Nonelectrical Energy

In electricity and electronics, there are phenomena that involve other forms of energy besides electrical energy. Visible light is an example. A light bulb converts electricity into radiant energy that you can see. This was one of the major motivations for people like Thomas Edison to work with electricity. Visible light can also be converted into electric current or voltage. A photovoltaic cell does this.

Light bulbs always give off some heat, as well as visible light. Incandescent lamps actually give off more energy as heat than as light. You are certainly acquainted with electric heaters, designed for the purpose of changing electricity into heat energy. This heat is a form of radiant energy called infrared (IR). It is similar to visible light, except that the waves are longer and you can’t see them. Electricity can be converted into other radiant-energy forms, such as radio waves, ultraviolet (UV), and X rays. This is done by specialized devices such as radio transmitters, sunlamps, and electron tubes. Fast-moving protons, neutrons, electrons, and atomic nuclei are an important form of energy. The energy from these particles is sometimes sufficient to split atoms apart. This effect makes it possible to build an atomic reactor whose energy can be used to generate electricity.

When a conductor moves in a magnetic field, electric current flows in that conductor. In this way, mechanical energy is converted into electricity. This is how an electric generator works. Generators can also work backward. Then you have a motor that changes electricity into useful mechanical energy.

A magnetic field contains energy of a unique kind. The science of magnetism is closely related to electricity. Magnetic phenomena are of great significance in electronics. The oldest and most universal source of magnetism is the geomagnetic field surrounding the earth, caused by alignment of iron atoms in the core of the planet.

A changing magnetic field creates a fluctuating electric field, and a fluctuating electric field produces a changing magnetic field. This phenomenon, called electromagnetism, makes it possible to send wireless signals over long distances. The electric and magnetic fields keep producing one another over and over again through space.

Chemical energy is converted into electricity in dry cells, wet cells, and batteries. Your car battery is an excellent example. The acid reacts with the metal electrodes to generate an electromotive force. When the two poles of the batteries are connected, current results. The chemical reaction continues, keeping the current going for a while. But the battery can only store a certain amount of chemical energy. Then it “runs out of juice,” and the supply of chemical energy must be restored by charging. Some cells and batteries, such as lead-acid car batteries, can be recharged by driving current through them, and others, such as most flashlight and transistor-radio batteries, cannot.

Electromotive Force

Current can only flow if it gets a “push.” This can be caused by a buildup of static electric charges, as in the case of a lightning stroke. When the charge builds up, with positive polarity (shortage of electrons) in one place and negative polarity (excess of electrons) in another place, a powerful electromotive force (EMF) exists. This force is measured in units called volts.

Ordinary household electricity has an effective voltage of between 110 and 130; usually it is about 117. A car battery has an EMF of 12 to 14 volts. The static charge that you acquire when walking on a carpet with hard-soled shoes is often several thousand volts. Before a discharge of lightning, millions of volts exist. An EMF of 1 volt, across a resistance of 1 ohm, will cause a current of 1 ampere to flow. This is a classic relationship in electricity, and is stated generally as Ohm’s Law. If the EMF is doubled, the current is doubled. If the resistance is doubled, the current is cut in half.

This important law of electrical circuit behavior is covered in detail later in this book. It is possible to have an EMF without having any current. This is the case just before a lightning stroke occurs, and before you touch a metal object after walking on a carpet. It is also true between the two wires of an electric lamp when the switch is turned off. It is true of a dry cell when there is nothing connected to it. There is no current, but a current is possible given a conductive path between the two points. Voltage, or EMF, is sometimes called potential or potential difference for this reason.

Even a huge EMF does not necessarily drive much current through a conductor or resistance. A good example is your body after walking around on the carpet. Although the voltage seems deadly in terms of numbers (thousands), there are not many coulombs of static-electric charge that can accumulate on an object the size of your body. Therefore, in relative terms, not that many electrons flow through your finger when you touch a radiator. This is why you don’t get a severe shock.

If there are plenty of coulombs available, a small voltage, such as 117 volts (or even less) can cause a lethal current. This is why it is dangerous to repair an electrical device with the power on. The power plant will pump an unlimited number of coulombs of charge through your body if you are not careful.

Static Electricity

Charge carriers, particularly electrons, can build up, or become deficient, on things without flowing anywhere. You’ve experienced this when walking on a carpeted floor during the winter, or in a place where the humidity was low. An excess or shortage of electrons is created on and in your body. You acquire a charge of static electricity. It’s called “static” because it doesn’t go anywhere. You don’t feel this until you touch some metallic object that is connected to earth ground or to some large fixture; but then there is a discharge, accompanied by a spark.

