Static Electricity, Scandal, and Polonium

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Polonium (Po, atomic number 84) was discovered by Marie Curie in 1898. She discovered it while researching pitchblende, which is an ore of uranium. She named it after Poland. Polonium is radioactive because it emits alpha particles (helium ions) and is one of the most toxic substances known, up to a trillion times more toxic than cyanide. The radiation from polonium, very minuscule traces, can be used to eliminate static electricity. It is used in certain anti-static brushes to remove dust in photo lenses and on machinery where static builds, up such as rolling paper and synthetic fiber spinning. It is also used in the oil industry and to produce nuclear weapons.

And, by the way, this fascinating element has some recent deathly scandal attached to it but I’m not going to expose what that is just yet.

You need:

  • Folia semi-transparent folding squares
  • Martha Stewart All Over the Page butterfly punch
  • Blown up balloons
  • Wool material or your head of hair
  • Anti-static brush (or baking soda or a dryer sheet)

Step one:
Punch out various colors of butterflies and place them in a pile.

Step two: Take the balloon and create an electrical charge by rubbing it on a wool sweater or blanket, or simply rub it on your head (or a sibling’s) for a few seconds.

Step three: Place the balloon over the butterflies and they should stick. If they are not sticking, you haven’t built up enough of a charge, try rubbing it on the wool again for a few seconds.

So why is the paper sticking? The paper is sticking to the balloon because of static electricity caused by the triboelectric effect. When you rub the balloon on your head or another material you are transferring electrons from your head to balloon which forms a negative electrical charge on the balloon. The negative electrical charge attracts or pulls the positive charge in pieces of paper, which causes the positive charges in the paper to attach to the negatively charged balloon.

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Step four:
Now to remove the static from the balloon, rub the anti-static brush, did it work? You can try other anti-static methods as well.

Anti-static products that contain polonium work by emitting alpha particles (helium ions) that ionize the air and neutralize the charge of the surface being brushed. When the electrical charge is neutralized, things such as the balloon and paper no longer stick together because the balloon no longer has a negative charge, but a neutral one.

Current scandal about polonium: Russian spy, Alexander Litvineko, died of acute radiation syndrome. Three weeks prior to his death he had drank a tea containing polonium 210. Who allegedly poisoned him and ordered his death I will leave up to you to discover…

Polonium is also found in tobacco, another reason not to smoke!