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Blue Sky Science: How does electricity move through wires?
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Blue Sky Science: How does electricity move through wires?

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Q How does electricity move through wires?

— Mollie Bryan, Madison, Wis.

A Dan Ludois, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

It’s a complicated process, but there are charges inside wires, and these charges can be acted on by an electric field. They can move through the wire in something that’s called an electric current.

A moving charge is an electric current, and we use that to push power through wires.

The electric grid is one of the most complicated things ever built by humans. It’s this vast interconnection of wires and various components like transformers and power substations. It’s a vast network that’s designed to move tremendous amounts of energy power all over the world.

People in the United States have the luxury of having a very robust and reliable power grid. Power plants, whether solar or wind or coal or nuclear, all put power into the grid.

The grid is a superhighway that allows that power to move around and be used by consumers.

Generally speaking, the power grid is a pretty straightforward concept. First you need some kind of energy source. In most cases we burn something like coal or an oil or a natural gas.

Then you can use that heat to make steam. That steam turns a turbine, so something that spins, and magnets are attached to the spinning object.

A concept called Faraday’s Law recognized that when you have spinning magnets near a coil of wire, you make a voltage.

You can use that voltage to push electrons through wires, and those moving electrons go to where they’re supposed to be and can do work. That’s essentially how the electric grid works.

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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