What is electricity? Physics

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A bolt of lightning in the sky - what is electricity?

What is electricity? A bolt of lightning in the sky

What is electricity made of?

Everything in the universe is made of atoms.  Those atoms are made of electricity. Atoms are made of even smaller particles called protonsneutrons, and electronsElectricity is electrons that have gotten loose from their atom.

(More about electrons)

The protons and neutrons (NOO-trons) are packed tightly together in the middle of the atom. We call them the nucleus (NOO-klee-uss) of the atom.

Electrons in an atom

Around the nucleus there are electrons, orbiting around and around the nucleus. They orbit kind of the way that the earth goes around the sun. (But they’re not orbiting for the same reason. It’s not gravity.) There’s empty space between the electrons. So an atom is mainly empty space.

Electrons and electrical charge

Protons and electrons have electrical charges. Protons have a positive charge. Electrons have a negative charge (neutrons don’t have any charge). Because electrons and protons have opposite charges, the electrons and protons tend to move toward each other. It’s the same way the negative end of one magnet will tend to move toward the positive end of another magnet.

(More about how magnets work)

But because the electrons have a lot of forward momentum, the electrons don’t just crash into the nucleus.

(More about momentum)

The electrons have to keep moving forward. The combination of moving forward and moving towards the middle keeps the electrons going around and around the nucleus of the atom. Sometimes an electron does escape from its atom. It runs off to join another atom. That’s a little tiny bit of electricity. Again, electricity is electrons that have gotten loose from their atom.


Moving electricity through a circuit

Copper loses electrons easily

Some kinds of atoms lose their electrons more easily than others. It depends on whether the outer shell of electrons is full or not. For example, copper atoms have only one electron in the outer shell. That’s very unstable, and it’s easy for copper atoms to lose that electron. We call these kinds of unstable atoms metals. Electricity flows easily through copper, as the electrons move quickly from one copper atom to its neighbor.

Lightning is a kind of electricity

Electricity is all throughout space, because of the loose electrons in space. There are electrons inside stars, and on all planetsLightning is just one form of natural electricity.

Electricity inside your body

When life first got started on Earth, electricity probably had something to do with it. And inside your body, your thoughts are really little spurts of electricity that travel along your nerves and between cells in your brain. When a person has a seizure, that is when too much natural electricity gets loose in their brain.

How people use electricity

In the last two hundred years, people have learned to use electricity for their own purposes, to run machines. When we want to move electricity around (like through a cord to your computer), we make a long wire of copper atoms. That’s because electrons move easily from one copper atom to another.

(How people learned to use electricity)

When we want to keep electricity from moving (like out of the cord and onto your hand, where it would give you a shock), we make a wrapper out of rubber or plastic. That’s because electrons don’t move easily through those materials.

(More about the history of rubber)

We use electricity to heat our houses, light up dark rooms, cook food, run washing machines, and listen to music. Some people use electricity to run their car!

Learn by Doing: Build an Electric Motor
Or Build a Circuit Board
More about electric motors

Bibliography and further reading about electricity, plus some kits:

    

Physics
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By |2018-06-01T10:27:39+00:00August 16th, 2017|Physics|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is electricity? Physics. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 16, 2017. Web. December 9, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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