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Since people started listening to records there has always been one concern has always been a topic of conversation that has never seemed to go away. As you may have guessed already, that concern is static. The problem of static does not enter the minds of some because they either don’t care, or they don’t even have an issue. But for others, it is a constant battle and annoyance that takes away from a large portion of the listening experience. Unfortunately, most people who are waging this fight have either hope or expectations that there is a concrete and simple solution. Furthermore, that this solution can easily be derived from a quick search on Google. However, as you may already have experienced, it is not always that concrete and typically finds itself to be much more than simple. There have been numerous products developed over the last couple decades that should really tell the whole story. The first part is that nobody is alone with the struggles against static as it is a legitimate and real concern. Secondly, there is no cure -all, for if there were we would relatively have one specific product with slight variation from brand to brand. The second part is certainly easy to understand, it’s that giant list of products that would have developed from that Google search done earlier. The larger problem is that we are trying to fight an enemy we can’t see. This means what we really need to do first is understand exactly what static is, why it occurs, and then develop a way we might be able to reduce or eliminate it.
So, what exactly is static electricity. We can probably remember from grade school that all matter contains protons and electrons. These are opposite charged particles that are inherent inside every atom. For the purpose of understanding static electricity, we really want to focus on those electrons. The protons are not really involved as they are imbedded deeper within the atom, however, those pesky electrons are free to move about, even jump ship if they needed or wanted to. If you keep up on the latest electric car trends or remember why a battery works (cathode and anode), you know that their primary means to function is based off the flow of electrons. This means that there are electrons in one area (cathode) and they are attracted to move to another area (Anode). The strength of that attraction and ease of its ability to move to that area is collectively described as the rate in which they travel. It is that rate of travel that we commonly call electricity. We also know that batteries and the electricity in our house were created for that purpose. Those items were intentionally designed, in a specific and contained system, in which a large number of electrons will want to travel to other areas. That energy involved from such movement is harnessed to create the power that we use. That is the basis of electricity, but not what we generally mean when we talk about static electricity. Based on the principles of electricity, it is static electricity that has an unwanted or unbalanced desire (charge) for these electrons to move between objects (made of molecules and atoms) that are generally not contained in a system. These electrons are free to move about from object to object and, in large part, even the air around us. So, when static electricity is a problem the logical solution is to contain it, change the amount or path of flow, or eliminate the attractions. Sounds easy right?
Unfortunately, as we all know, it is not that easy. Static is such a large environmental concern, meaning it ‘s existence is drastically effected by everything around us. This would include the air as well as differences in materials and how the interact with each other. More importantly, knowing that these interactions are not always consistent and can change from day to day make it even more difficult. Once we learn the principles of static electricity, how it is created, and under what circumstances it can be either more prevalent or drastically reduced, we can then begin to develop solutions.
As previously mentioned the main principle is the movement of electrons. So, let’s look at what that means and how that applies to listening to records. Everything around us, from the clothes we wear, the items in our house, other people, and even the air contain and are comprised of atoms and molecules. So, when we talk about an object or a material we are really discussing the atoms or molecules in which they are made of. For this discussion we will refer to them as the entire object or material. It’s proven that some objects or materials inherently attract these electrons more than others, while some are more willing to give up these electrons. Unfortunately, we can’t change that as it is inherent to nature and the basic laws of physics. We accept it and then categorize it. We will label the objects ability to attract electrons by saying that object will become more negative in charge. It is true for the opposite as a objects ability to give up electrons would then become more positive in charge. When this happens that means they now have a net electric charge, either positively charged or negatively charged. Prior to that, the object only had a propensity to be charged but had a neutral charge. Unfortunately, and the reason it was originally understood as "contact electrification".
So why does rubbing wool on a balloon make the balloon do funny things? As you can remember, after the balloon was rubbed with wool it would stick to things or even cause your hair to stand up. This is where things start to get a little complicated as we can start to see how certain materials will interact with one another. Additionally, when applied to our turntable at home there are certainly some conflicts of interest (those interests being charged particles of course). Let’s look at a couple materials now and discuss that propensity we mentioned earlier. Each material is known to have a specific rating on its abilities to gain or lose electrical charges. Materials that gain positive charges (these are the ones losing electrons) are things like air, leather, glass, rabbit fur, and a multitude of others. As we move down the list a little further we have materials that still gain a positive charge, but not as anxious as the previous materials. Those materials are things like human hair, wool, cat hair, and nylon. The opposite side of the list would be materials that become negative in charge (these are the ones attracting electrons). Starting with the most aggressive materials to want to attract an electron are things like Teflon, Polypropylene, and Vinyl. Slightly less aggressive then those are materials like gold, brass, polyester, and hard rubber. Interesting enough there are a couple materials that will show almost no tendency to either want to attract or lose an electron, which we would call neutral in charge. These are materials such as steel, cotton, and certain grades of cork and wood. It is very important to understand this as the interaction between two or more materials that have the opposite charge is where the movement of electrons happen. When these objects or materials become charged and friction or separation occurs, we now have static electricity. For more info on this chart and materials you can research the Triboelectric series.
Let’s try to put this all together. We know that certain objects and materials will either want to give up and electron or gain and electron and some materials are more aggressive at wanting to do so. The rate in which of these electrons move we know as electricity. When it is uncontained and free to move from object to object we refer to it as static electricity. This means that when certain objects and materials contact one another those materials will then become charged. We now have charged particles sitting on the surface of one or more of the objects involved. If we know look at the materials that are involved in our audio system we can see that there are some large variables, some in which are very hard to change.
After several paragraphs of reading we can now comfortably state that we explained static electricity and that it is caused by contact. This may have been a long-winded way to explain something you feel you already knew. Rub some things together and you might get some static build up. While that is correct, and if it was completely understood, we probably wouldn’t be staring at our system, with 9 different products, trying to figure out why we have static. We didn’t rub our album across the wool carpet, so what’s the deal? Unfortunately, the contact of objects and materials, then the separation or friction between then is only one way that static electricity can occur, commonly known as tribocharging. Additionally, we have what is called electrostatic induction, which means that some objects and materials only need to be close to each other for a net charge to occur and the potential for static electricity. Electrostatic induction is also what can induce Electrostatic discharge. This sound like a nightmare right?
Jump over to Part 2 and find out about what is actually the part of static causing havoc, Electrical Potential and Electrostatic Discharge. We will also go in depth about dust, ions, and other environmental aspects. This includes things like the air in your house and even humidity.
More to be updated 3/02/22 (Part 2 and Part 3)
Electrical Potential and Electrostatic Discharge (ESD)
Dust and Ions. What they are all about?
Other environmental concerns like air and humidity.
How do all these interactions play a part in your audio system?
Ways to manage static and the principles behind the products we use.
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