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Getting down to basics

From Lightning Rods to Solar Panels: The Story of Electricity

Daren Wang
January 9, 2024

Electricity 101: What It Is and How to Make It

Electricity—we all know it makes our modern lives possible. It drives industry, runs our houses, fuels many of our cars, and even keeps those devices buzzing in our pockets.

But exactly what is electricity and how does it end up in my house and light up my flatscreen when it’s time for Netflix? We’re here to shed some LCD light with a flash course on Electricity 101: What it is and how to make it.

In The Beginning…

First off, Benjamin Franklin did not “invent” electricity, nor did he “discover” it. The experiment he described of standing in the rain with a metal key and a kite was about determining that lightning was an electrical phenomenon that could be diverted from wooden buildings using a lightning rod.

At the time, electricity was understood as the interaction between two fluids—vitreous and resinous. Franklin argued that only a single fluid had opposite charges and coined the terms “positive” and “negative” for charges. Today, what he called a “fluid” we call “electrons.”

Franklin’s ideas became foundational to how we think about electricity. He went on to describe how electricity flows from a body with a positive charge to a body with a negative charge. Nowadays, we call that flow “current.”

Although the Founding Father would describe its behavior, other scientists in the nineteenth century would be left to find ways to use electricity to do real work, like drive a mill or light a lightbulb.

Franklin also coined terms like battery, charge, conductor, and condenser, which we still use when we talk about electricity.  But when you look at your electricity bill or want to plug a clothes dryer into an outlet, there’s no mention of conductors in the manual. Instead, you’ll see volts, watts, and amps. What the heck are those?

Volts, Watts, and Amps

Electricity is not a fluid, but picturing it as water can help us understand how it works.

Think about electrical systems as a plumbing system.

Volts: Imagine a pressurized water tank connected to a hose for gardening. Lowering the tank pressure would make the water flow more slowly. More pressure would mean a faster, stronger flow. The equivalent in electricity is electrical potential, and we measure that in Volts.

Amps: When you turn the spigot on the house, the water is going to flow at a certain rate. You might think of it as gallons per minute. In electrical terms, that’s amperes, or amps. It is a measure of electrical current.

Watts: If you are using that hose to fill a bucket, you want to know how big the bucket is. In electrical terms, that’s wattage. A watt is a measure of how much power is transferred at a given time.

In our homes, that transferred power is constantly being used up by the devices we have plugged in. In other words, the bucket is constantly being emptied and refilled.

If you leave a 100-watt lightbulb on for an hour, it will consume 100 watt-hours. Your power company bills you based on kilowatt hours, or how many thousands of watt-hours you use.

Bonus definition: Ohms Okay, so you’re happily filling buckets with the pressurized water flowing out of your hose. But then you notice there are pinholes in the hose and it’s leaking all over the place. Not all the water is going into the bucket. In electrical terms, those pinholes are known as resistance, and the rate at which the energy is lost is known as Ohms.

And don’t worry—the resistance in your home energy system comes out as heat, not electricity. A properly wired home does not have pinhole electricity leaks.

So How Do We Make Electricity?

Okay, so if we say my 120-volt supply is running through a 15-amp circuit and running a 60-watt lightbulb, it kind of makes sense now, right?

But how do we get electricity in the first place?

Mechanical Energy

Almost all of our electricity is produced by transforming mechanical energy into electrical energy through the principle of electromagnetic induction. This process involves the generation of an electric current by moving a wire in proximity to a magnet. The discovery of this phenomenon dates back to 1831 when scientist Michael Faraday observed the initiation of an electric current in a wire as a magnet was moved through a loop. That current was just the flow of negatively charged electrons or the “electric fluid” from the olden days.

To generate a practical amount of electricity through this process, a robust and consistent force is required to move the wire at a sufficient speed. This is where mechanical energy becomes crucial.

In the case of a gas-powered generator, an internal combustion engine supplies the necessary mechanical force for current generation. The engine spins a cluster of copper wires through a stationary magnetic field, producing electrical current through the wiring.

We have been generating electricity this way for almost two centuries. Whether we burn natural gas to turn the engine, capture the power of a waterfall by spinning turbines, or heat water by passing it through a nuclear reactor and then drive the turbines with steam, we’ve always made electricity by turning wires in a magnetic field. Until photovoltaics.

The Solar Age

Solar panels operate completely differently—they change everything.

The basic part of a solar panel is a silicon wafer. Silicon is the same stuff most beach sand is made of, but these special wafers are made by superheating the substance until it melts and the molecules align in a specific way. That material is a semiconductor, and it is sliced very thin to become the basis of solar cells.

When the photons that make sunlight hit the aligned molecules in a solar cell, it charges the molecules’ electrons and produces a current—just like moving a wire through a magnetic field.

This is a huge technological advancement for us and is crucial for our transition into a clean energy future.

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