FAQ’s on Electricity

What is electricity? 

Electricity is a form of energy that starts with atoms (The smallest unit of matter. Scientists so far have found 112 different kinds of atoms. Everything in the world is made of different combinations of these atoms.). Atoms are too small to see, but they make up everything around us. An atom has three tiny parts:  proton (A basic particle in an atom’s nucleus that has a positive electrical charge), neutrons (A basic particle in an atom’s nucleus that has a neutral electrical charge) and electrons. (The basic particle that orbits the nucleus of an atom) The flow of electrons produces electricity). The center of the atom has at least one proton and one neutron. At least one electron travels around the center of the atom at great speed. Electricity can be created by forcing electrons to flow from atom to atom.

Why can a bird sit on a wire and not get hurt?

It is easier for electricity to keep flowing through the power line than to go through the bird. But if a bird with large wings touches a power line and a tree or power pole at the same time, it provides electricity with a path to the ground, and could be shocked. And if a bird touches two wires at once, it will create a circuit––electricity will flow through the bird and likely electrocute it.

Why does electricity/lightning want to go to the ground?

It’s just the nature of electricity to move from an area of higher voltage to an area of lower voltage, if given a path to travel there. The ground is simply the lowest–voltage area around, so if you give electricity a path to the ground, it will take it, no questions asked! When electricity goes into the ground, the earth absorbs its energy. Electrons experience an attraction for the Earth. The difference here is that electrons don’t have mass (well, they have VERY little mass, so we’ll ignore it for now).  So gravity isn’t the force at
work here – it’s the electromagnetic force.  Electrons have charge (taken as negative), and are attracted to the Earth (generally taken as positive). When electrons are not “in” the Earth, they are at a different potential relative to the Earth – we measure that potential with a unit called the volt.

Why didn’t Ben Franklin get electrocuted when he tied a metal key to a kite string and flew the kite in a thunderstorm?

Ben Franklin’s famous key did give off an electric spark. But lucky for Franklin, the kite was just drawing small electrical charges from the air. If the kite had actually been struck by lightning, Franklin would have been killed!

What causes lightning?

Lightning is a large discharge of static electricity. During a thunderstorm, clouds build up a charge. When there is a big difference in charge between the cloud and its surroundings, the cloud discharges a lightning bolt.

When air rises and falls within a thunderstorm, positive and negative charges form in the cloud. The bottom of the thundercloud has a negative charge, and the top has a positive charge. A flash of lightning happens when a charge becomes so strong that the air can’t stop it from jumping from the cloud to the ground, which has a positive charge. Lightning can also form inside the cloud, moving between the positively and negatively charged areas. The average flash of lightning could turn on a 100-watt light bulb for more than three months. The air near a lightning strike is hotter than the surface of the Sun.

Why does my hair stand on end when I take off my hat on a cold, dry day?

Everything you see is made up of atoms. They contain even smaller particles, called protons and electrons. Protons have positive electrical charges and they never move. Electrons have a negative charge and they move around. Atoms usually have the same number of protons and electrons, so they cancel each other out and atom is neutral—it has no charge. When two things are rubbed together, sometimes the electrons move from one thing to the other. The atom that loses electrons becomes positively charged, and the atom that gets more electrons becomes negatively charged. Two things that have different charges pull toward each other; two things with the same charges push away from each other. When you take your hat off, electrons from your hat move on to your hair. Your individual hairs then have the same positive charge, so they move away from each other, and you look really funny.

What is static electricity?

The shock you feel when you touch an object after walking on carpet is static electricity. When you drag your feet across carpet on a dry day, electrons from the carpet get transferred to your body. If you then touch a piece of metal, such as a doorknob, the electrons jump to the metal and you’ll feel a shock.

What is current?

Current is the rate of flow of electrons. It is produced by electrons “on the move”, and it is measured in amperes. Unlike static electricity, current electricity must flow through a conducter, usually copper wire. Household current is usually no more than 30 amps.

