Last updated on November 1st, 2019
Although electricity has become an integral part of our lives, and life without is unimaginable, some of us still don’t understand how it all works. This article aims to help us understand how electricity travels through wires, up to our homes and businesses for consumption.
Current Flow Overview: How Electricity Travels Through Wires
The discovery of electricity has dramatically influenced and impacted the world around us. Currently, we have massive grids and other power sources that generate electric power for consumption in our homes and offices. However, the science behind the production and how electricity travels through wires remains a mystery to many.
Electricity is a powerful force that exists naturally on this planet. We all rely on electricity from time to time. Some rely on electric power just like they do water and food.
Let us think for a minute; what would life be like with no electricity to power up the telephones, your favorite TV shows, and video games, among other gadgets?
It is undeniable that electricity is a force that exists to allow us to enjoy life in diverse ways.
Well, albeit getting to know how electricity works would be great since we will have the ability to enjoy it with a solid understanding.
Additionally, when we understand some of the principles and how electricity travels through wires will eliminate the multiple risks that come with electricity.
So How Can We Define Electricity?
To most individuals, electricity is perceived to be a mysterious force the pops up whenever we click a switch or plug in cables to a socket. I’m sure if we all had a chance to talk about electricity as we perceive it, we would end up having baskets full of hilarious answers.
Nonetheless, the best part of it is that these baskets will reveal the incredible power of imagination that our minds can conceive.
It was through this beautiful power that some great minds were able to discover electricity since the 17th century.
The likes of William Gilbert, Ben Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Michael Faraday, and Nikola Tesla, among many, are heroes in the discovery of electricity and shaping it to what we have today.
Electricity is termed to be the flow of electric charge within a complete circuit. While we may view the mechanics behind the generation and flow of electricity to be complicated, the basics of how electricity flows are quite easy to understand.
Therefore, let us define some terms used around electricity.
What is A Circuit?
The term circuit has its roots from the word circle; hence, we can think of it as a loop. The circuit is a pathway where electricity flows through from the source and back to the source.
Talking of circuits, they can either be open circuits and closed circuits.
With an open circuit, it means that there is a disconnect somewhere along the loop and electricity cannot flow.
With a closed circuit, the circle is complete; thus, electricity can flow. This principle forms the basis of electric switches.
See Related: Why is My Electric Bill So High?
What Are Electrons?
An atom is the smallest constituent unit of an element that can exist, but within each atom, there are three particles. The three particles include electrons, protons, and neutrons.
The electrons carry a negative electromagnetic charge and have unique characteristics as they can skip from one atom to another.
The ability of an electron to disassociate itself from one atom and move to the adjacent atom is what makes it the most vital particle when it comes to electricity.
This movement of electrons from one atom to another is what creates an electric current. A consistent flow of electrons within a circuit determines the current in a wire. See how to calculate potential energy to understand electrons and energy.
What is Current?
Electric current is defined as the flow of electrons in a circuit. This current is derived from the continuous jumping of the negatively charged electrons from one atom to another. The standard unit of measurement of electric current is Ampere (A).
Electric current exists in two forms, the direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). The physics around these two might be a little bit complicated, but the fundamental difference between the two depends on how the current flows.
The type of electric current affects how electricity travels through wires. The electrical current in direct current tends to flow in a single direction whereas it is quite the opposite in alternating current since it reverses direction.
What is Voltage?
Voltage refers to the pressure of electrons in a circuit. In some cases, a voltage can also refer to as the electromotive force.
Voltage is measured in volts (V) and the conventional circuits installed in our homes and offices are generally 120 volts or 240 volts. Most light fixtures are fed by 120 volts while the large appliances use the 240 volts.
What is Resistance?
With regards to electricity, resistance is an electrical quantity that measures the opposition offered by a material to the flow of electric current. Resistance also affects how electricity travels through wires. A cable that has a low resistance has a high flow of electrons, while the one with high resistance has a low flow of electrons.
The measurement of resistance is Ohms, and too much resistance in a circuit can cause an overload which might potentially result in a fire. The reason being, resistance generates some heat within a circuit. The working of an incandescent light bulb has its basis on this principle.
Now that we understand some of the basic terms in the field of with electricity let’s take a deeper dive into the generation of electricity as well as try and see how does electricity travel at a greater depth.