If you were to become much more charged, your hair would stand on end, because every hair would repel every other. Like charges are caused either by an excess or a deficiency of electrons; they repel. The spark might jump an inch, 2 inches, or even 6 inches. Then it would more than startle you; you could get hurt. This doesn’t happen with ordinary carpet and shoes, fortunately. But a device called a Van de Graaff generator, found in physics labs, can cause a spark this large (following Figure). Be careful when using this device for physics experiments!


Simplified illustration of a Van de Graaff generator. This machine can create a charge buildup large enough to produce a spark several centimeters long.

In the extreme, lightning occurs between clouds, and between clouds and ground in the earth’s atmosphere. This spark, called a stroke, is a magnified version of the spark you get after shuffling around on a carpet. Until the stroke occurs, there is a static charge in the clouds, between different clouds or parts of a cloud, and the ground. In Following Fig. cloud-to-cloud (A) and cloud-to-ground (B) static buildups are shown.


In the case at B, the positive charge in the earth follows along beneath the storm cloud. The current in a lightning stroke is usually several tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of amperes. But it takes place only for a fraction of a second. Still, many coulombs of charge are displaced in a single bolt of lightning.


Whenever there is movement of charge carriers in a substance, there is an electric current. Current is measured in terms of the number of electrons or holes passing a single point in 1 second.

A great many charge carriers go past any given point in 1 second, even if the current is small. In a household electric circuit, a 100-watt light bulb draws a current of about six quintillion (6 followed by 18 zeros) charge carriers per second. Even the smallest bulb carries quadrillions (numbers followed by 15 zeros) of charge carriers every second. It is impractical to speak of a current in terms of charge carriers per second, so it is measured in coulombs per second instead. A coulomb is equal to approximately 6,240,000,000,000,000,000 electrons or holes. A current of 1 coulomb per second is called an ampere, and this is the standard unit of electric current. A 100-watt bulb in your desk lamp draws about 1 ampere of current.

When a current flows through a resistance—and this is always the case because even the best conductors have resistance—heat is generated. Sometimes light and other forms of energy are emitted as well. A light bulb is deliberately designed so that the resistance causes visible light to be generated.

Electric current flows at high speed through any conductor, resistor, or semiconductor. Nevertheless, it is considerably less than the speed of light.


In a semiconductor, electrons flow, but not as well as they do in a conductor. Some semiconductors carry electrons almost as well as good electrical conductors like copper or aluminum; others are almost as bad as insulating materials.

Semiconductors are not the same as resistors. In a semiconductor, the material is treated so that it has very special properties. Semiconductors include certain substances such as silicon, selenium, or gallium, that have been “doped” by the addition of impurities such as indium or antimony. Have you heard of such things as gallium arsenide, metal oxides, or silicon rectifiers? Electrical conduction in these materials is always a result of the motion of electrons. But this can be a quite peculiar movement, and sometimes engineers speak of the movement of holes rather than electrons. A hole is a shortage of an electron—you might think of it as a positive ion—and it moves along in a direction opposite to the flow of electrons
(following Figure).


In a semiconducting material, holes travel in a direction opposite to the direction in which the electrons travel.

When most of the charge carriers are electrons, the semiconductor is called N-type, because electrons are negatively charged. When most of the charge carriers are holes, the semiconductor material is known as P-type because holes have a positive electric charge. But P-type material does pass some electrons, and N-type material carries some holes. In a semiconductor, the more abundant type of charge carrier is called the majority carrier. The less abundant kind is known as the minority carrier. Semiconductors are used in diodes, transistors, and integrated circuits. These substances are what make it possible for you to have a computer or a television receiver in a package small enough to hold in your hand.


Some substances, such as carbon, conduct electricity fairly well but not really well. The conductivity can be changed by adding impurities like clay to a carbon paste, or by winding a thin wire into a coil. Electrical components made in this way are called resistors. They are important in electronic circuits because they allow for the control of current flow. The better a resistor conducts, the lower its resistance; the worse it conducts, the higher the resistance.

Electrical resistance is measured in units called ohms. The higher the value in ohms, the greater the resistance, and the more difficult it becomes for current to flow. For wires, the resistance is sometimes specified in terms of ohms per unit length (foot, meter, kilometer, or mile). In an electrical system, it is usually desirable to have as low a resistance, or ohmic value, as possible. This is because resistance converts electrical energy into heat.


An insulator prevents electrical currents from flowing, except occasionally in tiny amounts. Most gases are good electrical insulators. Glass, dry wood, paper, and plastics are other examples. Pure water is a good electrical insulator, although it conducts some current with even the slightest impurity. Metal oxides can be good insulators, even though the metal in pure form is a good conductor.

Electrical insulators can be forced to carry current. Ionization can take place; when electrons are stripped away from their atoms, they move more or less freely. Sometimes an insulating material gets charred, or melts down, or gets perforated by a spark. Then its insulating properties are lost, and some electrons flow. An insulating material is sometimes called a dielectric. This term arises from the fact that it keeps electrical charges apart, preventing the flow of electrons that would equalize a charge difference between two places. Excellent insulating materials can be used to advantage in certain electrical components such as capacitors, where it is important that electrons not flow.

