Triboelectric effect

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The triboelectric effect (also known as triboelectric charging) is a type of contact electrification in which certain materials become electrically charged after they come into contact with another different material and are then separated (such as through rubbing). The polarity and strength of the charges produced differ according to the materials, surface roughness, temperature, strain, and other properties.

Thus, it is not very predictable, and only broad generalizations can be made. Amber, for example, can acquire an electric charge by contact and separation (or friction) with a material like wool. This property, first recorded by Thales of Miletus, suggested the word "electricity" (from William Gilbert's initial coinage, "electra"), from the Greek word for amber, ēlektron. Other examples of materials that can acquire a significant charge when rubbed together include glass rubbed with silk, and hard rubber rubbed with fur.


Triboelectric series

Materials are often listed in order of the polarity of charge separation when they are touched with another object. A material towards the bottom of the series, when touched to a material near the top of the series, will attain a more negative charge, and vice versa. The further away two materials are from each other on the series, the greater the charge transferred. Materials near to each other on the series may not exchange any charge, or may exchange the opposite of what is implied by the list. This depends more on the presence of rubbing, the presence of contaminants or oxides, or upon properties other than on the type of material. Lists vary somewhat as to the exact order of some materials, since the charge also varies for nearby materials.


Although the word comes from the Greek for "rubbing", τρίβω (τριβή: friction), the two materials only need to come into contact and then separate for electrons to be exchanged. After coming into contact, a chemical bond is formed between some parts of the two surfaces, called adhesion, and charges move from one material to the other to equalize their electrochemical potential. This is what creates the net charge imbalance between the objects. When separated, some of the bonded atoms have a tendency to keep extra electrons, and some a tendency to give them away, though the imbalance will be partially destroyed by tunneling or electrical breakdown (usually corona discharge). In addition, some materials may exchange ions of differing mobility, or exchange charged fragments of larger molecules.

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