Electricity

What is electricity?

Electricity is a type of energy that can build up in one place or flow from one place to another. When electricity gathers in one place it is known as static electricity (the word static means something that does not move); electricity that moves from one place to another is called current electricity.

Static electricity

Static electricity often happens when you rub things together. If you rub a balloon against your pullover 20 or 30 times, you’ll find the balloon sticks to you. This happens because rubbing the balloon gives it an electric charge (a small amount of electricity). The charge makes it stick to your pullover like a magnet, because your pullover gains an opposite electric charge. So your pullover and the balloon attract one another like the opposite ends of two magnets.

Lightning bolts against a dark sky

Photo: Lightning in South Lakewood, Colorado. Photo by Dave Parsons courtesy of US DOE/NREL (Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

Have you ever walked across a nylon rug or carpet and felt a slight tingling sensation? Then touched something metal, like a door knob or a faucet (tap), and felt a sharp pain in your hand? That is an example of an electric shock. When you walk across the rug, your feet are rubbing against it. Your body gradually builds up an electric charge, which is the tingling you can sense. When you touch metal, the charge runs instantly to Earth—and that’s the shock you feel.

Lightning is also caused by static electricity. As rain clouds move through the sky, they rub against the air around them. This makes them build up a huge electric charge. Eventually, when the charge is big enough, it leaps to Earth as a bolt of lightning. You can often feel the tingling in the air when a storm is brewing nearby. This is the electricity in the air around you. Read more about this in our article on capacitors.

How static electricity works

Electricity is caused by electrons, the tiny particles that “orbit” around the edges of atoms, from which everything is made. Each electron has a small negative charge. An atom normally has an equal number of electrons and protons (positively charged particles in its nucleus or center), so atoms have no overall electrical charge. A piece of rubber is made from large collections of atoms called molecules. Since the atoms have no electrical charge, the molecules have no charge either—and nor does the rubber.

Suppose you rub a balloon on your pullover over and over again. As you move the balloon back and forward, you give it energy. The energy from your hand makes the balloon move. As it rubs against the wool in your pullover, some of the electrons in the rubber molecules are knocked free and gather on your body. This leaves the balloon with slightly too few electrons. Since electrons are negatively charged, having too few electrons makes the balloon slightly positively charged. Your pullover meanwhile gains these extra electrons and becomes negatively charged. Your pullover is negatively charged, and the balloon is positively charged. Opposite charges attract, so your pullover sticks to the balloon.

That’s a very brief introduction to static electricity. You’ll find much more about it (and why it’s caused by something called triboelectricity) in our main article on static electricity.

A girl's hair blows out with static when she touches a Van de Graaff generator

Photo: A classic demonstration of static electricity you may have seen in your school. When this girl touches the metal ball of a Van de Graaff static electricity generator, she receives a huge static electric charge and her hair literally stands on end! Each strand of hair gets the same static charge and like charges repel, so her hairs push away from one another. Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories/US Department of Energy.

Current electricity

When electrons move, they carry electrical energy from one place to another. This is called current electricity or an electric current. A lightning bolt is one example of an electric current, although it does not last very long. Electric currents are also involved in powering all the electrical appliances that you use, from washing machines to flashlights and from telephones to MP3 players. These electric currents last much longer.

Have you heard of the terms potential energy and kinetic energy? Potential energy means energy that is stored somehow for use in the future. A car at the top of a hill has potential energy, because it has the potential (or ability) to roll down the hill in future. When it’s rolling down the hill, its potential energy is gradually converted into kinetic energy (the energy something has because it’s moving). You can read more about this in our article on energy.

Static electricity and current electricity are like potential energy and kinetic energy. When electricity gathers in one place, it has the potential to do something in the future. Electricity stored in a battery is an example of electrical potential energy. You can use the energy in the battery to power a flashlight, for example. When you switch on a flashlight, the battery inside begins to supply electrical energy to the lamp, making it give off light. All the time the light is switched on, energy is flowing from the battery to the lamp. Over time, the energy stored in the battery is gradually turned into light (and heat) in the lamp. This is why the battery runs flat.

A dry cell Ever Ready battery

Picture: A battery like this stores electrical potential energy in a chemical form. When the battery is flat, it means you’ve used up all the stored energy inside by converting it into other forms.

Electric circuits

For an electric current to happen, there must be a circuit. A circuit is a closed path or loop around which an electric current flows. A circuit is usually made by linking electrical components together with pieces of wire cable. Thus, in a flashlight, there is a simple circuit with a switch, a lamp, and a battery linked together by a few short pieces of copper wire. When you turn the switch on, electricity flows around the circuit. If there is a break anywhere in the circuit, electricity cannot flow. If one of the wires is broken, for example, the lamp will not light. Similarly, if the switch is turned off, no electricity can flow. This is why a switch is sometimes called a circuit breaker.

You don’t always need wires to make a circuit, however. There is a circuit formed between a storm cloud and the Earth by the air in between. Normally air does not conduct electricity. However, if there is a big enough electrical charge in the cloud, it can create charged particles in the air called ions (atoms that have lost or gained some electrons). The ions work like an invisible cable linking the cloud above and the air below. Lightning flows through the air between the ions.

How electricity moves in a circuit

Materials such as copper metal that conduct electricity (allow it to flow freely) are called conductors. Materials that don’t allow electricity to pass through them so readily, such as rubber and plastic, are called insulators. What makes copper a conductor and rubber an insulator?

Illustration showing electrons flowing round a circuit between a battery and a lamp.

A current of electricity is a steady flow of electrons. When electrons move from one place to another, round a circuit, they carry electrical energy from place to place like marching ants carrying leaves. Instead of carrying leaves, electrons carry a tiny amount of electric charge.

Electricity can travel through something when its structure allows electrons to move through it easily. Metals like copper have “free” electrons that are not bound tightly to their parent atoms. These electrons flow freely throughout the structure of copper and this is what enables an electric current to flow. In rubber, the electrons are more tightly bound. There are no “free” electrons and, as a result, electricity does not really flow through rubber at all. Conductors that let electricity flow freely are said to have a high conductance and a low resistance; insulators that do not allow electricity to flow are the opposite: they have a low conductance and a high resistance.

For electricity to flow, there has to be something to push the electrons along. This is called an electromotive force (EMF). A battery or power outlet creates the electromotive force that makes a current of electrons flow. An electromotive force is better known as a voltage.

Direct current and alternating current

Electricity can move around a circuit in two different ways. In the big picture up above, you can see electrons racing around a loop like race cars on a track, always going in the same direction. This type of electricity is called direct current (DC) and most toys and small gadgets have circuits that work this way.

Electron flow in direct current and alternating circuits compared.

Artwork: Top: In a direct current (DC) circuit, electrons always flow in the same direction. Bottom: In an alternating current (AC) circuit, the electrons reverse direction many times each second.

The bigger appliances in your home use a different kind of electricity called alternating current (AC). Instead of always flowing the same way, the electrons constantly reverse direction—about 50–60 times every second. Although you might think that makes it impossible for energy to be carried round a circuit, it doesn’t! Take the flashlight bulb in the circuit above. With direct current, new electrons keep streaming through the filament (a thin piece of wire inside the bulb), making it heat up and give off light. With alternating current, the same old electrons whiz back and forth in the filament. You can think of them running on the spot, heating up the filament so it still makes bright light we can see. So both types of current can make the lamp work even though they flow in different ways. Most other electric appliances can also work using either direct or alternating current, though some circuits do need AC to be changed to DC (or vice versa) to work correctly.