Entry by Andrew Capulli, Fall 2011
Note "tribo" comes from the Greek word for "to rub".
Triboelectric charging (triboelectric generation or triboelectric effect) is cause by the rubbing of two materials together, ie contact electrification; the result of triboelectric charging is what's termed 'static electricity'. 'Static electricity' refers to just that: electricity that is static or stationary, it is accumulated on the surface of a material. The tribocharge (static charge) generated by the rubbing of two materials is dependent on surface roughness of the materials, temperature, and humidity. A tribocharge is often acquired when walking across a rug for example due to the 'rough' surface (the many fibers the make up the surface of the rug. As will be discussed, the generation of a tribocharge is related to the friction between the materials (as is evident already taking the surface roughness of the materials to be a contributing factor).
So, what is the physics behind the generation of a tribocharge? Ungrounded materials, when in contact, exchange electrochemical charges; many sources refer to this "contact" as adherence of the materials in which charged ions can freely flow between the materials. The flow of ions between materials in contact is driven by the 'desire' of these charges to balance their chemical potential between the now "adherent" materials. Essentially, to reduce their energy state, some charged ions will be exchanged between the materials in contact. As the materials are separated, the exchanged charged ions are left in their new location, transferred onto the surface of the other material. For different materials, this will result in a charge imbalance... or what we call a triboelectric charge or static charge. Rubbing the materials together only increases the contact and separation between the materials which results in an even higher charge imbalance (higher tribocharge). One cannot obtain a tribocharge between two like materials because there is no electrochemical gradient between the materials (since they are the same) and thus no net ion movement.