How is Electricity Made?

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You wouldn’t be able to be reading this if it wasn’t for the electricity, making your computer and the Internet work. Electricity plays a part in so much of our everyday lives. But have you ever thought about what electricity actually is, where it comes from and how is it made?

What is electricity?

Electricity, as a flow of electric charge, is a form of energy. Energy, like all matter among us (objects, plants, and even our own bodies) is formed by minuscule particles called atoms.

Each atom is formed by even smaller elements, called protons (they carry a positive charge), neutrons (they carry no charge) and electrons (they carry a negative charge). The protons and neutrons are densely packed together in the centre of the atom, while the electrons orbit around the nucleus.

When electrons move from atom to atom, they create magnetic forces and an electrical current is formed, creating energy.

How is electricity made?

Electricity can be made in a number of ways. It can be generated, or it can also happen naturally (through lightening bolts).

The main thing to have in mind is that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another. So when we talk about making electricity, what we are really doing is using another form of previously existing energy and transforming it into electricity.

The electricity we use for our everyday lives is obtained through generators. These generators work with magnets to produce electricity.

Power plants and generators

A little bit of history…

Around 1800, Michael Faraday, a British physicist and chemist, discovered electromagnetic induction when he performed an experiment consisting of moving a magnet through wire, creating electricity.

A few years after that in 1882, American inventor and businessman, Thomas Edison, opened the first power plant in New York City. The generator used on the plant was basically Faraday’s experiment, but in a larger version.

Present day process

Nowadays, the process of obtaining electricity is pretty much the same as it was back in 1882: a big magnet rotating around a copper wire, which produces the flow of electrons across atoms, creating an electric current.

To obtain this, power plants need a fuel source. Fuel sources can be coal, gas, water or wind.

Coal and gas

As fuel sources, coal and gas work very similarly. They are used to heat water, and with the steam they generate, the turbine starts turning, moving the magnets and initiating the process.

Nuclear power plants

Nuclear power plants obtain energy via splitting the atoms of uranium, releasing heat, which is then used to boil water and obtain steam.

Uranium-fuelled nuclear power is a clean and efficient way to obtain energy. Once the steam is generated, like the coal and gas power plants, it drives the turbine generators, allowing the magnets to move to create electricity.

Water and wind

Other power plants use renewable energy sources as their fuel source, such as water or wind.

Hydro powered plants use dams built across rivers to hold back the water, which is directed through pipes to fall against the blades of massive turbines, making them move. Once the water has hit the turbine, it goes back to the river, and it can be used again.

Wind turbines also operate on a similar principle. The kinetic energy of the wind turns the blades of the wind turbines around a rotor. When that rotor (connected to a main shaft) activates, the shaft starts spinning, activating the generator and creating electricity.

In Australia, most of our electricity supply comes from coal and natural gas power plants. Only 14% of Australia’s electricity comes from renewable energy sources.

How does it get to our homes?

Once the process of creating the electricity is done, its voltage needs to be changed. To do this, the electricity travels through a transformer, and from there is able to travel from the power plant to every destination it’s needed.

High-voltage electrical current transports within thick and insulated transmission lines, kept high above ground.

Just like cars need fuel to keep going, or humans need food to survive, electricity current needs a boost too, especially if has travelled long distances. When the electricity reaches a new town or area, it is sent to a transformer, which gives the current the charge it needs to keep going.

When the wires reach your house, another transformer makes the electricity the right voltage so it can be safely used at home.

The wires are connected to a meter box, which tracks how much electricity is being used, and they are also connected to the power points around your whole house, allowing you to plug in your computer, television, phone, console games, kitchen appliances, and so many other things you use!