How Does Electricity Work?

Are you a fan of storms? Some individuals have a dislike for storms due to the fear that bad weather may cause damage to their property or health. However, others find it fascinating to observe storms as Mother Nature displays her powerful weather forces on Earth.

However, there is one thing that most people dislike about storms: losing electricity. When thunder roars and lightning illuminates the sky, many of us anxiously wait as the lights flicker. When the power goes out and we find ourselves in a dark and silent world, a collective groan can be heard throughout households, neighborhoods, and even cities!

During these moments of quiet and darkness, many of us realize how reliant we are on electricity…and how much we take it for granted. If we were pioneers from over a century ago, we wouldn’t be bothered by this situation. However, nowadays, we often feel lost, unable to do anything except wait for the power to be restored.

Although we use and depend on electricity for most, if not all, of our daily activities, many of us lack a solid understanding of what electricity actually is and how it functions. In fact, for many people, their knowledge of electricity begins and ends with a mental image of Ben Franklin flying a kite during a thunderstorm.

Despite our limited understanding of electricity, most of us are amazed when we realize its power and prevalence. Electricity surrounds us. It not only flows through the wires in our homes, but it also exists in the clouds in the sky, in the static sparks in our flannel pajama pants, and even within our bodies in our hearts, brains, and nervous systems.

Electricity is a form of energy generated by tiny particles called electrons, which have a negative charge. When electricity accumulates in one place, it is referred to as static electricity. When it moves from one place to another, it is known as current electricity. Electric currents power all the electronic devices that we have become dependent on.

In order to form an electric current, electrons must flow continuously along a closed path called a circuit. Circuits typically consist of electrical components connected by wires. These wires and other parts of a circuit are usually made of metals, such as copper or aluminum, which are good conductors of electricity.

Metals conduct electricity because their atomic structure allows for the presence of free electrons, which facilitates the easy flow of electricity. Materials with atomic structures that lack free electrons do not allow electricity to flow freely. These materials are known as insulators, with rubber being a prime example.

Current electricity can be further divided into two types based on how it moves within a circuit. If the electrons always move in the same direction around the circuit, it is referred to as direct current (DC). On the other hand, if the electrons continuously change direction at a rate of 60 times per second as they travel around the circuit, it is called alternating current (AC).

Batteries produce direct current. Electricity always flows in the same direction between the positive and negative terminals of a battery. Generally, batteries produce a current at a relatively low voltage, which measures the force propelling the electrons around the circuit.

In comparison, the electricity that flows from a power plant to the outlets in your house is alternating current. It can be generated at high voltages and transmitted over long distances. Transformers are used to decrease the voltage before it reaches your outlets, so it can be used by the appliances and electronic devices in your house.

Thomas Edison supported direct current in the late 19th century because he believed alternating current was too dangerous. However, Nikola Tesla, one of his former employees, advocated for alternating current, which eventually became the dominant technology. Despite its potential dangers, alternating current has revolutionized the world and is now indispensable.

Ready for something surprising? Take part in the following activities with a friend or family member:

1. Determine the amount of electricity your household uses each month. Ask an adult to show you current and past electric bills. Identify the months with the highest electricity usage and consider why this is the case.

2. Find ways to reduce your electricity usage. Think about your daily activities and come up with at least three ways to cut back on electricity consumption. For example, remember to turn off lights when not needed. Get creative and think of other methods to reduce electricity usage.

3. Challenge yourself and your family to go “off the grid” for a few hours. Turn off all lights and electronics in your house, except for the refrigerator. Plan activities to entertain each other without the use of technology. Consider how you will navigate in the dark and what you will eat without using the oven or microwave. Have fun finding alternative ways to spend time with your family!

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