What Actually Causes Electricity?

Electricity is an essential part of modern life that most of us take for granted. We flick a switch and a light turns on, plug in an appliance and it powers up, but we rarely think about what is actually causing this to happen.

While the workings of electricity may seem like magic, there are real scientific principles that explain how it is generated and harnessed. Understanding the root causes and fundamental concepts behind electricity allows us to utilize it in smarter and more efficient ways across a vast range of technologies and applications.

In this article, we will unpack exactly what electricity is on an atomic level and trace how it travels through materials to power the modern world.

Atoms and Electric Charge

All matter is made up of tiny particles called atoms. Atoms contain three main particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons have a positive electrical charge. Neutrons have no electrical charge. Electrons have a negative electrical charge.

Atoms normally have an equal number of protons and electrons, so the positive and negative charges balance each other out, making the atom electrically neutral. But atoms can gain or lose electrons, causing them to become charged particles called ions. If an atom loses an electron, it becomes positively charged, because it now has more protons than electrons. If an atom gains an electron, it becomes negatively charged, with more electrons than protons.

The movement of these charged particles is what creates electric current. The flow of electrons between atoms with different charges is electricity.

Electric Current

Electric current is the flow of electric charge. Current flows when electrons can move from atom to atom. Metals like copper have atoms that readily give up electrons, making them good conductors of electricity. In copper wires, electrons flow from atom to atom, creating an electric current. Insulators like rubber have atoms that hold tightly to their electrons, preventing current flow. So electric current requires both a source of charge (electrons) and a conductive path (a wire). The amount of current is measured in amperes and depends on the number of electrons flowing. More electrons equals more current. Devices like batteries provide the electric potential (voltage) needed to push electrons through the wires and complete a circuit.

Electric Potential

Electric potential, also called voltage, refers to the amount of potential energy available to move electrons from one point to another in an electric circuit. Voltage is essentially the “pressure” pushing electrons through a conductor. The greater the voltage, the greater the potential difference between two points, and thus the greater force on electrons to flow from areas of high potential to areas of low potential. Voltage is measured in units called volts.

Within a circuit, voltage is generated by the power source, such as a battery or generator. This source provides the high potential needed to give electrons the kinetic energy to move through the external circuit. The electrons flow from the high potential source to the low potential return, creating an electric current. The strength of the current depends on the amount of voltage – the greater the voltage, the greater the flow of electrons.

Voltage is thus one of the most fundamental concepts in electronics, representing the driving force for electric current. Understanding voltage and how to measure differences in electric potential is crucial for anyone working with electrical devices and circuits.

Conductors and Insulators

Materials are classified as either electrical conductors or electrical insulators based on their ability to allow electrons to flow freely. Metals like copper and aluminum are good conductors. This is because the outer electrons in metal atoms are loosely bound and can easily detach to become mobile charge carriers. These free electrons allow electric current to flow through conductive materials.

Insulators like glass, rubber, and plastic do not readily allow the movement of electrons. Their atomic structure means that their valence electrons are tightly bound to their atoms. There are no free electrons that can carry current. Instead, insulators resist the flow of electricity. This makes them well-suited for insulating electrical wires and cables. They prevent current from traveling to places where it is not wanted.

The conduction properties of materials depend largely on their molecular structure. Materials with freely mobile electrons make the best conductors, while those whose electrons are tightly bound act as good insulators. Understanding the difference allows us to selectively use materials to either transmit electricity or resist unwanted electric current flow.


Circuits provide a closed conducting loop for electric current to flow. For current to flow, a circuit requires a voltage source, such as a battery, to provide the potential difference that drives the current. The circuit also requires components with low resistance that allow current to flow freely around the loop.

In a simple circuit, wires connect the positive terminal of the voltage source to one end of a resistor or other component, then more wires connect the other end of that component to the negative terminal of the voltage source, completing the loop. The voltage source causes negative charges to flow through the components in one direction around the loop, creating the electric current.

Opening a circuit breaks the loop and stops the flow of current. Short circuits also disrupt proper current flow by creating a path of very low resistance through which current bypasses the desired components. Well-designed circuits carefully control the paths for current to take by incorporating various components like resistors, capacitors, transistors and integrated circuits.

Static Electricity

static electricity comes from imbalanced charges between objects that can lead to sparks and shocks
Static electricity refers to electric charges at rest. It is caused by an imbalance between negative and positive charges in an object. This charge imbalance leads to static electrical effects.

The most common cause of static electricity is through friction between two surfaces. When two surfaces rub against each other, electrons can be exchanged between them. The surface that gains electrons becomes negatively charged, while the surface that loses electrons becomes positively charged.

For example, when you rub your feet on a carpet, electrons from the carpet transfer to your body, giving you a negative charge. The carpet gains a positive charge as it loses electrons. This charge separation causes static cling. Your negatively charged body can then attract positively charged pieces of paper or lint.

The build up of static electricity will remain until the charges have a path to flow between objects and equalize. This discharge or flow of electrons is what creates a static shock. You’ve likely experienced a static shock when touching a metal doorknob after walking across a carpet. The sudden discharge occurs as electrons flow from your negatively charged body to the positively charged metal.

So in summary, friction can strip electrons from surfaces, creating an imbalance of charge. The discharge or flow of electrons between positively and negatively charged objects leads to noticeable static electricity effects like sparks, shocks, and cling.


Electromagnetism refers to how electricity and magnetism are fundamentally linked. Moving electric charges, such as electrons, create magnetic fields around them. Likewise, changing magnetic fields can induce electric current flow in nearby conductors. This interplay between electricity and magnetism forms the basis for many modern technologies, including electric motors, generators, transformers, and more.

When an electric charge moves, it creates a magnetic field with “lines” of magnetism radiating out from its path. The faster the charges move, the stronger the magnetic field. So as electrons flow through a wire, they generate a magnetic field that wraps around the wire. The direction of this magnetic field depends on the direction of the electron flow.

In the opposite manner, a changing magnetic field induces an electric current in any nearby conductors. As the magnetic field strengthens and weakens over time, it pushes/pulls on the electrons in the conductor and causes them to move. This is known as electromagnetic induction, and it allows generators to produce electricity from mechanical power. Overall, the interdependence between electricity and magnetism enables the generation, transmission, and use of electric power which modern life depends on.

Electric Power Generation

One of the most important applications of electricity is the generation of electric power. Electricity allows us to convert mechanical energy into electric current through the use of generators and dynamos.

A generator uses mechanical energy to spin coils of wire inside a magnetic field. This induces an electric current in the coils of wire through electromagnetic induction. The electric current generated can then be used to power electrical devices or distributed through power lines.

Similarly, a dynamo uses rotating coils of wire and magnetic fields to produce a steady electric current. Dynamos were historically one of the first electric generators, converting mechanical rotation into direct current electricity.

Today, most power plants use turbines to drive electrical generators. The turbines can be powered by water, steam, wind, or combustion. No matter the mechanical power source, generators allow us to produce the enormous amounts of electricity needed to power modern society.


In summing up, electricity is caused by the movement of charged particles, such as electrons. Atoms contain positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. The electrons can gain or lose energy, causing them to move between atoms. This electron flow is an electric current. Electric potential (voltage) encourages electrons to flow. Conductors like metals allow electric current to flow easily, while insulators like plastic block the flow. Circuits control and direct the electricity. Static electricity is a buildup of electric charge on surfaces. Electromagnetism involves the interplay of electricity and magnetism. Electric generators spin magnets near wire coils to produce power. Understanding what causes electricity has enabled humans to harness it in revolutionary ways that have transformed society.

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