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Two atoms are walking down the street. The first atom says to the second atom "I think I lost an electron!" The second says "Are you sure?" To which the first states "I'm positive!"

Balance of Charge[edit]

Atoms, the smallest particles of matter, are made of protons, electrons, and neutrons. Protons have a positive charge, Electrons have a negative charge that cancels the proton's positive charge. Neutrons are particles that are similar to a proton but have a neutral charge. There are no differences between positive and negative charges except that particles with the same charge repel each other and particles with opposite charge attract each other. If a solitary positive proton and negative electron are placed near each other they will come together to form a hydrogen atom. This repulsion and attraction (force between stationary charged particles) is known as Electrostatic Force and extends theoretically to infinity, but is diluted with distance.

Both atoms and the universe have a neutral charge overall and come with the same number of protons and electrons. When an atom has one or more missing electrons it is left with a positive charge, and when an atom has at least one extra electron it has a negative charge. Having a positive or a negative charge makes an atom an ion. Atoms only gain and lose protons and neutrons through fusion, fission, and being radioactive. Although atoms are made of many particles and objects are made of many atoms, they behave similar to charged particles in terms of how they repel and attract.

In an atom the protons and neutrons combine to form a tightly bound nucleus. This nucleus is surrounded by a vast cloud of electrons circling it at great distance held near the protons by electromagnetic attraction. The cloud exists as a series of overlapping shells / bands in which the inner valence bands are filled with electrons and are tightly bound to the atom. The outer conduction bands contain no electrons except those that have accelerated to the conduction bands by gaining energy. With enough energy an electron will escape an atom. When an electron in the conduction band decelerates and falls to another conduction band or the valence band emitting an photon, is known as the photoelectric effect.

  • laser: When electrons travel back and forth between conduction bands emitting synchronized photons.
  1. When the conduction and valence bands overlap, the atom is a conductor and allows for the free movement of electrons. Conductors are metals and can be thought of as a bunch of atomic nuclei surrounded by a churning "sea of electrons".
  2. When there is a large gap between the conduction and valence bands, the atom is an insulator and trap electrons. Insulators are non-metals and are good at stopping the flow of electrons.
  3. When there is a small gap between the conduction and valence bands, the atom is a semiconductor. Semiconductors behave like conductors and insulators, and work using the conduction and valence bands. The electrons in the outer valence band are known as holes. They behave like positive charges because of how they flow. In semiconductors electrons collide with the material and their progress is halted. This makes the electrons have an effective mass that is less than their normal mass. In some semiconductors holes have a larger effective mass than the conduction electrons.

Electronic devices are based on the idea of exploiting the differences between conductors, insulators, and semiconductors.


In a conductor the electrons of an object are free to move. Due to their repulsive nature the valence electrons leave the center of the object and spread out evenly across its surface in order to be as far apart as possible. This cavity of empty space is known as a Faraday Cage and stops radiation, such as charge, radio waves, and EMPs (Electro-Magnetic Pulses) from entering and leaving the object. If there are holes in the Faraday Cage than radiation can pass.

One of the interesting things to do with conductors is the transfer of charge between metal spheres. At the start the spheres are neutral. The first step involves putting sphere 1 next to but not touching sphere 2. This causes all the electrons in sphere 2 to travel away from sphere 1 to the far end of sphere 2. So sphere 2 now has a negative end filled with electrons and a positive end lacking electrons. Next sphere 2 is grounded by contact with a conductor connected with the earth and the earth takes its electrons leaving sphere 2 with a positive charge. The positive charge (absence of electrons) spreads evenly across the surface due to its lack of electrons.


In an insulator the electrons of an object are stuck. This allows charge to build up on the surface of the object by way of the triboelectric effect. The triboelectric effect (rubbing electricity effect) involves the exchange of electrons when two different insulators such as glass, hard rubber, amber, or even the seat of one's pants, come into contact. The polarity and strength of the charges produced differ according to the material composition and its surface smoothness. For example, glass rubbed with silk will build up a charge, as will hard rubber rubbed with fur. The effect is greatly enhanced by rubbing materials together.

  • Van de Graaff Generator: A charge pump (pump for electrons) that generates static electricity. In a Van de Graaff generator, a conveyor belt uses rubbing to pick up electrons, which are then deposited on metal brushes. The end result is a charge difference.

Because the material being rubbed is now charged, contact with an uncharged object or an object with the opposite charge may cause a discharge of the built-up static electricity by way of a spark. A person simply walking across a carpet may build up enough charge to cause a spark to travel over a centimeter. The spark is powerful enough to attract dust particles to cloth, destroy electrical equipment, ignite gas fumes, and create lightning. In extreme cases the spark can destroy factories that deal with gunpowder and explosives. The best way to remove static electricity is by discharging it through grounding. Humid air will also slowly discharge static electricity. This is one reason why cells and capacitors lose charge over time.

Multiple Lightning Strikes.jpg

Quantity of Charge[edit]

Protons and electrons have opposite but equal charge. Because in almost all cases, the charge on protons or electrons is the smallest amount of charge commonly discussed, the quantity of charge of one proton is considered one positive elementary charge and the charge of one electron is one negative elementary charge. Because atoms and such particles are so small, and charge in amounts of multi-trillions of elementary charges are usually discussed, a much larger unit of charge is typically used. The Coulomb is a unit of charge, which can be expressed as a positive or negative number, which is equal to approximately 6.2415×1018 elementary charges. Accordingly, an elementary charge is equal to approximately 1.602 ×10-19 coulombs. The commonly used abbreviation for the Coulomb is a capital C. The SI definition of a Coulomb is the quantity of charge which passes a point over a period of 1 second ( s ) when a current of 1 Ampere ( A ) flows past that point, i. e., C = A s or A = C/s. An ampere is one of the fundamental units in physics from which various other units are defined, such as the coulomb.