Why does rubbing a balloon on your hair make it stick?

For centuries, scientists have tried to understand triboelectric charging, commonly known as static electricity.

Triboelectric charging causes toner from a photocopier or laser printer to stick to paper, and likely facilitated the formation of planets from space dust and the origin of life on earth.

But the charges can also be destructive, sparking deadly explosions of coal dust in mines and of sugar and flour dust at food-processing plants.

New research led by Case Western Reserve University indicates that tiny holes and cracks in a material -- changes in the microstructure -- can control how the material becomes electrically charged through friction.

The research is a step toward understanding and, ultimately, managing the charging process for specific uses and to increase safety, the researchers say. The study is published in the journal Physical Review Materials.

"Electrostatic charging can be seen everywhere, but we noticed some cases where materials appeared to charge more -- like a balloon rubbed on your head, or packing peanuts sticking to your arm when you reach into a package," said Dan Lacks, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and one of the study's lead authors.

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