Electricity and magnetism


Different ways electricity is produced or generatedDifferent ways electricity is produced or generated Electricity is a kind of energy stored inside atoms, the minute building blocks of which all things are made. Atoms themselves are made up of particles, including electrons, which have a negative electric charge, and protons, which have a positive electric charge. In normal atoms, there are the same number of electrons and protons, and so the charges cancel each other out. To make electricity, we must either make the atoms lose or gain electrons, or enable free electrons to move.

Producing static electricity by combingProducing static electricity by combing

Static electricity

In static electricity, the electrons do not move. It is produced when two objects rub against each other: the electrons rub off from the atoms of one material on to the other.

You can make static electricity by running a comb through your hair. The comb leaves a few of its electrons behind in the hair, so the comb now has a small positive charge. It can pick up small pieces of paper because it attracts the electrons in the paper’s atoms. If you comb your hair in a dark room then hold the comb close to your thumb, you will see a tiny spark. The release of electricity heats the air molecules (groups of atoms) between comb and thumb, producing a flash of light.

An electric charge heating air molecules is exactly what happens—but on a much grander scale—when lightning strikes during a thunderstorm. Lightning is static electricity that suddenly leaps between clouds and the ground, or from one cloud to another. Thunder is the noise of the air expanding rapidly in the intense heat.

Lightning, a dramatic release of static electricityLightning, a dramatic release of static electricity
Some electrons move freely in metals.Some electrons move freely in metals.

Current electricity

Electricity is the movement of electrons, the negative particles around the nucleus of an atom. Electricity flows in a current when electrons are free to move through a material. Most metals, especially silver and copper, have electrons that can move easily, so they are good carriers or conductors of electricity.

Electrons flow through a conducting wire when it is connected to a battery or generator. When the current is switched on, or a battery is connected, the electrons all move in the same direction. They flow only if they have a complete pathway of conductors called a circuit. Electric current is measured in amperes (amps): the rate at which electricity flows through a conductor.
In a current, free electrons move through a conductor.In a current, free electrons move through a conductor.

Ohm's law

As electricity moves along a conductor, it meets a certain amount of opposition. This is called resistance. The amount of current in a circuit depends on both the amount of voltage—the force needed to push the electrons along—and the amount of resistance in the circuit (for example, that created by a filament in an electric light bulb) that opposes the current. This relationship between current, voltage and resistance is known as Ohm's Law. It states that resistance equals voltage divided by current.

An electric circuit between a battery and a light bulbAn electric circuit between a battery and a light bulb


Inside a dry battery like the one pictured here, there is a rod surrounded by chemicals. When the battery is connected to a circuit, a chemical reaction causes the rod to become positively charged and the bottom of the battery case to become negatively charged. So electricity flows along a conducting wire that connects the negative terminal (on the underside of the case) to the positive terminal (at the top of the battery).

Coaxial cable with insulating layersCoaxial cable with insulating layers


In materials such as rocks, wood, most plastics, rubber and glass, there are no—or very few—electrons free to move. These materials reduce or prevent the flow of electricity and are known as insulators. But they may gain or lose electrons on their surface as a static electric charge. 

Uses of electricity

Electricity is one of the most useful forms of energy. It is transportable, which means it can be carried long distances by wires and cables. It is convertible, being changed into many other forms of energy, such as light from an electric light bulb, and movement in an electric motor. It is also controllable. We can turn it on and off with a switch, or up and down with a knob. When a city suffers a power cut and falls still and silent, we realise how much we depend on electricity.Dubai lit up by countless electric lightsDubai lit up by countless electric lights

 Sharon Ann Holgate

Electricity travels through space at the speed of light—about 300,000 kilometres per second. In a coaxial cable, where the conducting wire is surrounded by a polyethylene insulating layer, it travels at about 66% the speed of light.

US politician, scientist and inventor Benjamin Franklin carried out research in electricity. In June 1752 it is said he attached a metal key to one end of a kite string and flew the kite in a stormy sky. By showing that sparks jumped from the key to his hand, he proved that lightning was a form of electricity.

The word electricity comes from the Greek electron, meaning amber (fossilized tree resin). This is because static electricity could be produced by rubbing amber.

The Centennial Light is a light bulb that has been burning almost continuously at a fire station in Livermore, California, since 1901.

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