Porcelain or glass can be used in electrical systems to keep short circuits from occurring. These devices, called insulators, come in various shapes and sizes for different applications. You can see them on high-voltage utility poles and towers. They hold the wire up without running the risk of a short circuit with the tower or a slow discharge through a wet wooden pole.


In some materials, electrons move easily from atom to atom. In others, the electrons move with difficulty. And in some materials, it is almost impossible to get them to move. An electrical conductor is a substance in which the electrons are mobile.

The best conductor at room temperature is pure elemental silver. Copper and aluminum are also excellent electrical conductors. Iron, steel, and various other metals are fair to good conductors of electricity. In most electrical circuits and systems, copper or aluminum wire is used. (Silver is impractical because of its high cost.)

Some liquids are good electrical conductors. Mercury is one example. Salt water is a fair conductor. Gases or mixtures of gases, such as air, are generally poor conductors of electricity. This is because the atoms or molecules are usually too far apart to allow a free exchange of electrons. But if a gas becomes ionized, it can be a fair conductor of electricity.

Electrons in a conductor do not move in a steady stream, like molecules of water through a garden hose. Instead, they are passed from one atom to another right next to it


This happens to countless atoms all the time. As a result, literally trillions of electrons pass a given point each second in a typical electrical circuit.


When atoms of elements join together to form a compound, the resulting particles are molecules.


above figure is an example of a molecule of water, consisting of three atoms put together. The natural form of an element is also known as its molecule. Oxygen tends to occur in pairs most of the time in the earth’s atmosphere. Thus, an oxygen molecule is sometimes denoted by the symbol O2. The “O” represents oxygen, and the subscript 2 indicates that there are two atoms per molecule. The water molecule is symbolized H2O, because there are two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen in each molecule.

Sometimes oxygen atoms exist all by themselves; then we denote the molecule simply as O. Sometimes there are three atoms of oxygen grouped together. This is the gas called ozone, which has received much attention lately in environmental news. It is written O3.

All matter, whether solid, liquid, or gas, is made of molecules. These particles are always moving. The speed with which they move depends on the temperature. The hotter the temperature, the more rapidly the molecules move around. In a solid, the molecules are interlocked in a sort of rigid
pattern, although they vibrate continuously (following Fig. A). In a liquid, they slither and slide around (following Fig. B). In a gas, they rush all over the place, bumping into each other and into solids and liquids adjacent to the gas (following Fig. C).



Different elements can join together to share electrons. When this happens, the result is a chemical compound. One of the most common compounds is water, the result of two hydrogen atoms joining with an atom of oxygen. There are literally thousands of different chemical compounds that occur in nature.

A compound is different than a simple mixture of elements. If hydrogen and oxygen are mixed, the result is a colorless, odorless gas, just like either element is a gas separately. A spark, however, will cause the molecules to join together; this will liberate energy in the form of light and heat. Under the right conditions, there will be a violent explosion, because the two elements join eagerly. Water is chemically illustrated in following figure :


Compounds often, but not always, appear greatly different from any of the elements that make them up. At room temperature and pressure, both hydrogen and oxygen are gases. But water under the same conditions is a liquid. If it gets a few tens of degrees colder, water turns solid at standard pressure. If it gets hot enough, water becomes a gas, odorless and colorless, just like hydrogen or oxygen.

Another common example of a compound is rust. This forms when iron joins with oxygen. While iron is a dull gray solid and oxygen is a gas, rust is a maroon-red or brownish powder, completely unlike either of the elements from which it is formed.


If an atom has more or less electrons than protons, that atom acquires an electrical charge. A shortage of electrons results in positive charge; an excess of electrons gives a negative charge. The element’s identity remains the same, no matter how great the excess or shortage of electrons. In the extreme case, all the electrons might be removed from an atom, leaving only the nucleus. However, it would still represent the same element as it would if it had all its electrons. A charged atom is called an ion. When a substance contains many ions, the material is said to be ionized.

A good example of an ionized substance is the atmosphere of the earth at high altitudes. The ultraviolet radiation from the sun, as well as high-speed subatomic particles from space, result in the gases’ atoms being stripped of electrons. The ionized gases tend to be found in layers
at certain altitudes. These layers are responsible for long-distance radio communications at some frequencies.

Ionized materials generally conduct electricity well, even if the substance is normally not a good conductor. Ionized air makes it possible for a lightning stroke to take place, for example. The ionization, caused by a powerful electric field, occurs along a jagged, narrow channel. After the lightning flash, the nuclei of the atoms quickly attract stray electrons back, and the air becomes electrically neutral again.

