Van der Graaff Generators!

Helpful tips on how to make them.

“Tribo-a-what?” Triboelectricity and You

Seeing how it’s the name of the website, I’m sure you’ve seen the word before, but what is it? What is it responsible for? and How can it be used to create a rattling sphere of electricity capable of storing thousands of volts of electricity? All very good questions, and are important to cover before we delve into the rollers.

Triboelectricity is why static electricity occurs. When you accidentally shock your pet after pulling a blanket around yourself, or the doorknob shocks your hand as you reach for it, it’s because you built up a charge. That charge was created by certain materials on you, coming into contact with other materials. To be more specific, when you rub a blanket across your back, it will sometimes stick, or even make popping sounds from the static electricity. When you walk across a carpet towards the door, your shoes on the carpet build up a charge.

Certain materials build up a charge by touching other materials. A common example in science is to rub a glass rod with silk. Glass and Silk are two materials that create charge when they come into contact with one another. If you were wearing silk, and you rubbed yourself all over a glass window, you’d likely get a shock when you touched a door knob. Other materials exhibit the same effects, like wool and cotton.

The charge is created because when the two objects come into contact, the electrons in one jump over the the other material. When you break contact, there is a charge imbalance. Certain materials create more static charge when they come into contact.

This is where the Triboelectric series comes in. Wikipedia, AlphaLab and Siliconfareast all have very up to date triboelectric series. How the series works is that the further away two objects are from each other, the more charge imbalance occurs when they come into/and break contact. Take for example Nylon and Teflon. On all three series, they are almost as far apart as they can be. These means that they will build a lot of charge quickly by coming into contact with one another. It also means that in general, they will create more charge with the other triboelectric things they come into contact with.


These materials are important to know about when choosing the materials for our rollers, coming up later, because if we are essentially building up a static charge automatically, if we use two very triboelectric objects, we’ll get a greater charge.


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