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What is Electric Energy? - Definition, Sources & Examples

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  • 0:01 Electricity Comes from Matter
  • 2:48 Electron Flow
  • 4:10 Resistance to Electron Flow
  • 5:00 Electric Shock
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Electricity is all around us, but where exactly does it come from? In this lesson, you'll explore the most basic source of electric energy and understand how this electron movement provides something that we often take for granted in our modern lives.

Electricity Comes From Matter

Benjamin Franklin is famous for quite a few things, but mostly for the story of his adventure with a kite in a lightning storm. This story is so famous because the events of this 'experiment' are rumored to have led to his discovery of electricity.

I'll let you ponder the validity of the story's details on your own time, but one thing is true. Franklin is considered the person who discovered electrical energy. The name is a bit of a misnomer, though, because electrical energy itself (often called electricity) isn't really a form of energy. It's more a way that energy is transferred between objects. In its most bare-bones form, electricity is the transfer of energy between electrons.

Everything on Earth has electrons because everything is made of atoms. Atoms come with three main components: protons and neutrons in the nucleus and electrons orbiting around that nucleus. Like their names imply, neutrons have no charge (they are neutral), protons have a positive charge, and electrons have a negative charge.

Normally an atom is balanced - the positive charge from its protons equals the negative charge from its electrons. Not only are these charges balanced, but much like the opposite poles of two magnets, they are attracted to each other. In contrast, two charges of the same sign (either two positive charges or two negative charges) will repel each other.

Because electrons are orbiting far from the atom's nucleus, they can easily be transferred from one object to another. For example, take a balloon and rub it on your hair. When you do this, you're transferring electrons from your hair to the balloon, which gives the balloon a net negative charge and your hair a net positive charge. This is why as you pull the balloon away, your hair stands on end trying to go with it - the charges are attracted to each other! However, do this with a second balloon and try to put them together. The balloons will repel each other because they both have an excess of electrons, which means they have a net negative charge.

Don't worry; no electrons were harmed in the making of this lesson. The same number of electrons exists throughout the balloon and hair activity, you've just transferred them from one place to another - electrical energy in action! Does this conservation concept sound familiar? It should because electricity follows the law of conservation of energy. Just like energy is never created or destroyed, electric charge is also never created or destroyed; it's only transferred from one object to another.

Electron Flow

The movement, or 'flow,' of electric charge is called current, and the path along which electrons can flow is called a circuit. Electrons move along a circuit much like water moves through a pipe - going from one end to the other. Electrons can do this because, unlike protons, they are not stuck inside the atom's nucleus.

You can't create or destroy energy, but you can create electric current. Current comes from an electric pressure differential, something we call voltage. Let's say you have a glass full of water and you poke a hole near the bottom. Water will flow out through the hole because the pressure at the bottom of the glass is greater than the pressure at the top. Water will continue to flow out of the hole until the pressure difference is equalized in the glass.

The same is true for electrical pressure. In something like a battery, there is an electrical pressure difference between the positive and negative terminals. This creates a flow of electrons, or current, when the battery is connected to an electrical wire. The battery 'pumps' current through the circuit wire much like your heart pumps blood through your veins and arteries - the greater the voltage, the more current is produced. And much like you need your heart to exist, a voltage source is necessary for current to exist.

Resistance to Electron Flow

The whole point of sending electrons along the circuit wire is to utilize the electricity, right? Otherwise, we'd still be happily reading by candlelight and traveling in horse-drawn carriages.

Devices are placed along the circuit so that they can be powered. In your house, these are the outlets that you plug your devices into. But much like a clogged drain creates resistance against the flow of water through a pipe, these electricity 'collectors' along the circuit create resistance against electron flow through the wire. As the name implies, this is an opposition of electron movement. Both the length and width of an electrical wire affect the resistance of current running through it. The type of material is also an important factor because some materials are less restrictive to electron flow than others.

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