What Is Electricity?

Like most things in life, electricity is more complex than you may think. A lot of conditions have to come together to make that little spark when you touch a doorknob or provide the power to run a supercomputer. To understand how electricity works, it helps to break it down into its parts.

Electrons are one of the building blocks of nature. Electrons are buddies with another of nature’s building blocks, protons. Electrons and protons are very small and are contained. A speck of dust contains millions and millions of electrons and protons so you can imagine how many there are in your average sumo wrestler.

Electrons and protons have equal and opposite electric charges, with electrons having the negative charge and protons the positive. Opposite charges are attracted to each other. You can visualize a similar type of attraction by putting the ends of two magnets together. If the ends of the magnets are opposite poles, the magnets cozy right up to each other and stick together.

If the ends of the magnets are the same pole, the magnets will move apart like two politicians in a heated debate. In a similar way, because electrons and protons have opposite charges, they are attracted to each other just as you can see opposite magnetic poles attracting. The attraction between electrons and protons acts like glue on a microscopic scale, holding matter together.

Although protons stay reasonably static, electrons are adventurous little fellows who don’t like to just sit around at home. They can, and often do, move from one object to another. Walk across a carpet on a dry day and touch a doorknob; electrons traveling between your finger and the doorknob cause the spark that you feel and sometimes see. Lightning is another example of electrons traveling between two things — in this case, between a cloud and the ground. These examples both show electricity in an unharnessed state.

Moving Electrons Around Through Conductors

What do electrons use to travel from one place to another? The answer to that question gives you the next piece of the electricity puzzle. Although you may use your old Chevy to get around, electrons use something called a conductor. Electricity is simply the movement of electrons through a conductor.

A lot of materials can act as conductors, but some are much better at it than others. Electrons can move more easily through metal than through plastic. In plastic, even though all the electrons are moving around their proton buddies, they pretty much stay in their own backyard. But in metal, the electrons are free to move all over the place. Free electrons in metal act like marbles thrown on an ice skating rink. The electrons glide through the metal like the marbles slide across the ice. Plastic, an insulator, is more like sand. Marbles don’t go much of anywhere if you throw them into a sandbox, and neither do electrons in an insulator.

So which materials are good conductors and which are good insulators? Most folks use copper and aluminum as conductors. In fact, electronics projects often use copper wire conductors. Plastic and glass are commonly used insulators.

Resistance is the measurement of the ability of electrons to move through a material. A copper wire with a large diameter has lower resistance to the flow of electrons than a copper wire with a small diameter. You need to understand resistance because almost every electronics project you do involves a resistor. Resistors have controlled amounts of resistance, which allows you to control the flow of electrons in a circuit.

Voltage The Driving Force

Above we explain how electrons move and that they move more freely in a conductor. But some kind of force has to pull the electrons from one place to another. This attractive force between positive and negative charges is an electromotive force called voltage. Negative electrons move toward a positive voltage by way of a conductor.

Remember Ben Franklin’s adventure flying a kite in a storm? The spark he produced that night gave him an understanding of how an electric current moves. In Ben’s case, electrons traveled down the wet string, which acted as a conductor. The voltage difference between the negatively charged clouds and the ground pulled the electrons down the wet string.

What happened to protons?

You may have noticed that we stopped talking about protons. Although you should understand the positive and negative charges in protons and electrons, we’re focusing on electrons because they’re more mobile than protons. In most cases, it is electrons, and their negative charges, that move through conductors and generate electricity.

But in special cases, such as batteries, positive charges also move through conductors. To explain this process, you also have to get into things called ions, atoms, electrochemical reactions, and maybe even the concept of holes as used in semiconductor physics. Because you don’t need to understand these concepts to complete the projects shown in this book (or most hobbyist level projects), we’ll leave the more complex physics to Einstein and keep our focus on electrons.