The first use of corona to remove particles from an aerosol was by Hohlfeld in 1824. However, it was not commercialized until almost a century later. In 1907 Dr. Frederick G. Cottrell applied for a patent on a device for charging particles and then collecting them through electrostatic attraction — the first electrostatic precipitator. He was then a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Cottrell first applied the device to the collection of sulfuric acid mist emitted from various acid-making and smelting activities.
Cottrell used proceeds from his invention to fund scientific research through the creation of a foundation called Research Corporation in 1912 to which he assigned the patents. Research Corporation has provided vital funding to many scientific projects: Goddard's rocketry experiments, Lawrence's cyclotron, production methods for vitamins A and B1, among many others. The organization continues to be active to this day and the company formed to commercialize the invention for industrial and utility application is still in business as well.
A negative voltage of several thousand volts is applied between wire and plate. If the applied voltage is high enough an electric discharge ionizes the air around the electrodes. Negative ions flow to the plates and charge the gas-flow particles.
The ionized particles, following the negative electric field created by the power supply, move to the grounded plates.
Particles build up on the collection plates and form a layer. The layer does not collapse, thanks to electrostatic pressure (given from layer resistivity, electric field, and current flowing in the collected layer).
ESPs continue to be excellent devices for control of many industrial particulate emissions, including smoke from electricity-generating utilities (coal and oil fired), salt cake collection from black liquor boilers in pulp mills, and catalyst collection from fluidized bed catalytic cracker units in oil refineries to name a few. These devices treat gas volumes from several hundred thousand ACFM to 2.5 million ACFM (1,180 m³/s) in the largest coal-fired boiler applications.
The original parallel plate–weighted wire design (described above) has evolved as more efficient (and robust) discharge electrode designs were developed, today focusing on rigid discharge electrodes to which many sharpened spikes are attached, maximizing corona production. Transformer-rectifier systems apply voltages of 50–100 kilovolts at relatively high current densities. Modern controls minimize sparking and prevent arcing, avoiding damage to the components. Automatic rapping systems and hopper evacuation systems remove the collected particulate matter while on line, theoretically allowing ESPs to stay in operation for years at a time.
Electrostatic precipitation is typically a dry process, but spraying moisture to the incoming air flow helps collect the exceptionally fine particulates, and helps reduce the electrical resistance of the incoming dry material to make the process more effective.
A wet electrostatic precipitator merges the operational methods of a wet scrubber with an electrostatic precipitator to make a self-washing, self-cleaning yet still high-voltage device.
Plate precipitators are commonly marketed to the public as air purifier devices (such as the Ionic Breeze) or as a permanent replacement for furnace filters, but all have the undesirable attribute of being somewhat messy to clean. A negative side-effect of electrostatic precipitation devices is the production of toxic ozone and NOx. However, electrostatic precipitators offer benefits over other air purifications technologies, such as HEPA filtration, which require expensive filters and can become "production sinks" for many harmful forms of bacteria.
With electrostatic precipitators, if the collection plates are allowed to accumulate large amounts of particulate matter, the particles often bond so tightly to the metal plates that vigorous washing and scrubbing may be required to completely clean the collection plates. The close spacing of the plates can make thorough cleaning difficult, and the stack of plates often cannot be easily disassembled for cleaning. One solution, suggested by several manufacturers, is to wash the collector plates in a dishwasher.
Some consumer precipitation filters are sold with special soak-off cleaners, where the entire plate array is removed from the precipitator and soaked in a large container overnight, to help loosen the tightly bonded particulates.
A study by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation testing a variety of forced-air furnace filters found that ESP filters provided the best, and most cost-effective means of cleaning air using a forced-air system.