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We rely so much on electricity to provide us many of our modern comforts and conveniences. Ironically we don’t even really think about how that electricity is really created. We only know that in general that electricity comes from a power plant somewhere. Slightly more informed people would know that electricity came from the local coal plant, nuclear reactor, or hydroelectric dam. However, even fewer people would be able to tell you how exactly each of these power plants produce electricity.
The answer is that all of these plants make use of a generator. Simply put, a generator transforms mechanical energy into electricity. This type of generator also powers your car. However the source of mechanical energy is a gas powered engine, not coal, running water, or water heated by a nuclear reaction. But how does the process actually occur?
We have to go back to 1831. During that time many scientists had already started doing experiments with static electricity but no one discovered the important relationship between magnetism and an electric field until Michael Faraday. He discovered that by moving a coiled conductor through a magnetic field that an electric current was produced. This process would come to be known as electromagnetic induction. This lead to advent of the first electric generator.
With succeeding generations the design of the generator improved and people discovered new fuel sources to create the mechanical energy need to power generators. The most commonly known type of generator is a turbine. The simplest examples are a wind turbine and a hydroelectric turbine. The both work by using rotors or propellers to catch the kinetic energy of moving fluid whether it is air or water. The energy is then converted into mechanical energy which turns a shaft is connected to a series of gears that rotate a set of magnets around a coil of wire. This produces the electric current.
The generator’s operating principles have remained consistent. The only thing that is now being considered is the source of mechanical energy. Since the early 20th century the main source of power for generators has been fossil fuels such as coal for domestic power consumption and gasoline to power the generators in cars. Now that these sources are proving to be finite and harmful to the environment. Scientists and governments are looking to cleaner sources like wind and water. The next generation of generators will produce electricity from these sources helping to give clean and renewable power for a growing population.
If you enjoyed this article there are others on Universe Today that you will enjoy. There is an interesting article about what type of power source would be best for colonizing Mars. There is also an interesting article about watermelons as a source of renewable energy.
There are also great resources on the net. There is a great article on how electricity works on the How Stuff works website. There is also great article on the Rutgers university website.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 103 Electromagnetism is quite interesting.