Have you ever had your hair stand up straight after putting on a shirt fresh from the dryer? Or have you ever been shocked by a door handle after shuffling your feet over carpet?
Of course you have, because static electricity is all around us. It's a phenomenon so ubiquitous that we don't often think too much about it (until we get the occasional zap, anyway).
But scientists are starting to think more about it, especially in regards to our electronic devices, reports Science Daily.
What if we could harness the power of the static electricity all around us, to power our devices? It's a question that's surprisingly difficult to answer, in part because we know less than you might think about this omnipresent phenomenon.
"Nearly everyone has zapped their finger on a doorknob or seen child's hair stick to a balloon. To incorporate this energy into our electronics, we must better understand the driving forces behind it," said James Chen, PhD, and co-author of a recent study on the causes of static electricity.
Probing the triboelectric effect
We know that static electricity comes about as a form of the triboelectric effect, which is a technical term for when one material becomes electrically charged after it contacts a different material through friction. What we don't know is exactly what the mechanism is that underlies this effect.
Chen's theory is that it has something to do with tiny structural changes that occur at the surface of materials when they come into contact with each other. To test what happens at this microscopic scale, Chen and his team are developing nano-materials that can not only measure what's happening on the tiniest structural levels, but which are potentially capable of controlling and harvesting static electricity as it forms. The early results are promising.
"The idea our study presents directly answers this ancient mystery, and it has the potential to unify the existing theory. The numerical results are consistent with the published experimental observations," said Chen.
So far, it's not clear exactly how much energy we can harness in this way; it's unlikely that you'll ever be able to keep your phone charged just by shuffling your feet. But as the technology develops and we learn more about how static electricity is generated, we ought to be able to tap into this force to extend the life of batteries, at least. And who wouldn't like a longer-lasting smartphone battery?
"The friction between your fingers and your smartphone screen. The friction between your wrist and smartwatch. Even the friction between your shoe and the ground. These are great potential sources of energy that we can to tap into," said Chen. "Ultimately, this research can increase our economic security and help society by reducing our need for conventional sources of power."