How Does Electricity Travel
For electricity to flow in any material, the material ought to be a good conductor of electricity. Good conductors easily allow the flow of electron from one point to another. Secondly, electric conductors of electricity exhibit relatively low resistance to the electric current compared to the poor conductors (electrical insulators).
Poor conductors of electricity possess high resistance to the flow of electrons, thus hindering electric current from flowing from one point to another.
Electric wires are manufactured using electrical conductors and insulated with a poor conductor. In most cases, copper is the most used metal in manufacturing wires.
Copper has the least resistivity, thus making it the best option as it also helps reduce energy loss.
Where Does Electricity Start
It is essential to consider that a utility generator ought to be present for the electrons to flow in circuit wires. A utility generator is essentially a turbine that rotates huge coils of metal wires within massive magnets.
Back in 1931, Michael Faraday discovered how to create electric charges. When an electrical conductor turns within a magnetic field, it produces electric charges.
Faraday’s discovery is still being used in modern turbines as well as generators, whether being powered by water, steam, or wind. The metal coils rotate around the magnetic field, thus kick-starting the flow of electrons.
If we may use the analogy of a water pump, the pump does not create water but rather facilitate the flow of water. The same case applies to generators; they do not generate electricity but facilitate the flow of electrons through the wire.
The rotating coils of wires cut across the electromagnetic fields, thus generating electric current within the cable. The rotations can, however, be designed to either produce alternating current or direct current.
See Related: An Overview of Prepaid Electricity
How Does Electricity Travel Through Wire
As earlier discussed, what travels through the wires physically is not electricity but rather the negatively charged electrons. These electrons that jump from one atom to another are not firmly bound and are free to roam. We can also refer to them as free electrons.
These free electrons frequently bounce and jiggle around at room temperature since the temperatures are high, that is, in comparison to the absolute zero. The force from the turbines tends to stabilize these electrons as they slowly drift in one direction.
For the alternating current, the electrons slowly drift in one direction for about 0.02 seconds and then drift back in reverse for 0.02 seconds.
Given that the electrons drift slowly, one may wonder how fast does the electricity move? Electrical energy travels as electromagnetic waves at the speed of light, which is 3*108 meters per second.
The speed of electricity is quite fast even though the electrons move quite slowly.
The electric field produces the force that causes these electrons to drift slowly. The strength of this electric field is what we refer to as an electromotive force or preferably voltage.
On the other hand, the slow movement of the electrons in the wire results in an electric current. Let’s borrow the idea of water flowing in a pipe to help us better understand how electricity travels through wires.
Although the flow of water in a pipe is not the perfect analogy but will assist in creating a mental image. In our analogy, water will represent the electrons while the pipeline will be the wire.
The voltage can be likened to the pressure of water in a pipe, while current is the amount of water flowing through the same pipe.
See Related: Interesting Facts About Electricity
What is Transmission?
Concerning how electricity travels through wires, the transmission is the transport of electricity from the source, to the consumption point. While thinking about the electrical grid, it is a considerable network designed to transmit electric power.
Generally, electricity from the power plants moves through transmission lines to the substations. From the substations, the voltage is lowered and sent through distribution lines to our homes.
The transmission lines are fed with high voltage electricity since high voltage minimizes line losses. About 6% of the power that gets to the transmission lines is lost due to resistance of the wires. It is important to note that electric wires also provide some resistance to the electric current.
Bringing resistance into the picture clearly defines how transmission and voltage work together. Ohms law states that “Electric current is directly proportional to the voltage, while the current is inversely proportional to the resistance.”
After increasing the voltage, the electrical current increases, which then minimizes power loss during transmission.
Some of the factors that increase the resistance of a wire include:
- Temperature: The cooler the wire, the lesser the resistance than warmer wires.
- Cross-sectional area: The thick wires have lower resistance and vice versa.
- Length of the wire: shorter wires will experience lesser resistance while longer wires will experience more resistance.
- The material used to manufacture the wire also determines the resistance of the wire.
See Related: Energy Conservation Methods to Consider
Conclusion On How Electricity Travels Through Wires
How electricity travels through wires is not magic. The process is not hard to understand either, but rather simple science. Electric current is just the flow of electrons in a circuit.
For instance, for the light bulb to go on when you press that switch at home, electricity flows from the power stations through the lines, to the lamp, and then finally back to the power source.
Do you now know how it all works? Leave us your comment below.
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