Electricity & Magnetism: Definition & Relationship

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Electricity and magnetism are two things that seem different, but actually have a lot in common. In this lesson, we'll define each of them, and then explore how they are really part of the same fundamental force of nature.

What is Electricity?

Electricity involves energy transferring from one place to another due to the existence of charged particles. There are two types of electricity: static electricity, and regular electricity.

Static electricity is where negatively charged particles called electrons build up in a particular area, and then can be released suddenly. For example, when you close a car door and get an unexpected static shock, this is as a result of charges building up, and then suddenly moving in or out of you when you touch the door. This often happens due to friction, like when you rub a balloon against your hair and produce forces which cause your hair to stand on end, or the balloon to stick on the wall. When these things happen, energy is transferring and forces are being applied.

Charges produce electric fields, which allows them to apply forces at a distance. When negative electrons leave an area, they leave behind positive charges because atoms still have their positive protons in their nuclei. Opposite charges (one positive and one negative) attract, and similar charges (both positive or both negative) repel.

Regular electricity is the flow of charged electrons around an electrical circuit. This flow is called a current, and is how all electrical devices are powered, including lights, switches, computers, and cell phones. All of them contain a bunch of electrical circuits, with electrons flowing from one side of a power source (like a battery) to the other in a continuous flowing loop. The electrons essentially carry energy from the battery to the components in the circuit they are powering, and then return to the battery. They are repelled from the negative side of the battery, and attracted to the positive side of the battery. This repulsion and attraction happens due to a voltage (or difference in potential) between the two sides of the battery. This is why batteries and power supplies have a number of volts written on them -- this is a way of representing how strong this attraction and repulsion is.

What is Magnetism?

Magnetism is where particular materials like iron can produce forces. Iron can be shaped into a bar magnet, or horseshoe magnet. These magnets can attract certain metal objects, and magnets can also attract or repel each other. Magnets contain north poles and south poles. Opposite poles attract, and similar poles repel. We can also create an electromagnet by wrapping a coil of wire around a piece of iron or other magnetic material. This allows us to turn the magnet's attractive power on and off using a switch, which can be very useful.

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