How Everything Works
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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 12)

1515. Is it possible to capture and keep ionized gases or air in a container of some sort? That way they could be sprayed out at any time just like room deodorant. — CW
No, you cannot store charged gases in any simple container. If you try to store a mixture of positively and negatively charge gas particles in a single container, those opposite charges will attract and neutralize one another. And if you try to store only one type of charge in a container, those like charges will repel and push one another to the walls of the container. If the container itself conducts electricity, the charges will escape to the outside of the container and from there into the outside world. And if the container is insulating, the charges will stick to its inside surface and you'll have trouble getting them to leave. Moreover, you'll have trouble putting large numbers of those like-charged gas particles into the container in the first place because the ones that enter first will repel any like charges that follow.

1353. How do shampoo and conditioners in one work if shampoos have negative charges on one side and conditioners have positive charges on one side?
I don't know. That question has puzzled me for years. The mixture should find its molecules clinging together. They must contain something that keeps the oppositely charged systems separate from one another so that they don't aggregate.

1275. Can lightning strike a flying airplane? — DC, Denver, CO
An object doesn't have to be on the ground to be a target for lightning. In fact, most lightning strikes don't reach the ground at all—they occur between different clouds. All that's needed for a lightning strike between two objects is for them to have very different voltages, because that difference in voltages means that energy will be released when electricity flows between the objects.

If an airplane's voltage begins to differ significantly from that of its surroundings, it's going to have trouble. Sooner or later, it will encounter something that will exchange electric charge with it and the results may be disastrous. To avoid a lightning strike, the airplane must keep its voltage near that of its surroundings. That's why it has static dissipaters on the tips of its wings. These sharp metal spikes use a phenomenon known as a corona discharge to spray unwanted electric charges into the air behind the plane. Any stray charges that the plane picks up by rubbing against the air or by passing through electrically charged clouds are quickly released to the air so that the plane's voltage never differs significantly from that of its surroundings and it never sticks out as a target for lightning. While an unlucky plane may still get caught in an exchange of lightning between two other objects, the use of static dissipaters significantly reduces its chances of being hit directly.

1147. Does a device that has radio waves and uses ozone and negative ions have the ability to clean the air in my home? — KTR, Halifax, Nova Scotia
There are many simple electronic devices that claim to clean the air in your home by making negative ions and ozone (if they involve any radio waves, it's a minor side effect of their internal electronics). The claim is accurate—they do make both ozone and negative ions, and they do clean the air in your home. However, that's not the whole story. First, ozone may have the "fresh" smell that occurs after a thunderstorm (a potent producer of ozone), but ozone is a powerful oxidizing agent and chemical irritant that's considered an environmental pollutant rather than a charming scent. The manufacturers are taking a nuisance effect and touting it as a "valuable feature." Second, the negative charges emitted by these electronic devices attach themselves to dust, ash, pollen, and smoke particles and cause those particles to bind themselves to your walls and furniture. The air really does become cleaner, but every surface in your home becomes dirtier as a result.

If you're seriously interested in cleaning the air in your home, you are probably better off with a full electrostatic air cleaner. Small home versions of this common industrial workhorse are easy to obtain at a local heating and air conditioning store. Properly designed machines use positive ions to avoid producing ozone and provide a negatively charged surface for the positively charged dirt to stick to so that it doesn't deposit itself on your walls.

1011. What causes different types of lightning? — CR, Tokyo, Japan
Cloud to ground lightning is caused by difference in electric charges between the cloud and the ground. Cloud to cloud lightning is caused by difference in electric charges among the clouds themselves. While I'm not at all expert on the subject, I would guess that the various different types of lightning discharges are caused by differences in the distances between charged objects, by variations in the local electric conductivity of the air and clouds during a discharge, and by the sizes and shapes of the clouds and ground.

862. What is induced polarization and what are its applications? — PSD, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
An electrically neutral object contains both positive and negative electric charges, however, those opposite charges are equal in amount and therefore cancel one another. But this cancellation doesn't mean that the charges are unaffected by another nearby charge. If you hold an electrically neutral object near an electrically charged object, the charged object will cause a slight rearrangement of the charges in the neutral object. Charges opposite to that of the charged object will shift toward that object while charges like that of the charged object will shift away from that object. The neutral object will acquire an "induced polarization", meaning that it its positive and negative charges are displaced relative to one another and that this displacement is "induced" by the presence of nearby charge. Induced polarization is a common effect and is present whenever lightning is about to strike the ground. As an electrically charged cloud drifts overhead, the objects on the ground acquire induced polarization. Their tops become covered with charge opposite that of the cloud and a lightning strike may occur between the cloud and the oppositely charged top of a tree or building.

861. How does a smoke alarm work? — GL, San Leandro, CA
The most common type of smoke detector uses a tiny amount of a radioactive element called americium to inject electric charges into the air. In the absence of smoke, these electric charges attach themselves to individual air molecules and the resulting ions (electrically charged molecules) move rather easily through the air. However, if there is smoke present in the air, the electric charges attached themselves to the smoke particles and the resulting charged smoke particles don't move easily through the air. The smoke detector measures how easily the charged items it produces move through the air. If these items move easily, then the air is clean. However if they don't move easily, the air contains smoke and the detector signals danger.

733. What is an electron and what keeps its mass and charge together so that when the mass moves, the charge moves with it? — WG, Calgary, Canada
An electron is a fundamental particle that has as two of its attributes, a mass and an electric charge. Because the electron appears to be structureless, it has no size and it wouldn't make sense for its mass to be located at a distance from its charge. With a less fundamental particle such as a proton, the charge and mass can be somewhat spread out and displaced so that the charge and mass can move slightly independently. Still, even in the case of a proton there are effects that keep the mass from getting far away from the charge.

718. How does an electric lighter work? - AW
In a piezoelectric lighter, a spring-driven mass strikes a piezoelectric crystal and exposes that crystal to a sudden enormous strain. This strain changes the shapes of the electronic levels in the crystal and produces an imbalance in the electric charges on the crystal's surfaces. One side of the crystal acquires a large positive charge, the other a large negative charge. The potential energies of these imbalanced charges are large enough that they have enormous voltages—typically 10,000 to 50,000 volts. With that much voltage (energy per charge), the charges can leap through the air for about a centimeter or more. If you allow these charges to pass through your hand, they will give you a mild shock—there aren't enough charges moving to give you a dangerous shock.

218. If you rub a comb through your hair and hold it near a thin stream of water flowing from a faucet, the stream of water will deflect toward the comb. Why?
A stream of water can become charged when another charge comes near it. The negatively charged comb attracts positive charge onto the water stream and pushed negative charge off of it. As a result, the stream acquired a positive charge and the rest of the world, a negative charge. The stream deflects toward the oppositely charged comb.
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