampolines just aren’t going to build up enough charge to harm you.) If you do build up enough charge on a trampoline and then touch the metal frame, you will get quite a shock as electrons balance themselves out, and sometimes that can hurt.

 

This post only scratches the surface of what electrons are capable of.

Leave a comment below and start a discussion of your opinion of electrons.  Below are a few links for additional reading.

Information on Triboelectric Series

Information on Lightning

 

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