It’s dark outside, big black clouds are blotting out of the sun. You sit in your chair staring out of the window as the rain slowly begins to fall, big drops of rain smashing against the window with a distinctive clunk. Then you see it – a bright flash lighting up the whole sky. You sit and count the seconds, 1, 2, 3… Then comes the distinctive roll of thunder echoing across the landscape. Natures best showcase of electricity, one billion volts blasting down to the ground with 30 kilo amperes of current. Enough to burn a hole in anything that it meets. But what is it? What is electricity and why do we have lightning stakes. In this activity, we will be looking at what a current is, how to make one and some calculations to allow us to work out current.
To start with we need to look at the atom, specifically the atoms of conductors (materials that allow electricity to move through them). Electricity needs electrons to work, no electrons mean no electricity. Where do you find electrons? On atoms. Some atoms have as few as 1 electron and some have 130, it all depends on the type of atom that it is. But these electrons are trapped in the atom, they cannot be used to make electricity. For these electrons to be used we need to separate them from their atoms. Luckily, this happens in metals, the outer electrons form a ‘sea’ of electrons that are free to move wherever they want to. You can take a look at our activity on metallic bonding for more information on this.
When you have got some electrons that you can move around, you then need to actually start moving them. This is where our idea of charge comes in and it is quite important here. Electrons are negatively charged, and they are normally attracted to the positively charged nucleus of the atom (where the protons and neutrons live). This is because opposite charges attract each other. When we have removed the electron from the atoms, all we need to do to move them is to place them near a positive charge, the electrons will flow towards that charge. That opposite is true as well, if you place a negative charge near them then they will move away from that charge.
When these electrons are flowing you have a current. The definition of current is ‘the number of electrons passing a point per second’ so the more electrons there are, the more current there is. Let’s think about our lightning again. The electrons must have been free to move in the clouds – this happens because when ice particles collide with other ice particles then it frees up some electrons. There must have been an opposite charge or a similar charge near them – both in this case, the ground is the opposite charge pulling the electrons down and the cloud is the similar charge pushing the electrons away. This then gives us enough energy to have a whole bunch of electrons moves from the cloud to the ground. That is your lightning strike.
Now, how many electrons are in a lightning strike? Well, we can work out the amount of charge by using our handy equation Q = It, or are it is fondly known the QUIT equation.
PICTURE OF EQUATION
Q = charge (measured in coulombs (C))
I = current (measured in amperes or amps (A))
t = time (measured in seconds (s))
Let’s use this equation in an example:
Q - A wire has a charge of 4 C moving though it in 5 s. Calculate the current in the wire.
Step 1 – highlight all of the number in the equation:
A wire has a charge of 4 C moving though it in 5 s. Calculate the current in the wire.
Step 2 – Write out the numbers next to their symbols:
Q = 4 C
I = ?
t = 5 s
Step 3 – reanrange the equation:
Q = It
I = Q/t
Step 4 – put the numbers into the equation
I = 4/5
Step 5 - do the maths.
I = 0.8 A
Don’t forget your units!
Let's try some questions on that!