What is Electricity?
If you have ever seen a lightning bolt, you have already witnessed electricity in one of its rawest forms. When electricity is more reliably produced and harnessed, we use that power to run our factories, provide lighting and technology in our schools, power medical equipment in hospitals, provide stop lights to keep traffic flowing, and keep many of our homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Electricity is incredibly versatile as a source of energy and yet we have been using it for less than 200 years.
The Basics of How Electricity Works
Electricity is a form of energy resulting from charged particles such as electrons or protons. It can be produced statically, known as static electricity; or as a current, known as current electricity or an electric current.
Electricity is created by electrons, which have a negative charge and can be found orbiting atoms, the building blocks of everything. At atom usually has an equal number of electrons and protons. Protons have a positive charge. When together with an equal amount of neutrons, the energy of both becomes nullified.
However, if you rub an item, such as a rubber balloon, against a material, such as a wool sweater, that movement will create energy by knocking some of the electrons free from the rubber, causing them to go towards the wool. This leaves the balloon with a positive charge and the sweater with a negative charge, causing the two to be attracted to each other, which is how static electricity works.
While static electricity is one example of electricity, the type we are more familiar with and that powers our homes is called current electricity or an electric current. It lasts longer than static electricity, and its movement can be more easily harnessed and moved over distances through power lines. Lightning falls into this category of electricity, as does the electricity created in power plants.
- The Library of Congress: How doe static electricity work?
- Idaho Falls Power: How electricity works
- US Energy Information Administration: Electricity explained: The science of electricity
History of Electricity in the Home
Electricity first began to be widely used in the late 1800s. In 1891, electric lighting was added to the White House, although the president and first lady were still leery of the possibility of getting shocked and did not flick the switches themselves but instead had staff do it.
Shortly after the White House gained electric lighting, major cities began to build electrical stations to power individual neighborhoods. These were limited in how many buildings the electricity could reach, but it was a start. Samuel Insull would soon spread the use of electricity much further and to many more homes. By using high voltage transmission lines, he and Chicago Edison were able to provide power to suburbs and the countryside. Shortly after, America would be lit up from coast to coast.
- City of Alcoa, Tennessee: A history of electricity in the US
- America’s Library: Benjamin Franklin and electricity
How Electricity Is Made Today
Today, we get electricity as a result of the conversion of sources of energy such as natural gas, coal, nuclear, petroleum, solar, wind, and even water. Many of the energy sources are used to turn turbines which the electricity is then harnessed from.
This is usually distributed, via electric lines, to businesses and homes both near a power plant and quite a distance away. However, some buildings have more direct access to electric via solar panel systems or other small alternative power supplies. In addition, many locations will have fuel-powered generators as a backup option for when there are larger power outages.
- gov: Understanding the grid
- USGS: Hydroelectric power: How it works
- Tennessee Valley Authority: How a coal plant works
- Share America: What is the power grid and how does it work?
Making Electricity in the Future
The use of solar power is expected to continue to grow and will become a more significant part of our landscape in the future as the manufacturing process becomes more developed and affordable. Solar thermal technology, used for heating, is also expected to grow to more areas.
Hydroelectric, in both big and small forms, is also expected to continue to develop and spread. We may also see new and innovative ways to harness electricity from sources that we do not currently use, such as the growth of algae.
One trend seems to be moving away from mass-produced electricity once again, as many buildings switch to solar and innovators work on creating smart infrastructure, which is communities and homes that create electricity that goes into the grid as well as taking electricity from the power grid when required. Engineers and scientists are also working on producing smaller power plants, called micro-combined heat and power, that are so small that they can fit in our homes for individual use. Like the name says, they create heating for buildings, but in doing so, they also create electricity.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Biomass energy
- NASA: How to photovoltaics work?
- Smart Grid: What is the smart grid?
Resources for Teachers
Are you looking for ways to get students interested in electricity? Consider using games, hands-on activities that show the creation or movement of electricity, or incorporating lesson plans on circuits into your classes curriculum.
- Yale-New Haven Teacher’s Institute: Teaching some basic concepts of electricity
- Carleton College: Renewable Energy and Environmental Sustainability
- Exploratorium: Short circuit
- University of Wyoming: Lesson plan: Electric circuits
- UC Santa Barbara: Lesson 1: Introduction to basic circuity
Resources for Students
Are you still confused by some of the basic concepts of electricity or do you just want to learn more about this fascinating topic that has such a significant role in our lives? Whether you need to study for an exam or are interested in a career that will involve electricity, the following resources are great places to start: