Electrical energy is an important concept that helps run the world as we know it. In the U.S. alone, the average family uses 10,649 kilowatthours (kWh) per year, which is enough electrical energy to brew over 120,000 pots of coffee!
But understanding what electrical energy is and how it works can be tricky. That’s why we’ve put together this article to help enlighten you! (Pardon our dad joke.)
Keep reading to learn all about electrical energy, including:
- The definition of electrical energy
- How electrical energy works
By the time you’re finished with this article, you’ll know the essentials of electrical energy and be able to see its influence all around you.
We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s dive in!
Electrical Energy Definition
So, what is electrical energy? In a nutshell, electrical energy is the energy (both kinetic and potential) in the charged particles of an atom that can be used to apply force and/or do work. That means that electrical energy has the capacity to move an object or cause an action.
Electrical energy is all around us in many different forms. Some of the best electrical energy examples are car batteries using electrical energy to power systems, wall outlets transferring electrical energy to charge our phones, and our muscles using electrical energy to contract and relax!
Electrical energy is definitely important for our day-to-day lives, but there are lots of other types of energy out there, too. Thermal energy, chemical energy, nuclear energy, light energy, and sound energy are just some of the other major types of energy. Although there may be some overlap of the types of energy (like a wall outlet providing light to a lamp that produces a small amount of heat), it’s important to note that the types of energy act distinctly from one another, though they may be converted into other types of energy.
This quick explainer video on electricity is a great primer on what electrical energy is and how it works.
How Does Electrical Energy Work?
Now that you know what electrical energy is, we’ll cover where electrical energy comes from.
If you’ve studied physics before, you might know that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Although it might seem like the results of electrical energy come from nowhere, the energy in a bolt of lightning or a jogging session come from a series of changes at the molecular level. It all starts with atoms.
Atoms contain three main parts: neutrons, protons, and electrons. The nucleus, or the center of the atom, is made up of neutrons and protons. Electrons circle the nucleus in shells. The electron shells kind of look like rings or orbital paths that go around the nucleus.
The number of shells an atom has depends on a lot of things, including the type of atom and whether it’s positively, negatively, or neutrally charged. But here’s the important bit when it comes to electrical energy: the electrons in the shell closest to the nucleus have a strong attraction to the nucleus, but that connection weakens as you move out to the outermost shell. The outermost shell of an atom is known as the valence shell…and the electrons in that shell are known as valence electrons!
Because the valence electrons are only weakly connected to the atom, they can actually be forced out of their orbits when they come into contact with another atom. These electrons can “jump” from the outer shell of their home atom to the outer shell of the new atom. When this happens, it produces electrical energy.
So how do you know when an atom is primed to gain or lose electrons to create electrical energy? Just take a look at the valence electrons. An atom can only ever have eight valence electrons in its outer shell, also known as an octet. If an atom has three or fewer valence electrons, it’s more likely to lose electrons to another atom. When an atom loses electrons to the point that its protons outnumber its electrons, it becomes a positively charged cation.
Likewise, atoms that have an almost full valence shell (with six or seven valence electrons) are more likely to gain electrons in order to have a full octet. When an atom gains electrons to the point where electrons outnumber the atom’s protons, it becomes a negatively charged anion.
Regardless of whether an atom gains or loses electrons, the act of electron movement from one atom to another results in electrical energy. This electrical energy can be used in the form of electricity to do things like power the appliances in your house or run a pacemaker. But it can also be converted to other kinds of energy, like the thermal energy from a toaster that’s plugged into a wall.