How does electricity work?

Updated February 21, 2017

There are three main properties that make electricity work: voltage, amps and resistance. These properties work together inside a circuit to allow electricity to move from place to place.

The process of electricity begins when an atom's electrons are stimulated and made to move in a current or flow. Some atoms hold their electrons close to the nucleus and some don't. The atoms that don't hold their electrons close are best at conducting an electrical current.

Materials like silver, gold, copper and aluminium are made up of these types of atoms, which is why most metals are good conductors of electricity. Materials like glass, air and plastic are called insulators; their electron make-up obstructs the flow of an electric current.

In order for electricity to flow in a current, there must be some sort of force or pressure pushing the electrons along. This force is called electromotive force or EMF. The more common term is voltage.

A circuit carries this electrical current. It is comprised of an electrical source, a load and two wires that carry the current between the source and the load. An example of an electrical source is a battery. The load could be a light bulb.

The electrical source must have a positive and negative terminal. The negative terminal is used to push the electrons along the circuit. The wire running from the negative terminal is routed to the load (light bulb), and then runs from the load back to the positive terminal on the source.

The amount of force applied by the source determines how much voltage goes through the circuit. The number of electrons that move through the circuit is called the amperage (current) or amps.

The last piece of the electricity puzzle has to do with the kind of resistance that is working against the electrical current. For example, if you were to use two large wires in your circuit, the current would flow faster than if you were to use two narrow wires. It's the same as when water flows through a pipe. The larger the pipe, the easier it is for the water to move through.

Another area in which resistance plays a part is when the current enters the load part of your circuit. In the case of a light bulb, the thin filament inside the bulb takes on the same amount of current as the wire. When the current moves through the filament, the electrons become more concentrated because they're moving through a smaller space. This small space intensifies the energy of the moving electrons, and it is this intense energy that lights the light bulb.

There are a million different uses for electricity. These three properties--voltage, amperage and resistance--can be applied in countless ways to any and every material that conducts and/or insulates electric current.

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About the Author

Jacquelyn Jeanty has worked as a freelance writer since 2008. Her work appears at various websites. Her specialty areas include health, home and garden, Christianity and personal development. Jeanty holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Purdue University.