How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 665

How can an insulator carry a charge if it cannot conduct electricity? How can one charge an insulator? Can an insulator be charged by induction? — VV, Washington, DC
While charge can't move through an insulator, there is nothing to prevent charge from being placed on its surface or injected inside it. If you rub the surface of an insulator with a piece of silk, sliding friction will push electrons onto or off of its surface and leave its surface electrically charged. With no way for that charge to move about, the insulator's surface retains the charge indefinitely. A beam of fast moving electrons or other charged particles can be injected into an insulator and will become trapped inside it. Once again, the charges can't move around after the injection. Since charges can't flow in the insulator, you can't charge it by induction—a process in which proximity to a nearby charged object rearranges the charges in a conductor and allows you to trap those charges in a nonuniform arrangement.

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