Electricity is one of those things everyone knows exists (at this point) but not everyone knows how to explain with any competency. It’s invisible (except when it gets very very visible) and it gives life to most of the modern world. From there, most people lose specifics.
One of the first things to learn when trying to understand how something works is the terminology around it. learning specific electrical terms allows you to take the conversation from the general to the specific with confidence.
With so many devices using electricity, functional knowledge of it has bankable appeal. A total of 21,372 TWh of power flowed through lines all across the planet in 2017. Being able to produce and harness that output provides you with a vital skill.
With the system primed, let’s get into the verbiage behind how electricity works.
Crucial Electrical Terms
This list provides a primer of knowledge. Each term leads to further terms. These provide scope to the field that will help you in further self-directed learning.
The first thing to learn about electricity is how it gets work done. The unit of motion within electronics is the volt. If you think about voltage in terms of other physical properties it makes more sense.
Voltage is an electromotive force. It pushes current through a circuit to get the work done. The higher the voltage, the more current that moves. Voltage is only one piece of the pie, though.
To cause a lot of damage, or to power a device, you need to add a few more elements.
Whereas voltage is a pusher, current (measured in amps) is about the flow.
One way to think about current and voltage is in terms of water. The water itself is made of electrons and the amount gushing out of the hose is the voltage. The size of the hose is the current.
When you think about electricity being dangerous, it is the speed of flow that matters. When asking about how much power is needed to kill a person you are asking how many amps can kill you.
The actual work done by electricity is referred to as power. This is measured in Watts.
Another comparison to more basic physics. A Newton is the energy needed to accelerate one kilogram of material over the distance of one meter.
A watt is then the force of one volt moving at one amp.
So when you look at a power bill, you are charged by the watt (in kilowatts per hour). This is the amount of work done by the voltage at a particular amperage throughout your home.
Thinking of power in terms of work is an easy way to make sense of what’s happening.
At this point, you probably want to understand how voltage is created. Voltage is created by electrons flowing. How those electrons do actual work at the end of a process is through the principle of electromagnetism.
Electromagnetism is the result of a magnetic field pushing. You create this by switching current on and off through a circuit. Depending on how often the power is swapped, the field will have a specific strength.
The strength of the field turns the motor, resulting in mechanical force.
How often the power swaps on and off through a circuit is referred to as the frequency. You express frequency in terms of hertz.
The Hertz of a power line or circuit changes from one place in the world to another. You can learn more about the specifics of frequency with this guide.
A circuit is a loop through which power flows and returns. A circuit is designed to modify the current going through it to do specific things at specific junctures.
A proper circuit reduces waste heat and increases overall efficiency. A poorly designed circuit can blow up components and devices connected to it.
A circuit can be a small closed-loop, like what is found in a flashlight or a large loop with many gates and outlets like in a computer.
Resistance happens because in the real world not everything is neat and clean. Resistance in a circuit is measured in Ohms. This is the friction of the electrons moving through the system.
Most of the time resistance creates heat waste. This can be controlled or recycled back into a system using various components.
Insulators work to contain the amount of heat energy and to keep the circuit more efficient.
Some parts of a circuit need more power than others. Rather than turn up the power to the whole circuit, a capacitor stores bits of power and then releases it all at once at a higher voltage.
The components that allow this are capacitors.
Capacitors also work to stop power from flowing from one part of the circuit to the next. This is how a flashlight can have the battery connected and not produce light until the switch is set. The switch doesn’t activate the battery, it releases the capacitor.
To reduce resistance, a circuit makes use of different materials that allow the electrons to flow easier.
When you hear someone talking about copper wires versus aluminum, they are talking about the conducting qualities. The easier the electrons flow, the less heat is generated and the less energy wasted.
Going outside of a single circuit setup requires a transformer. This is a component that regulates the flow of energy into different circuits from a single source.
To do this, a transformer uses a pair of electrical coils to change voltage. One coil is wrapped around a smaller internal core. The two working together at a specific frequency create a magnetic flux, changing the resulting power.
When it comes to understanding electricity and designing or using electronics, there’s a lot to learn. With these basic electrical terms in hand, you have a solid grounding.
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