Besides powering your toaster and washing machine, electricity is actually a fascinating subject. Especially if you are like us and have a geekish fascination for this invisible power, how does it work and who figured it out? Did you know that if you placed a standard florescent light bulb on the ground under a high voltage power line it would immediately start glowing as a result of the invisible electromagnetic field that surrounds the wire.
The story of understanding this strange force goes right back to ancient Greece 600 years BC when a man known as Thales of Miletus a renowned philosopher realised that by rubbing amber (basically dried tree resin) against his hair that it mysteriously attracted things like dust, bird feathers and other lightweight objects. He had discovered the strange phenomenon known as static electricity.
Thales of Miletus was known as one of the “Seven Wise Men”, these were men famous for their wisdom and knowledge in the ancient world. In fact, the word electricity comes from the Greek “electron” which means amber. When you run amber (or in today’s world a plastic pen) against your hair, the electrons move, and a static charge builds up. A positively charged object will attract an object that has a negative charge like a feather.
Picking up a feather with a pen is nice, but it wasn’t going change the world, and it was hundreds of years later when the next big leap forward in understanding how electricity works, it came from an Italian scientist Alessandro Volta . He invented the world’s first battery using little more than copper, zinc and some salt water. The resulting electrochemical reaction caused a small flow of current and this enabled other scientists of the day to study the strange new phenomenon of electrical current.
In the 1800s an English scientist named Michael Faraday took things further. If you’ve never heard of Faraday, please look him up. He was a fascinating man, he came from a poor family, was completely self-taught, he was not respected by the upper classes since he was not of “noble birth”, and as a result he struggled to have his ideas accepted by his peers.
Despite all this he discovered how to reliably generate electricity by using little more than copper wire and a simple magnet. He found that if he moved a magnet through a loop of wire an electric current flowed in that wire.
In faraday’s experiment he used a simple hand winding device to create the movement needed to produce a flow of electric power. These days we use wind, water movement, or more commonly fuel fired turbines. However; still to this day it’s the same basic principle discovered by Faraday that is used by most power stations to generate electricity.
On a side note, Faraday was eventually recognised for his genius, and was offered a knighthood for his contribution to science, but being a humble man he turned it down.
The amount of “turning power” or movement required to generate electricity is surprising. In the UK an experiment was done by a science based television show called “bang goes the theory”. They decided to connect a small generator to a bicycle and then see how many of these bikes were needed to generate enough electricity to power day-to-day appliances in a standard home.
It took twenty people to cycle like crazy just to make enough power to boil a kettle for a cup of tea. At one stage they needed eighty people peddling bicycles all at the same time just to make enough energy to heat the water for one person to have a hot shower.
Because the amount of fuel needed to generate electricity is quite high, it’s important for all of us to minimise the amount of power we consume. This not only benefits the environment, but saves us money. Electrical power generated from coal and other fossil fuels is known as “black energy”, and Australia is still highly dependent on it.
The “turning power” needed to generate electricity can also be derived from wind turbines, and from the natural flow of water. This kind of renewable energy is becoming more efficient and together with solar, it’s helping produce a percentage of Australia’s energy.
The next big leap in power generation is hopefully not too far away. Plasma Fusion has been the dream of scientists for over 60 years because of its potential for almost limitless cheap energy and no emissions of greenhouse gas. The good news is that the “Iter Project” in France is currently being built. This project is absolutely massive with billions of dollars already spent putting together what might soon be the ultimate cheap electricity source.
Considering just how amazing electricity is, and the amount of work that goes into generating it, we all owe a debt to the scientists and engineers that have improved our lives in this modern world. If you’re keen to lower your bill and reduce your carbon foot print check out some of the simple energy saving tips on this website.