This may come as a bit of a shock, but static electricity is a hair-raising problem.
In March, static almost blew an election in Oregon. At first count, a Polk County tax measure was defeated. But suspecting a computer glitch in tabulating the vote, a technician advised election officials to spritz the carpet around the computer with Downy Fabric Softener. It turned out that the tax actually had passed.
"Now we spray the Downy every time before we run the computers," says Valerie Unger, an election clerk. "It always smells really fresh."
Brushes between people and a lot of everyday objects -- tires, tables, wrenches -- are playing hob with high-tech as never before. Many things are going haywire.
Deadly to Computers
The same charge that harmlessly zaps you when you switch on a light can wreck your computer. "Components on an integrated circuit chip are so tiny now that it doesn't take much energy to melt them," says Henry Domingos, a retired professor of electrical and computer engineering at Clarkson University, and a specialist in "transient electrical overstress" (translation: loose juice).
Static also causes low-tech mischief. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last summer began studying an increase in flash fires at gas stations. Apparently, static occasionally ignites vapors as drivers touch the filler caps on their cars. The result: some singed hair and clothing. "In one instance, an emergency overhead fire-fighting system was actuated," an agency report says, "dumping foam on the vehicles and consumers."
That highly charged incidents are on the rise is grounded in science. Plastics and other synthetics, which pack quite the electrostatic punch, run afoul of miniaturized electronics. "Devices are smaller and electronics so pervasive these days that it's bound to happen more," says Dr. Domingos.
Static electricity, otherwise known as triboelectricity, is a charge created by friction, as when one surface is rubbed against another. That can cause small sparks to fly or potent discharges, lightning for instance. Winter is the worst time for static electricity; in damp, warm air, the charge tends to dissipate naturally.
Day in and day out, people encounter tiny electric shocks of less than 3,000 volts, about the point at which a pop becomes perceptible. If a person is highly charged and reaches for a door, the electricity will jump, or arc, from the fingertips as they near the knob. The charge is a little lightning bolt, and the crackle a tiny thunderclap.
Repetitive Zap Syndrome
And can it ever hurt. Two summers ago, collectors in Illinois tollbooths got fed up with being zapped as certain drivers handed them coins. So they began trying to figure out why it happened so haphazardly. They suspected certain makes of cars. Tollkeepers started handing out cards to offending drivers that suggested they report the problem to whoever sold them their cars.
"Car dealers got ticked off with us," says Neal MacDonald, a manager with the Illinois Toll Highway Authority.
It turned out, however, that the problem wasn't with the automobiles but with their tires.
To improve gasoline mileage, tire manufacturers about two years ago began using smaller amounts of a reinforcing agent called carbon black. But those low-rolling-resistance tires, standard on certain car models, didn't adequately dissipate electrical charges that build up when the rubber meets the road. Following complaints, companies like Michelin North America reformulated some of their tires.
Zap-busters have become an industry. Researchers have designed everything from antistatic floor wax to specially coated plastic wrap to smocks with metallic fibers that "bleed off" charges for workers in electronics factories. Ron Gibson, president of the ESD (electrostatic discharge) Association in Rome, N.Y., notes that there are also a lot of dubious charge-neutralizers coming onto the market, especially a "panty grounder" imported from the Far East that clips onto undergarments and supposedly grounds the wearer. "There's a lot of snake oil out there," he says.
Stimulus to Invention
Wood-products company Boise Cascade Corp. in February introduced ECP, an electrically conductive particleboard for desks and factory tables that neutralizes the static charges bedeviling computers. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration developed new ways to ground tools after a space-shuttle fire broke out on the ground a year ago, ignited by a crackle from a repairman's wrench.
To end bad-hair days, Conair Corp. recently introduced the whirring Anti-Static 1600. The blow-dryer, which sells for $25 to $35, uses a crystal to emit negative ions. "Squeeze the handle and flyaway hair is gone," ads say.
The most veteran static buster is Alberto-Culver Co., maker of Alberto VO5 and other personal-care products. Nearly a decade ago, it launched Static Guard, the enemy of static cling. The company essentially took the active ingredient (a quaternary ammonium compound) it used in hair conditioners and put it into an aerosol spray. The stuff has an electrical charge that negates the static charge causing hair to stand on end.
At Alberto-Culver's laboratory in suburban Chicago, testing Static Guard involves throwing some wool skirts into a dryer, pulling them out, spraying them, and then shooting them with a radioactive gun to measure how much static charge (positive or negative) changes with spraying.
In a static-charged world, August Fiebig, Alberto-Culver's director of applied research, has recently been tracking some unexpected applications of Static Guard. It has been used, for instance, to eliminate static in missile silos and to keep radioactive dust off workers' outfits in nuclear-power plants.
But Mr. Fiebig, who holds the patent on the Static Guard, couldn't figure out at first why a growing number of orders were coming from funeral parlors. After phoning around, he learned that morticians were using the spray to secure the fabric lining in coffins. The sheer fabric had an eerie tendency to shift around as mourners approached. "They wanted to stop scaring people," he says.