The Mysteries of Electricity: Answering Our Most Frequently Asked Questions

For many, understanding electricity is a daunting task. We can’t actually see it, so it is something of an intangible idea. In this blog post, we aim to answer some of our most frequently asked questions surrounding electricity. 

When was electricity invented?

Energy, defined by scientists as the ability to “do work”, has existed since the beginning of time. The sun, which has existed for more than 4 billion years, provides energy in the form of heat and light. 

Benjamin Franklin is credited with discovering electricity. In 1752, Franklin flew a kite with a metal key attached to it during a thunderstorm, proving that the sparks generated from lightning could generate power. Other key historical figures, such as Thales, who lived in Ancient Greece and William Gilbert, scientist and physician to Queen Elizabeth I, contributed to the foundations of electrical knowledge.

When did electricity use become common?

Before electricity was widely used, candles and fires were used to light and heat people’s homes. Beeswax candles were expensive, so the poorer population typically used tallow candles, which gave out very little light and burned quickly. Electric lighting was developing on an industrial scale by the mid-19th century but was predominantly used to light streets and factories. By the 1930s, new urban homes were being built with integrated electric lights – an innovation which rapidly spread to other parts of the country.

What is Electricity?

Electricity can be described as a natural phenomenon. It’s the flow of electrical charge or power and is one of the most commonly used forms of energy. If electricity is described as static, it does not move and instead gathers in one place. Current electricity, meanwhile, moves from one place to another. A circuit must be in place for a current to flow. 

What is static electricity?

Static electricity does not move. Electricity results from electrons, which orbit around the outside of atoms. Electrons have small negative charges. Atoms also have protons, which carry small negative charges. The number of protons and electrons in an atom is typically equal, meaning that there is no positive or negative charge.

Think about rubbing a balloon on a jumper or other fabric. The kinetic energy from this action gives the balloon energy, which often pulls some of its electrons free. This leaves the balloon with a slightly positive charge. The fabric, meanwhile, gains a slightly negative charge. As opposite charges attract, the balloon will stick to the fabric.

What is an electric current?

An electric current can be described as a stream of charged particles. Charged particles include ions and electrons, and move through a circuit of electrical conductors. Current can actually be defined as the rate at which electrons flow past a point in an electrical circuit. At its most simple, an electrical current consists of an energy source (such as a battery), an energy-using device (such as a lightbulb) and conducting wires, which are used to connect the battery terminals to the end of the light bulb.

Where does our electricity come from?

Electricity is generated from both renewable and non-renewable energy sources. Renewable energy sources can be replenished. Wind, solar, hydropower and bioenergy are all examples of renewable energy sources used in the UK. Non-renewable energy sources, meanwhile, include coal, nuclear power and fossil fuels. They cannot be replenished and are usually generated by power stations. Electricity, once generated, is sold on the wholesale market.

How fast does electricity travel?

The average speed at which electrons travel through a conductor when subjected to an electrical field is known as drift velocity. This is around 1mm per second. The electromagnetic wave, meanwhile, which ripples through the electrons, travels around 90% of the speed of light.

How do wind turbines generate electricity?

Wind turbines, which are inspired by traditional windmills, use the wind to generate electricity. Each wind turbine has a set of blades, which rotate as the wind blows, creating kinetic energy. Beside each wind turbine, there is a box called a nacelle, which contains a shaft and a generator. The shaft rotates in time with the blades. Kinetic energy is converted into electrical energy by the generator.

Which household appliances use the most electricity?

In recent months, electricity has become more expensive than ever. Not all household appliances are equal when it comes to electrical consumption. Washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers typically use the most energy. Other devices, nicknamed vampire devices, rack up energy bills by using standby energy. Problematic devices include fridges, games consoles, laptops, desktop computers and modems. 

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