The shocking news behind electricity

There’s electricity in the air. It’s mostly from electronic sensors that set off electrically generated blood-curdling screams and electric, flashing, blue lightning, shining on fake tombstones set in the yard as decorations for Halloween. It used to be Christmas before one could smell the ozone.

Just what is this electrical power that allows modern, enlightened, sentient creatures to celebrate the powers of magic and make-believe?

And where does electricity go after it is blown out of the hair dryer? It may surprise you to learn that electricity in the air is about more than Christmas or Halloween.

In the winter, when it is especially cool and dry, you can find electricity in unusual places. For example, if you were to shuffle your feet across a carpeted room and then put your hand in someone’s mouth to touch a tooth filling, you would see an interesting reaction. Your action would have completed an electrical circuit. It’s called a circuit because electricity flows in a circle.

When you scuff your feet across the carpet, you pick up batches of electrons. Electrons are extremely tiny objects that carpet manufacturers weave into the fibers of the carpet to attract dirt.

These electrons flow through your skin, into your bloodstream and collect in the tips of your fingers, which also can attract dirt.  When your finger touches your friend’s filling, the electrons jump from you into your friend, travel through his blood to his feet and hence back into the carpet. This completes the circle of electrons, or circuit.

In fact, if you don’t touch something to complete the circuit and give the electrons someplace to go, they build up in your fingertip and your finger could explode. But you really don’t need to worry about that unless you have carpet in your home.

The same thing happens when lightning strikes. The wind scuffs its feet, so to speak, across the ground and picks up electrons.

These flow into clouds like they flow into your finger. When the clouds are saturated with electrons, the cloud explodes in a burst of lightning and sends all the electrons back to the Earth to complete the circuit.

Ben Franklin was one of the first people to discover this circular motion of electricity when he flew a kite in a thunderstorm. He allowed the electrons that had accumulated in the clouds to jump back to Earth on his kite string. He was shocked to learn that lightning was electricity.

Holiday decorations mostly owe their existence to Thomas Edison, a brilliant scientist and inventor, in spite of the fact that he lived in New Jersey. In 1879 Edison invented the electric company.

The electric company sells electricity to the customer who uses the electricity to run a hair dryer, or something else. The customer then sends the electricity back to the electric company. Then, the electric company sells the same electricity to the same customer again. A giant circuit is created that we call direct current.

But George Westinghouse had an even better idea.

Why bother sending all those electrons on a round trip to the house and back? Why not just move them alternately back and forth?

This saves on shipping but still has the effect of completing a circuit. This kind of circuit is called alternating current and is what most electric companies do today.

Using the Westinghouse method, the same batch of electricity can be sold and resold to the same customer thousands of times a day.

A customer would have to examine his electrons very carefully to determine if they were receiving the same ones repeatedly. Most consumers simply don’t pay that kind of attention. Because of the proprietary nature of the electrical business, it is difficult to get accurate information. Some experts calculate, though, that using these recycling methods, no new electricity has actually been manufactured since 1959.

(OK, I just made up that last part.)

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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