Why do we often see small lightning in winter?

Stillness is a physical phenomenon that we often encounter in our daily lives. This phenomenon is sometimes very noticeable as when it makes your hair stand up. The cold and dry winter months are a time when we are plagued by static electricity, which can release small lightning bolts when we touch a doorknob or a warm new blanket.

Static electricity is one of the oldest scientific phenomena observed and described by humans. The Greek philosopher Thales of the city of Miletus was the first to discover this phenomenon. In his writings from the late 6th century BC, he described that if he rubbed amber stones hard enough, grains of sand would begin to stick to it. 300 years later, Theophratus continued Thales’ experiments with different rocks and also concluded about “a force of gravity”. But neither of these philosophers could find a satisfactory answer to this phenomenon.

It was almost 2,000 years later that the word “electricity” was created based on the Latin root “electricus”, which also means “amber-like h”. One of the most famous experiments in electricity belonged to Benjamin Franklin when he studied the properties of electricity, which is also the reason his portrait was printed on the 0 bill. After that, people quickly realized the great potential of electric current.

Of course, in the 18th century, people almost exclusively used static electricity in magic tricks or other entertainment. For example, Stephen Gray’s “flying boy experiment” became a popular performance. The boy was hung on a silk rope, then Gray used the Layden bottle to charge the boy. As a result, he can turn pages of books with static electricity, or lift small objects with just electrostatic attraction.

Why do we often see small lightning in winter?
“The Flying Boy Experiment” by Stephen Gray. (Photo: Christian August Hausen)

Based on Franklin’s research, including the pros and cons of static electricity and the fact that charge is always balanced, we now know what causes static electricity at the atomic level. In addition, we also discovered why small lightning bolts appear and how to avoid trouble from them with modern technologies.

Static electricity will lead to an interaction force between the charges. At the atomic level, negative charges are elementary particles called electrons. Most electrons are inside matter, whether it’s an inanimate stone or a living organism. However, there are also many electrons located on the surface of matter. Different types of matter will have a different distribution of electrons on the surface. If two surfaces are rubbed together, electrons can jump from the “weaker” surface of matter to the one with the greater attraction.

These electron shifts happen all the time, and they are the little lightning bolts we see. For example, when playing on a slide, or wiping your feet on the carpet, or when you take off your wool gloves to shake someone’s hand.

But if you pay attention, this phenomenon occurs more often in the dry and cold winters, when the air has very low humidity. Dry air is an insulator, while moist air is a better conductor. This happens as follows: In dry air, electrons will be trapped on a surface with greater attraction. Unlike in humid air, electrons in dry air cannot find their way back to their material surface and they cannot return to charge equilibrium.

Lightning occurs when an object with an excess of negative charge on its surface comes close to another object that lacks a negative charge and the excess of negative charge is large enough to cause an electron “jump”. Electrons will jump from places where there are a lot of electrons, like on your body after rubbing your feet on a wool rug, to places where there are not many electrons, like a doorknob.

Why do we often see small lightning in winter?
You will feel a slight sting as the electron “jumps”. (Photo: Muhammad Ibrahim).

When electrons have nowhere to flow, static electricity will continue to increase on the surface to a limit and emit in the form of a small lightning bolt. For example, when you put your finger out, the electron will follow your finger with a small lightning bolt and you will definitely feel it.

Although it can be annoying at times, the amount of charge generated by static electricity is usually quite small and harmless. Its voltage can be 100 times that of electrical outlets. However, large voltage is not something to worry about because voltage is just a measure of the difference in charge between objects. The most interesting thing is the amperage, which is an indicator of the number of electrons displaced. In lightning caused by static electricity only a few electrons move, so these lightning bolts are quite harmless.

However, these small lightning bolts can cause damage to sensitive electronic components such as the hardware in a computer. Even a very small current with a few electrons can accidentally “cook ” computer components. That’s why workers assembling electronic components must always be “grounded”. “Earth” c means that you are connected to the ground by a wire, this wire is like a highway for electrons back to “home” . You can also “ground” yourself by touching metal or holding a key in your hand. Metals are very good conductors of electricity, so electrons would be “very happy” to migrate to this material.

A rather potential hazard is the appearance of sparks in the presence of flammable gases. Therefore, gas stations all require you to “ground” yourself before touching the gas pump stations, otherwise sparks can ignite gasoline vapors in the air. Or you can also invest in an anti-static bracelet that workers assembling computer components often use. They prevent electrical charge by wrapping around the wrist with conductive material.

Why do we often see small lightning in winter?
Electronic component assembly workers often wear anti-static rings when working to avoid damage to equipment. (Photo: shutterstock.com).

In everyday life, the best way to reduce static electricity is to use an air humidifier, while keeping your skin hydrated with moisturizing skin products. Using fabric softener to soften the fabric, avoid making the fabric too dry after washing and drying is also a quite useful way. You can also apply fabric softener to the carpet to prevent static electricity. Last and not least, wear cotton clothing and leather shoes instead of wool and rubber soles.

While they can be quite annoying and have certain dangers, they certainly have their advantages.

Many of today’s modern technologies are based on static electricity. Photoelectric printers and copiers, for example, use static electricity as a “glue” to attach ink to paper. Air purifiers not only help deodorize but also remove dust and dirt in the air with static electricity.

Similarly, the chimneys of modern factories use electrically charged plates to reduce the amount of waste released into the environment. As the smoke rises through the pipes, they receive negatively charged particles from the metal mesh. Once charged, they will be caught in the metal plate on the other side of the pipe, which has a positive charge. Finally, dust particles from the exhaust gas are collected and sent for separate treatment.

Why do we often see small lightning in winter?
Static electricity helps to make the exhaust from the factory cleaner. (Photo: Muhammad Ibrahim).

Static electricity is also used in nanotechnology, for example to capture single atoms with laser beams. These atoms have many different purposes in computing applications. Another application of electrostatics in nanotechnology is the control of nanospheres. Static electricity can control the state of the nanoballs rising or falling. These studies may be applied to human tissues in the future.

Static electricity has been discovered for more than two millennia. Although it is a bit annoying at times, it has proven to be very important in our daily lives.