The familiar phenomenon of static electricity can cause serious problems, such as explosions and equipment damage.

A team led by Bartosz Grzybowski at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has found an explanation for how static electricity builds up, along with a simple way to dissipate it.

The researchers examined magnetic and electric patterns on polymer surfaces using specialized forms of atomic force microscopy. This revealed that clumps of charged particles owe their stability to chemical species known as radicals — reactive molecules with unpaired electrons.

Further experiments showed that these radicals could be mopped up by surface coatings, including vitamin E and other antioxidants. Coated polystyrene beads quickly lost their static charge, and a coated transistor resisted damage from an ion gun.

Science 341, 1368–1371 (2013) Footnote 1