How Static Electricity Can Cause Flames at the Gas Pump

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.


Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

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