Associate Professor Neils Jonassen authored a bi-monthly static column that appeared in Compliance Engineering Magazine. The series explored charging, ionization, explosions, and other ESD related topics. The ESD Association, working with IN Compliance Magazine is re-publishing this series as the articles offer timeless insight into the field of electrostatics.
Professor Jonassen was a member of the ESD Association from 1983-2006. He received the ESD Association Outstanding Contribution Award in 1989 and authored technical papers, books and technical reports. He is remembered for his contributions to the understanding of Electrostatic control, and in his memory we reprise “Mr. Static”.
~ The ESD Association
Reprinted with permission from: Compliance Engineering Magazine, Mr. Static Column Copyright © UBM Cannon
When you read an ad extolling the virtues of some device and promising fantastic results, you often wonder, “Can this be true?” If you’re not familiar with the device, you may let it go, or maybe even believe the hype a little bit—nid moy, as they say here in Bangkok. It’s a completely different story, though, when somebody makes outrageous claims in an area that you know well.
Over the years that I have been employed at the Technical University of Denmark, I have experienced this scenario over and over again, generally in one of two forms. In the first, someone who knows very little physics skims a textbook, semidigests it, mixes that scant understanding with a little alternative medicine, and comes up with a gadget that he or she swears will be a boon to mankind. In the second, a company or other producer of devices that already work to a certain degree adds some completely useless component, such as a black box, that is said to boost efficiency by a zillion percent. Needless to say, the new component also boosts the price.
In the static arena, for instance, there’s always the cordless wrist strap. I haven’t seen any of those for a couple of years now, but I expect they’ll come back one of these days. And in the real world, not that long ago, you could have had your house checked for radon at a price that seemed too good to be true—and it was.
And in Europe we have seen, and to some extent still see, widespread concern about something called ground rays, which are said to be a causal agent in a number of serious illnesses, including cancer. No one has actually been able to define what ground rays are, and these ground rays can’t be measured by any physical instrument. But some gifted people claim they can detect—or measure, another misuse—so-called veins of them, using pairs of bent knitting needles. Naturally, these same beneficent people will help you screen your house for this evil phenomenon—at considerable expense to you, of course.
Now, I don’t wish to imply that such activities are necessarily fraudulent; indeed, I suppose some such claims are made in good faith. Nonetheless, these inventions are still just a lot of hocus- pocus, as the following examples attest. In each case, the gadget described met with considerable commercial success or aroused a good deal of public interest. Since some of these devices are still in production, I have refrained from using their trade names here.
One day in 1980 or thereabouts, I received a call at the laboratory from a Mr. PN, who asked if I would be interested in an apparatus that could eliminate static electricity.
Of course I would be. I asked what kind of static electricity it eliminated, but PN didn’t quite understand my question. As far as he was concerned, there was only one kind: human static electricity. So I invited him to come over and demonstrate his device for me.
It consisted of two shoe-sole-shaped copper cutouts, nicely chrome plated, about size 9. The two plates were connected by an ordinary insulated wire about 150 cm long. The insulated wire was attached to a common wire 2 to 3 m long that ended in a ground connector, which was designed to hook onto a heating radiator or water pipe.
There was also a nice pair of socks that went with the setup.
PN boasted that by wearing these soles inside shoes, the user would be drained of static electricity. (I tried to object that someone who was grounded surely couldn’t get charged anyway, but evidently I was missing the point.) And the claims didn’t stop there: according to PN, the soles would keep working even after the user took them off!
Not wishing to insult him, I merely said, mildly, “Let’s do an experiment.” I demonstrated that just walking across our asphalt floor caused me to become charged to about 3 kV. I then mounted the soles (hoping, as I did so, that nobody else was watching): no charging. I removed the soles and, once again, got charged to 3 kV.
Oh, but I hadn’t worn the soles long enough, PN said; they hadn’t had time to drain the static from my body. I explained that the charging of a person is a business between the underside of his or her shoes and the floor covering. But no. By PN’s reckoning, human static electricity flowed in the body along the acupuncture channels.
He had it all worked out. If you slept with these acupuncture soles on, you slept much better, he said. If you were suffering from one or another of various illnesses, there was a schedule for you to follow that told you what hours of the night you should wear the soles for best effect.
What PN wanted from me was an official statement to use in his patent application. I told him there was nothing there to patent—nothing new—and besides, I said, his soles could be downright dangerous if someone happened to touch a live wire while wearing them.
PN later modified his invention, severing the ground connection and wrapping the two loose ends around a copper core. Thus altered, it gave a reasonable decay resistance, thanks to the semidirty surfaces of the wires’ insulation. But what was the point of the copper core? No explanation was forthcoming.
Over the next couple of years, I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with PN on other occasions. He managed to attract a certain amount of public attention to his acupuncture soles, which were written up in several newspapers and even got some sort of endorsement from the secretary of the interior. (I cannot help remarking that this same secretary always carried a couple of chestnuts in his pocket, believing they were good for his rheumatism. They apparently worked—he never had rheumatism in his whole life.
In any event, PN kept sending me copies of his correspondence with all of the various authorities and the institutions at which he talked people into using his device. Of course, he made sure to forward documentation of all the glowing praise heaped on him when his soles won a silver medal as runner-up for best invention of the year at a big exhibition in Brussels! But it was a source of constant irritation to him that he couldn’t secure an official approval, and he even went so far as to complain to the president of our university about me, charging that I had hindered people from learning about his brainstorm.
The president answered that I was the expert (thank you).
By sheer chance, I learned that PN had applied for a Danish patent and was on the verge of getting it, due mostly to the fact that none of the patent authorities knew any more about static electricity than did PN himself. I protested, and eventually the patent application was denied. Naturally, PN went to court with a civil case against our laboratory for preventing him from winning the patent he so rightly deserved.
