The Magic of Electricityby: David Miller
Ever since Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison learned how to harness electrical power in the 18th and 19th century, electricity has become the most essential element of modern society. Virtually all modern innovations, from industries to the space age, were made possible by the use of electricity. Without it, computers would never have existed, and medical and scientific research would be all but impossible. Electricity is responsible for dramatically uplifting the standard of living of human beings around the world. The invention of electrical power is among the most important landmarks in the history of civilization.
What is Electricity?
Electricity is the result of interactions between electrons. Atoms are the most basic particles of matter, and each atom contains subatomic particles known as the neutron, proton and electron. The proton carries what is called a positive charge, while the electron carries a negative charge, and the neutron has a neutral charge. Electrons orbit atoms, while neutrons and protons exist inside their core, or nucleus. Because they orbit the atom, electrons can be lured away from one atom to another. When this happens, they generate an electric current.
- United States Department of Energy – Energy Kids: Electricity Basics
- Lehigh University: Electricity - A Secondary Energy Source (PDF)
How Does Electricity Work?
Electricity works by moving electrons from one atom to another. Some atoms hold their electrons more efficiently than others which means they are less conductive. The more efficient an atom is at retaining its electrons, the less efficient it is at generating and conducting electricity. This is why some materials, such as iron, are good at conveying electricity from one area to the next, while others, such as plastic, are not. The most traditional way to move electrons and create an electric current is by the use of turbines. Turbines are made by using rods that spin magnets inside an enclosure of copper wires. Electricity is generated inside the wires and transmitted to electronic devices that use it.
- Northwestern University: How Do Batteries Work?
- Omaha Renewable Energy Project: Electricity Basics
- Boston University: Current and Resistance
Sources of Electricity
There are a variety of ways to generate electric power. The most common source of electricity is electric power plants. Power plants are centralized generation systems that are maintained by large corporations or governments. The majority of power plants are fueled by oil and coal, while others use nuclear energy, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or geothermal energy. Power plants that use coal and oil burn these fuel sources to generate steam which turns turbines. These turbines generate electricity when they spin. The same principle is used by modern wind farms as well as nuclear, geothermal and hydroelectric power plants. Solar energy uses a different method to generate electricity. It uses photo-voltaic cells to convert the sun's light into electricity without the use of moving parts such as turbines. Solar power can be generated by large power plants; however it is also possible for houses to have solar power panels installed on rooftops.
- Smithsonian Institute: Generating Electrons
- The National Academies: Sources and Uses
- Washington University: The Source of Our Power (PDF)
The Future of Electricity
Innovations in the field of electrical power are still ongoing. Current research into the future of electricity generation and transmission include cleaner, environmentally friendly power sources, wireless transmission, and smart grids. The most traditional sources of electricity are oil and coal power, which contributes significantly to global warming, acid rain, smog, and mercury poisoning which accumulates in fish and bodies of water. Research into the future of electrical power generation involves the use of alternative energy sources, such as the sun. The latest innovations in solar power enable solar power plants to generate electricity even at night, when sunlight isn't available. Smart grids are a name given to advancements in the electricity delivery infrastructure of a nation, which enable more intelligent routing of power to businesses and homes. Smart grids also involve the use of digital electric meters which enable both users and producers of electricity to monitor their usage by the day, hour, or even by the minute. This feature of smart grids will allow electrical power providers to detect and respond quickly to spikes in electricity usage in a given area, such as when the weather gets excessively cold or hot. It will also help electrical companies to respond faster to power outages, stop them from spreading, or even prevent them from happening. Wireless transmission of electricity is another major innovation that is emerging in the industry. This will enable power to be transmitted without the use of wires to homes, appliances, or even vehicles.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Energy Innovation (PDF)
- Popular Science: Electricity in the Air
- Department of Energy: Smart Grid
- National Geographic: Seeking a Safer Future for Electricity’s Coal Ash Waste
- Energy Star: Energy Strategy for the Future
- California's Electricity Future (PDF)
Electricity Games / Experiments
- The Exploratorium Science Snacks: Electricity Science Projects and Activities
- Science Kids: Electricity Circuits
- Kidzworld: How Potato Batteries Work