Why do we use electricity?
Electricity powers our world. From heating to transport, from computing to cooking, we couldn’t imagine our modern world without it. Take a close-up look at what electricity really is, and how we use different materials to transport it safely around our community.
It’s hard to think of modern technology and also not think of electricity. It runs our devices, lights our homes and streets, and powers more and more forms of transport with each passing year.
For most of us, electricity is a thing that comes out of a hole in the wall. We usually can’t see it, smell it, or even hear it. But from the youngest age we’re told it’s dangerous. So why is electricity so useful? Why can it be so dangerous? And what exactly does it look like up close?
Draw a picture of electricity, and you might come up with something a little like this. It could be as tiny as a spark, or as big and powerful as a lightning bolt. If you could press pause to freeze that bolt of electricity, and zoom up close, what might you see? You’d have to get in super close to see it. Smaller than dust. Smaller than a germ. Right down to the scale of atoms, the smallest unit of matter, to see the electrons.
When electrons jump from atom-to-atom, it’s called electricity. Electricity is the flow of electrons. Electrons move differently in different types of materials. In a metal like copper, electrons move freely, allowing electricity to flow easily through it. Materials like this are called conductors.
However, in a different material like plastic, electrons do not move freely, and hence electricity does not flow through it. Materials like this are called insulators. You can find conductors and insulators all over the city, your neighbourhood, and house. Allowing electrons to flow along like a racetrack. But how is a racetrack of electrons going to turn on your lights, or make your bread toasty?
Electrons racing through a conductor can create many different useful changes to material. These changes are called energy. Like creating heat energy to warm us in winter, creating light energy so we can see when it’s dark, or creating magnetic energy to drive the motor in an electric car.
But be careful! Without insulators to protect us, if our bodies touch conductors, we become a conductor as well and electricity can burn us, or affect our muscles, even affecting the way our heart pumps blood.
Who would have thought something so tiny could be so powerful? No wonder we use more and more electricity everyday to power our busy, busy world.