- Electricity is a form of energy.
- Electricity comes from the conversion of energy sources, such as oil, coal and gas.
- Wind, water and solar energy are sustainable sources that can be used to generate electricity.
- Electricity is used to power household items but it can also be dangerous.
- Benjamin Franklin proved lightning is electricity.
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The facts about electricity
Electricity is the flow of energy. All matter has atoms. Atoms have at their centre a nucleus, containing protons and neutrons. Surrounding the nucleus are electrons. When there is an imbalance of protons and electrons, electrons are released from the atom. This flow is called an electric current.
An electric circuit provides a path for an electric current to follow.
Generators are used to change forms of energy, including fossil fuels (coal and oil) and renewable sources (water, wind, and solar), to produce electricity.
Electricity is used to power household items but can be harmful to humans, causing burns, electric shock – even death. There are tips you should follow to stay safe, indoors and outdoors.
An electric charge that doesn't flow, or move, is called static electricity.
According to the Global Hydrology and Climate Centre, Benjamin Franklin performed the first systematic, scientific study of lightning during the second half of the 18th century.
While others had previously noted the similarity between laboratory sparks and lightning, Franklin was the first to design an experiment which conclusively proved the electrical nature of lightning.
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Because Britain is north of the equator, the sun is always to the south of us in the sky. This means that in Britain it is best to put solar panels facing south, so that the sun shines on them for as much of the day as possible.
Electricity can also be a lot cleaner and nicer than the alternative. In 1890, the London Underground started to use electric trains because it meant there was no dirty, smelly smoke from steam engines in the tunnels and stations. All underground railways around the world soon did the same thing.
Lots of electricity is generated by burning fuels that create greenhouse gases and contribute to global climate change. People are trying to reduce this by generating more energy by environmentally-friendly methods like wind or solar power.
Nuclear power generates electricity using ‘nuclear fuels’ that get very hot. It doesn’t create greenhouse gases, but after they have been used the fuels are dangerous and have to be kept very carefully for a long, long time.
Nuclear power stations often look similar to coal or gas power stations with lots of big cooling towers. The main difference is that a nuclear power station doesn’t have a tall, thin chimney to get rid of the gases from burning fuel.
In the future, electricity might be generated using a method called ‘fusion’. It’s a little like nuclear power but it doesn’t use the same fuels, and doesn’t leave waste that has to be kept safe for a long time.
As well as generating electricity in an environmentally friendly way, it’s important only to use the electricity that we need to. Turning things off when we aren’t using them can save electricity, and so can changing to modern light bulbs – old-fashioned light bulbs can use five or six times as much electricity to create the same amount of light.
Electricity can be very dangerous when it travels through you. It can seriously hurt or even kill people. It’s important not to put anything except a plug into a mains electricity socket. High voltage electricity is even more dangerous – you don’t even have to touch it to get a shock because it can jump several feet through the air!
Not all items that use electricity have to be plugged into mains sockets. Batteries can be used to store small amounts of electricity so that it can be used in small things that you can carry around like iPods and video game players. Some batteries can only be used once, and some can be ‘recharged’ so that they can be used again.
Words to know:
Coal – coal is turned into electricity by burning it to make steam to turn a turbine; unfortunately, this makes carbon dioxide that causes global warming
Cooling towers – these are used at power stations to get as much heat as possible out of steam that has been used to make electricity; this makes the power stations more efficient. They are normally very wide towers, and sometimes look as though they have clouds coming out of them!
Dams – used to block up valleys and create a lake behind them; the force of the water leaving the lake is used to turn a turbine
Electric shock – what you get when electricity runs through you; electric shocks can easily kill people, so it’s a good idea to be very careful with electricity
Efficiency – energy efficiency means only using the energy that you need to use; this means turning things off when you aren’t using them so that they don’t use electricity. It saves money, and helps the environment.
Gas – gas is turned into electricity by burning it to make steam to turn a turbine; unfortunately, this makes carbon dioxide that causes global warming
Generate – when we make electricity using any of the methods described on this page, we say that we’ve ‘generated’ it
Green electricity – green electricity is electricity that has been generated in an environmentally friendly way; people usually use this to mean wind power, solar power and hydroelectricity.
High voltage – very strong electricity (see voltage) It’s more efficient to move electricity long distances if it is high voltage; this saves money and is good for the environment, but it makes it more dangerous
Hydroelectric – power that is generated using water to turn turbines; this is normally by using a dam to create a lake, but sometimes waves or tides in the ocean are used
Nuclear power – nuclear fuels get very hot, and the heat is used to make steam to turn a turbine; this doesn’t make carbon dioxide, but the used fuel is dangerous and has to be stored carefully for a long time
Nuclear waste – nuclear fuel that has been used up making electricity; it can be very dangerous, and lasts a long time
Power station – a huge building that is used to make electricity; it has cooling towers and turbines, and needs a fuel to use to generate the electricity
Pylon – high voltage electricity is used over long distances from the power stations to towns and cities; it is more dangerous than low voltage electricity, so the cables are put at the top of big metal towers called pylons
Solar power – electricity made using special panels that absorb light from the sun and turn it into electricity
Solar panels – flat panels that are specially made so that when sunlight hits them, they generate electricity; you often see them on the roofs of houses
Turbine – a special kind of machine that you can turn to make electricity; most electricity is made using turbines, often with steam that is made by burning fuel to heat water
Voltage – a measure of how strong the electricity is; the higher the voltage, the stronger it is, and the more dangerous it is
Wind power – electricity that is generated by turbines turned by the wind
Wind turbines – used to generate wind power; they have big blades that catch the wind so that the wind makes them turn, and they turn the turbine to make electricity