When asked if I wanted to appear in court, I said most emphatically that I did not. The lawyers and judge could read my protest, and besides, they had the wrong plaintiff. PN should have been bringing suit not against our laboratory, but against the laws of physics. Happily, the case was dismissed.
I don’t think PN was deliberately trying to con people. He probably honestly believed his own theories and saw himself as the little man standing up to the men in white coats. I spent many hours trying to teach him a little physics, but to no avail. (Come to think of it, I’ve often had the same experience with physicians.)
My last encounter with PN ended on a somewhat tragicomic note. PN had succeeded in getting the Institute of Technology of Denmark, an institution for technical applications, to look at his gadget, and the institute staff pleaded with me to come to a demonstration and put this business to rest once and for all. I agreed to be present.
PN brought his father along to the meeting. At one point during his demonstration (in which there was absolutely nothing new), PN made some outrageous statement, and I could stand it no more. “If that were the case, it would violate Ohm’s law!” I cried.
The father then interjected, “The parliament issues new laws all the time. Couldn’t it also change this Ohm’s law you’re talking about?”
And now for a more suspicious story.
Static Field Remover
Over the last couple of decades there has been, at least in Europe, a great deal of concern voiced over the static electric field generated by monitors and television screens. It is this field that makes dust and other particles plate out on the screen, due to simple static attraction as well as polarization forces.
If a person is sitting close to the screen, the field will be distorted and will converge toward the person’s face, and the particles will then plate out on his or her nose, forehead, and cheeks. Studies have shown that any static field on a person’s face will dramatically increase the plate-out rate of particles, and scientists have speculated that this may result in an increase in the occurrence of rashes and more-serious skin diseases such as eczema, given the presence of allergens or other unsavory substances in the air.
As far as I know, this connection has not yet been established definitively, but many years ago we demonstrated at our laboratory that it was possible to drastically reduce the field put out by a monitor by applying a topical antistat to the screen. (The antistatic layer forms a primitive but fairly effective Faraday screen.) Later, several types of transparent, conductive filters designed to be mounted in front of the screen appeared on the market. Most worked reasonably well, though they were rather expensive.
In the late 1980s, a Danish company that had been selling such filters for some years got the opportunity to market a new American invention—let’s call it the Field Remover. Someone very high-up in the corporation had already signed the necessary papers, and the gadget came with a pretty positive report from a Scottish laboratory. But the marketing people wanted an opinion from our university, so I agreed to test the device.
The Field Remover kit consisted of the following:
- A small plastic bottle containing a clear liquid.
- Two (conductive) suction cups with wires ending in small plugs.
- A plastic box (carrying the trade name) measuring about 6 cm3, equipped with a light diode labeled static event detector and a ground wire.
The manufacturer’s instructions advised the user to apply the liquid to the monitor screen and, if I remember correctly, to the keyboard; mount the suction cups on the screen and keyboard; connect the suction cups to the box; and, connect the box to ground. The Scottish laboratory had followed these directions and found that the field in front of the monitor was reduced by a factor of about 50 to 100.
Performing only the first step of the prescribed procedure, I applied the liquid to the screen and measured the field. With no suction cups, no magic box, and no ground wire, the field was reduced by a factor of 50 to 100. I then went through the remaining steps—mounting the cups and all the rest—but nothing further happened, and there was no additional reduction in the field.
I called the staff at the Danish importer and asked them to come and witness my measurements. When they did, we looked at each other and I suggested, “Let’s break open that magic box and see what’s inside.”
The box contained a cube of carbon-black-saturated aerated plastic. When the suction-cup plugs were inserted, they just touched the carbon-black plastic. The diode had only one wire attached, which terminated randomly in the plastic like the ground wire. Obviously, neither the box nor the wiring had any real technical or scientific purpose.
I advised the marketing people, “Buy the liquid; it’s a good antistatic. You can probably sell it for $1.50 a bottle and make a good profit.” They had been planning to sell the whole device for somewhere between $150 and $200.
As might be expected, my findings caused some problems within the company. Management wasn’t happy about the fact that marketing had consulted an independent expert. It wasn’t necessary, the higher-ups insisted; they had been told in the United States that this was a fantastic product, and besides, there was always that Scottish report. The marketing people came back to me and asked if I would write up a full report on the test, which I did.
In the end, the company decided not to go ahead with the Field Remover, and I got a grateful letter thanking me for saving the marketers’ jobs. I still wondered why the Scottish laboratory had done such a sloppy job.
I also got a phone call from the device’s “inventor.” He had learned of my report and was furious. I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about, he fumed before demanding to know what my background was. I told him I had about 30 years of university training in the field. Where, I inquired, had he acquired his own expertise in static electricity? At first he was rather vague, but when pressed he finally admitted that his formal training consisted of one three-day tutorial given in Chicago.
That was the last I heard of him, but not of his invention. A couple of years later, I saw the Field Remover advertised in a Swedish magazine.
Now, it would be wonderful if the examples cited were the only times the laws of physics have ever been either unwittingly or deliberately misused. But in fact, such abuse is all too common, in electrostatics as in other fields. In sum, there will always be people who try to sell other people a lot of nonsense, and there will always be people who are willing to buy it.
|Niels Jonassen, MSc, DScworked for 40 years at the Technical University of Denmark, where he conducted classes in electromagnetism, static and atmospheric electricity, airborne radioactivity, and indoor climate. After retiring, he divided his time among the laboratory, his home, and Thailand, writing on static electricity topics and pursuing cooking classes. Mr. Jonassen passed away in 2006.