What is current electricity?

Current electricity is a stream of electrons flowing through a conductor. There are different sources of current electricity including the chemical reactions taking place in a battery and the application of pressure on quartz crystals. However, the most significant source is the generator. A simple magneto, or generator, produces electricity when a coil of copper turns inside a magnetic field. In a power plant, electromagnets spinning inside an armature of many coils of copper wire generate vast quantities of current electricity.

What is the difference between alternating and direct current?

A battery produces direct current (DC). The electrons are set in motion by a chemical reaction in a battery and flow only one way. A generator, on the other hand, produces alternating current (AC), because the wire coil core is influenced alternately by the North and South Poles of the magnets. The current is therefore constantly changing direction

Do the words “shocked” and “electrocuted” mean the same thing?

No! Someone can be shocked by electricity and survive. But when we say someone has been electrocuted, it means they have been killed by electricity.

What is a conductor?

Electricity flows more easily through some materials than through others. Conductors let electricity flow through them easily. Most metals are good conductors, so they are used to make wires for carrying electrical current.

What is an insulator?

Insulators, such as glass, stop the flow of electricity. Most plastics are insulators. Wires carrying electricity are covered in plastic to prevent electric shocks.

What is electromagnetism?

Michael Faraday discovered that a magnetic field can generate an electric current. This principle of induction can be effectively demonstrated by moving a bar magnet in and out of a coil of copper wire attached to a meter, or by using a magneto. A magneto is an assembly of magnets enclosing a copper coil. When the copper coil is turned in the magnetic fields of the magnets, electricity is produced.

Why can you sometimes see a spark if you can’t see electricity?

You can’t see electricity when it is flowing through a circuit. But if electricity leaves the circuit – like when someone is shocked – you can see a spark. The spark isn’t electricity itself. It is a flame that happens when the electricity travels through the air and burns up oxygen particles.

How are magnetism and electricity connected?

In a generator or magneto, magnetism can induce electricity; in an electromagnet, electricity induces magnetism.

Combining electricity with rotating magnets makes an electric motor.

What is an electrical circuit?

A circuit connects electrical components in a closed path or loop. It includes a source of power, one or more on and off switches, interconnecting wires and an electrical appliance such as a bell or a light bulb.

How does a fuse work?

A fuse is connected directly into an electrical circuit. If the electric current surges to a dangerous level, the metal in the fuse melts and the circuit is broken, preventing overheated wires in the walls of the house from starting a fire. Never substitute a fuse of greater capacity than that specified for a particular circuit. If the fuse has the ability to carry more current than originally designed, the wires will heat up before the fuse melts, and this could start a fire.

Why does your hair stand on end at a Van de Graaff generator ?

A Van de Graaff generator removes electrons from the large globe, giving it a high positive charge. If you stand on an insulated plate and touch this globe, all parts of your body become positively charged, including your hair. Since like charges repel, every hair on your head is now trying to get away from every other hair. The best way is to stand straight up. Result – flyaway hairdo!

Approximately how many tons of coal are in one train car?

105 tons per train car

Approximately how many coal cars are on a train?

This varies between 128 – 135 coal cars per train

Approximately how much coal (in tons or train cars) do we use per day at Gerald Gentleman Station?

19,000 tons (or 180 train cars) per day with both units at full load

How do batteries create electricity?

A chemical reaction within the battery forces electrons to move.

Do electric eels really create electricity?

Yes! An electric eel uses chemicals in its body to manufacture electricity. A large electric eel can produce a charge of up to 650 volts, which is more than five times the shocking power of a household outlet.

How does an incandescent light bulb work?

The wire inside a light bulb is called a filament. It is made of tungsten, a metal that stays solid at very high temperatures. Electricity flows through the tungsten filament, causing it to heat up and glow. The glow gives off light. Inside a light bulb is a vacuum – in other words, all the air has been removed from inside the glass bulb. (If there were air inside, the wire would burn up.)