Static Electricity: Experiments and Projects

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SAFETY NOTE: Please read all instructions completely before starting the projects. Observe all safety precautions.

Tip: Try to use the part of the charged object that has the biggest charge (the part that was rubbed the most) when doing these experiments. Also, Projects 1-3 work best on dry days.


PROJECT 1 - Swinging cereal

What you need:

a hard rubber or plastic comb, or a balloon

thread, small pieces of dry cereal (O-shapes, or puffed rice of wheat)

What to do:

  1. Tie a piece of the cereal to one end of a 12 inch piece of thread. Find a place to attach the other end so that the cereal does not hang close to anything else. (You can tape the thread to the edge of a table but check with your parents first.)
  2. Wash the comb to remove any oils and dry it well.
  3. Charge the comb by running it through long, dry hair several times, or vigorously rub the comb on a wool sweater.
  4. Slowly bring the comb near the cereal. It will swing to touch the comb. Hold it still until the cereal jumps away by itself.
  5. Now try to touch the comb to the cereal again. It will move away as the comb approaches.
  6. This project can also be done by substituting a balloon for the comb.

What Happened: Combing your hair moved electrons from your hair to the comb. The comb had a negative static charge. The neutral cereal was attracted to it. When they touched, electrons slowly moved from the comb to the cereal. Now both objects had the same negative charge, and the cereal was repelled.

PROJECT 2 - Bending water

What you need:

a hard rubber or plastic comb, or a balloon

a sink and water faucet.

What to do:

  1. Turn on the faucet so that the water runs out in a small, steady stream, about 1/8 inch thick.
  2. Charge the comb by running it through long, dry hair several times or rub it vigorously on a sweater.
  3. Slowly bring the comb near the water and watch the water "bend."
  4. This project can also be done using a balloon instead of the comb.

What happened: The neutral water was attracted to the charged comb, and moved towards it.

PROJECT 3 - Light a light bulb with a balloon

You Need:

hard rubber comb or balloon

a dark room

fluorescent light bulb (not an incandescent bulb)

SAFETY NOTE: DO NOT USE ELECTRICITY FROM A WALL OUTLET FOR THIS EXPERIMENT. Handle the glass light bulb with care to avoid breakage. The bulb can be wrapped in sticky, transparent tape to reduce the chance of injury if it does break.

What to do:

  1. Take the light bulb and comb into the dark room.
  2. Charge the comb on your hair or sweater. Make sure to build up a lot of charge for this experiment.
  3. Touch the charged part of the comb to the light bulb and watch very carefully. You should be able to see small sparks. Experiment with touching different parts of the bulb.

What happened: When the charged comb touched the bulb, electrons moved from it to the bulb, causing the small sparks of light inside. In normal operation, the electrons to light the bulb come from the electrical power lines through a wire in the end of the tube. (Fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs will be discussed in a future issue.)

PROJECT 4 - Static in the Summer

What you need:

a balloon, and a watch or clock

What you do:

  1. Rub the balloon on your hair or sweater. Stick it to a wall and time how long it stays before falling down.
  2. Repeat step (1) in the bathroom, just after someone has taken a hot, steamy shower.

What happened: In the bathroom, water in the air and on the walls helped move electrons away from the balloon more quickly. In the summer, the air is more humid, and static electricity does not build up as much as during the winter, when the air is very dry.