New research about the causes of static electricity that could ultimately help create more sustainable and longer-lasting power sources for small electronic devices has been conducted by the University at Buffalo team. The findings point to tiny structural changes that occur at the surface of materials when they come into contact with each other. The scientists are conducting research on the triboelectric effect, a phenomenon wherein one material becomes electrically charged after it contacts a different material through friction. Experts have known about the triboelectric effect since ancient times, but the tools for understanding and applying it have only become available recently due to the advent of nanotechnology.

The triboelectrification of conducting materials can be explained by electron transfer between different Fermi levels. However, triboelectrification in dielectrics is poorly understood. The surface dipole formations are shown to be caused by the contact-induced surface lattice deformations. An Atomistic Field Theory (AFT) based formulation is utilized to calculate the distribution of the polarization, electric and potential fields. The induced fields are considered as the driving force for charge transfer.

The idea the 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. The research is a mix of disciplines, including contact mechanics, solid mechanics, materials science, electrical engineering, and manufacturing. With computer models and physical experiments, they are engineering triboelectric nanogenerators (TENGs), which are capable of controlling and harvesting static electricity.

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 people can tap into. Ultimately, this research can increase the economic security and help society by reducing the need for conventional sources of power.