High School Physics

How does polarisation help charged objects exert force on insulators?

Unlike conductors, the electrons in insulators (non-conductors) are bound to the atoms of the insulator and cannot move around freely through the material. However, a charged object can still exert a force on a neutral insulator due to a phenomenon called polarisation.

If a positively charged rod is brought close to a neutral insulator such as polystyrene, it can attract the bound electrons to move round to the side of the atoms which is closest to the rod and cause the positive nuclei to move slightly to the opposite side of the atoms. This process is called polarisation.

Although it is a very small (microscopic) effect, if there are many atoms and the polarised object is light (e.g. a small polystyrene ball), it can add up to enough force to cause the object to be attracted onto the charged rod. Remember, that the polystyrene is only polarised, not charged. The polystyrene ball is still neutral since no charge was added or removed from it. The picture shows a not-to-scale view of the polarised atoms in the polystyrene ball:

polarisation & polarised polystyrerne ball

Some materials are made up of molecules that are already polarised. These are molecules that have a more positive and a more negative side but are still neutral overall. Just as a polarised polystyrene ball can be attracted to a charged rod, these materials are also affected if brought close to a charged object.

See also  Electrostatic Properties of a Conductor
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