An element might be both an ion and an isotope different from the usual isotope. For example, an atom of carbon might have eight neutrons rather than the usual six, thus being the isotope C14, and it might have been stripped of an electron, giving it a positive unit electric charge and making it an ion.


Surrounding the nucleus of an atom are particles having opposite electric charge from the protons. These are the electrons. Physicists arbitrarily call the electrons’ charge negative, and the protons’ charge positive. An electron has exactly the same charge quantity as a proton, but with opposite polarity. The charge on a single electron or proton is the smallest possible electric charge. All charges, no matter how great, are multiples of this unit charge.

One of the earliest ideas about the atom pictured the electrons embedded in the nucleus, like raisins in a cake. Later, the electrons were seen as orbiting the nucleus, making the atom like a miniature solar system with the electrons as the planets.


Still later, this view was modified further. Today, the electrons are seen as so fast-moving, with patterns so complex, that it is not even possible to pinpoint them at any given instant of time. All that can be done is to say that an electron will just as likely be inside a certain sphere as outside. These spheres are known as electron shells. Their centers correspond to the position of the atomic nucleus. The farther away from the nucleus the shell, the more energy the electron has.


Electrons can move rather easily from one atom to another in some materials. In other substances, it is difficult to get electrons to move. But in any case, it is far easier to move electrons than it is to move protons. Electricity almost always results, in some way, from the motion of electrons in a material. Electrons are much lighter than protons or neutrons. In fact, compared to the nucleus of an atom, the electrons weigh practically nothing.

Generally, the number of electrons in an atom is the same as the number of protons. The negative charges therefore exactly cancel out the positive ones, and the atom is electrically neutral. But under some conditions, there can be an excess or shortage of electrons. High levels of radiant energy, extreme heat, or the presence of an electric field (discussed later) can “knock” or “throw” electrons loose from atoms, upsetting the balance.

Isotopes and Atomic Weights

For a given element, such as oxygen, the number of neutrons can vary. But no matter what the number of neutrons, the element keeps its identity, based on the atomic number. Differing numbers of neutrons result in various isotopes for a given element.

Each element has one particular isotope that is most often found in nature. But all elements have numerous isotopes. Changing the number of neutrons in an element’s nucleus results in a difference in the weight, and also a difference in the density, of the element. Thus, hydrogen containing a neutron or two in the nucleus, along with the proton, is called heavy hydrogen.

The atomic weight of an element is approximately equal to the sum of the number of protons and the number of neutrons in the nucleus. Common carbon has an atomic weight of about 12, and is called carbon 12 or C12. But sometimes it has an atomic weight of about 14, and is known as carbon 14 or C14.

Protons, Neutrons, and Atomic Numbers

The part of an atom that gives an element its identity is the nucleus. It is made up of two kinds of particles, the proton and the neutron. These are extremely dense. A teaspoonful of either of these particles, packed tightly together, would weigh tons. Protons and neutrons have just about the same mass, but the proton has an electric charge while the neutron does not.

The simplest element, hydrogen, has a nucleus made up of only one proton; there are usually no neutrons. This is the most common element in the universe. Sometimes a nucleus of hydrogen has a neutron or two along with the proton, but this does not occur very often. These “mutant” forms of hydrogen do, nonetheless, play significant roles in atomic physics.

The second most abundant element is helium. Usually, this atom has a nucleus with two protons and two neutrons. Hydrogen is changed into helium inside the sun, and in the process, energy is given off. This makes the sun shine. The process, called fusion, is also responsible for the terrific explosive force of a hydrogen bomb.

Every proton in the universe is just like every other. Neutrons are all alike, too. The number of protons in an element’s nucleus, the atomic number, gives that element its identity. The element with three protons is lithium, a light metal that reacts easily with gases such as oxygen or chlorine. The element with four protons is beryllium, also a metal. In general, as the number of protons in an element’s nucleus increases, the number of neutrons also increases. Elements with high atomic numbers, like lead, are therefore much denser than elements with low atomic numbers, like carbon. Perhaps you’ve compared a lead sinker with a piece of coal of similar size, and noticed this difference.


All matter is made up of countless tiny particles whizzing around. These particles are extremely dense; matter is mostly empty space. Matter seems continuous because the particles are so small, and they move incredibly fast.

Each chemical element has its own unique type of particle, known as its atom. Atoms of different elements are always different. The slightest change in an atom can make a tremendous difference in its behavior. You can live by breathing pure oxygen, but you can’t live off of pure nitrogen. Oxygen will cause metal to corrode, but nitrogen will not. Wood will burn furiously in an atmosphere of pure oxygen, but will not even ignite in pure nitrogen. Yet both are gases at room temperature and pressure; both are colorless, both are odorless, and both are just about of equal weight. These substances are so different because oxygen has eight protons, while nitrogen has only seven. There are many other examples in nature where a tiny change in atomic structure makes a major difference in the way a substance behaves.