How Static Electricity Can Cause Flames at the Gas Pump - 8NEWS - WRIC | News Where You Live

How Static Electricity Can Cause Flames at the Gas Pump

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RICHMOND (WRIC) - Thursday night's gas station fire in Powhatan saw how a little spark could cause such extensive damage.

The woman's car caught fire as she was pumping gas and firefighters say it started with a spark caused by static electricity.

Wayne Gilchrest, a science educator at the Mathscience Innovation Center, and his colleagues use a van de graaff generator to show how static electricity works.

"When two things rub against one another, there's a transfer of electrons and that creates static electricity," he says. "It can happen all the time, but when the air is cold and dry it's much more common and that's when you can feel it. When you touch the door knob you get the zap and things like that."

"There's a rubber belt that's spinning inside and it's rubbing against some copper wire, and that's generating static electricity. And as it's doing so, there's a charge that's developing and you can actually see the sparks jumping from one dome to the other."

Combine those sparks with vapors from fuel and you can start a fire.

"Gasoline as a liquid is not explosive or flammable, but the gas vapors that come off are what's flammable and in your engine it's the vapors that are combusted by the spark plug and things like that."

"If a person is moving their body like across the seat of a car - like if you walk across a rug and you touch something that's grounded - you can get a spark," says instructor Bill Sorey. "So if you shuffle across the seat of a car, you can get a static charge, and when you touch metal it can create a little spark."

These scientists say the best thing to do is to stay outside while you're pumping gas and avoid getting that spark.

If you do have to go inside your car, make sure you touch something metal before you reach for the nozzle. That way you'll neutralize yourself electrically.


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