How does electricity work?

Vova Prylepa. 06/11/2022

A small magnet is used to manipulate ferrofluid into unique modifications. (Institue for Energy Research)

Any electrical device, be it the phone in your hand, a toaster, or the television is powered by electricity. However, even though electricity is such an important factor in our well-being and every day comfort, very few people truly understand the way humans interact with electrons by the medium of various machines in order to exploit the energy carried by these small particles. In this article, we will explore what electricity is and some tools in our everyday life that help us control it.

To determine how electricity works, we first have to acknowledge that everything in this world is made up of various different types of atoms. All atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. These parts are indistinguishable from element to element, meaning that the protons observed in any element will be identical in all of their properties, differing only by quantity (in some cases). Protons have a positive charge, while neutrons are neutral, and electrons are negatively charged. The number of these subatomic particles and their proportions inside, and outside the nucleus determine the type of atom and its properties. In fact, all atoms contain a nucleus, which is a collection of the aforementioned protons and neutrons, which are surrounded by a cloud of electrons in constant, and to a certain degree, orderly movement around it. Atoms contain the same number of electrons as they do protons, which is scientifically called a balance of charges.

The number of electrons is restricted to the number of orbits around an atom. The quantity of electrons on a given orbit path stays the same across atoms (for instance 2 for the first orbit and 8 for all of the following), but the number of orbits varies in relation to the number of electrons needed to balance out the positively charged protons. The more protons there are, the bigger the positive charge, the more electrons are needed and thus the more orbits available. It’s also possible that the outer orbit containing electrons only needs one or two additional electrons to balance the atom, even though it isn’t at its maximum electron capacity, having the potential to hold more electrons.

Insulators vs Conductors

Atoms want to create an electrical charge balance and be stable by filling in their orbits with electrons. Depending on the type of atom or element, if it has an incomplete orbit, it will steal electrons from atoms nearby just to complete its outermost orbit. This back and forth exchange of electrons created when incomplete atoms take electrons from other atoms to create a charge balance in a continuous chain reaction is what we call electricity.

Atoms with the tendency to temporarily steal electrons from each other (primarily metal atoms), are called conductors, while those that do not are called insulators. Rubber is the most well-known and used insulator, utilized to cover wires with a protective layer that blocks the current of electrons from flowing through the wires, and electrocuting us.

Resistance - Resistors

Not all conductors have the same degree of conductivity, with some better and some worse than others. Resistance is the speed of the electrons in the current flow at which a conductor moves electricity. Resistance increases the slower the conductor is and decreases the faster the conductor is. If the resistance is too insignificant and we put a lot of electricity in a circuit, the object you try to power up may be damaged from all the energy flowing through it at high speeds, hitting nearby atoms and breaking bonds between them.

Resistors are tools that regulate the amount of electricity flowing through a circuit. A resistor is an object made of conductive material that has a higher resistance than the wires in the circuit. It slows down the electricity so objects such as light bulbs don’t become damaged.


The two types of currents are the alternating current (AC) and the direct current (DC). A direct current is when electricity leaves one end of the battery, travels along a path that travels throughout the phone, and then ends up returning back into the battery.

An alternating current is when the direction of the flow of electrons rapidly changes, allowing electricity to charge numerous devices at a time. The outlets in houses are wired so that they can charge any device simultaneously without it having to wait for its turn.


Electricity is the chain reaction of atoms taking electrons from each other to fill their incomplete outermost orbitals. Resistance is the speed of the electrons in the current flow at which a conductor moves electricity, increasing in a slow conductor and decreasing in a fast conductor. Resistors are tools that regulate the amount of electricity flowing through a circuit, slowing down the flow to prevent damage. The direct current is a one directional current linked with a battery, while the ac is a current that can change directions, and allows us to charge devices simultaneously, without them having to wait for their turn.

Cover Photo: (Vox)

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