How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 37)

1474. When a device uses two batteries, why do they have to be place positive to negative? Are there any exceptions? - MS
Batteries are "pumps" for electric charge. A battery takes an electric current (moving charge) entering its negative terminal and pumps that current to its positive terminal. In the process, the battery adds energy to the current and raises its voltage (voltage is the measure of energy per unit of electric charge). A typical battery adds 1.5 volts to the current passing through it. As it pumps current, the battery consumes its store of chemical potential energy so that it eventually runs out and "dies."

If you send a current backward through a battery, the battery extracts energy from the current and lowers its voltage. As it takes energy from the current, the battery adds to its store of chemical potential energy so that it recharges. Battery charges do exactly that: they push current backward through the batteries to recharge them. This recharging only works well on batteries that are designed to be recharged since many common batteries undergo structural damage as their energy is consumed and this damage can't be undone during recharging.

When you use a chain of batteries to power an electric device, you must arrange them so that each one pumps charge the same direction. Otherwise, one will pump and add energy to the current while the other extracts energy from the current. If all the batteries are aligned positive terminal to negative terminal, then they all pump the same direction and the current experiences a 1.5 volt (typically) voltage rise in passing through each battery. After passing through 2 batteries, its voltage is up by 3 volts, after passing through 3 batteries, its voltage is up by 4.5 volts, and so on.

1449. How fast do the electrons in copper flow when that copper is carrying electricity? — LH, North Hollywood
It turns out that the electrons in copper travel quite slowly even though "electricity" travels at almost the speed of light. That's because there are so many mobile electrons in copper (and other conductors) that even if those electrons move only an inch per second, they comprise a large electric current. Picture the electrons as water flowing through a pipe or river and now consider the Mississippi River. Even if the Mississippi is flowing only inches per second, it sure carries lots of water past St. Louis each second.

The fact that electricity itself travels at almost the speed of light just means that when you start the electrons moving at one end of a long wire, the electrons at the other end of the wire also begin moving almost immediately. But that doesn't mean that an electron from your end of the wire actually reaches the far end any time soon. Instead, the electrons behave somewhat like water in a long hose. When you start the water moving at one end, it pushes on water in front of it, which pushes on water in front of it, and so on so that water at the far end of the hose begins to leave the hose almost immediately. In the case of water, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of sound. In a wire, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of light in the wire (actually the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate along the wire), which is only slightly less than the speed of light in vacuum.

Note for the experts: as one of my readers (KT) points out, the water-in-a-hose analogy for current-in-a-wire is far from perfect. Current in a wire flows throughout the wire, including at its surface, and the wire's resistance to steady current flow scales as the cross-sectional area of the wire. In contrast, water in a hose only flows through the open channel inside the hose and the hose's resistance to flow scales approximately as the fourth power of that channel's diameter.

1437. What is a superconductor? — PG
A superconductor is a material that carries electric current without any loss of energy. Currents lose energy as they flow through normal wires. This energy loss appears as a voltage drop across the material—the voltage of the current as it enters the material is higher than the voltage of the current when it leaves the material. But in a superconductor, the current doesn't lose any voltage at all. As a result, currents can even flow around loops without stopping. Currents are magnetic and superconducting magnets are based on the fact that once you get a current flowing around a loop of superconductor, it keeps going forever and so does its magnetism.

1402. In the movie "Back to the Future," Doc Brown completes an electrical circuit with a bolt of lightning as the source and the "flux capacitor" as the load. In the process, he receives a shock. Would the "flux capacitor" still experience a flow of electrons if Doc Brown had provided a path to the earth? — BM, Akron, Ohio
While most of the "science" in that movie is actually nonsense, the use of lightning as a source of power has some basis in reality. The current in a lightning bolt is enormous, peaking at many thousands of amperes, and the voltages available are fantastically high. With so much current and voltage available, the flow of current during a lightning strike can be very complicated. Even though Doc Brown provided one path through which the lightning current could flow into the ground, he only conducted a fraction of the overall current. The remaining current flowed through the wire and into the "flux capacitor." This branching of the current is common during a lightning strike and makes lightning particularly dangerous. You don't have to be struck directly by lightning or to be in contact with the main conducting pathway between the strike and the earth for you to be injured. Current from the strike can branch out in complicated ways and follow a variety of unexpected paths to ground. You don't want to be on any one of them. Doc Brown wasn't seriously hurt because it was only a movie. In real life, people don't recover so quickly.

1366. If the battery separates charges even while it's off, how come it doesn't light up when it's off?
The battery stops separating charges once enough have accumulated on its terminals. If the flashlight is off, so that charges build up, then the battery soon stops separating charge and the light bulb doesn't light.

1365. How do rechargeable batteries get recharged?
You can recharge any battery by pushing charge through it backward (pushing positive charge from its positive terminal to its negative terminal). However, some batteries don't take this charge well or heat up. The ones that recharge most effectively are those that can rebuild their chemical structures most effectively as they operate backward.

1267. I understand that the speed of electricity varies with the conductor, but is supposedly 2/3 the speed of light. I had thought the speed would equal the speed of light. Why isn't it? — AP
Although electricity involves the movement of electrically charged particles through conducting materials, it can also be viewed in terms of electromagnetic waves. For example, programs that reach your home through a cable TV line are actually being carried by electromagnetic waves that travel in the cylindrical space between coaxial cable's central wire and the tubular metal shield around it. These waves would travel at the speed of light, except that whenever charged particles in the wires interact with the passing waves, they introduce delays. The charged particles in the wires don't respond as quickly as empty space does to changes in electric or magnetic fields, so they delay these changes and therefore slow down the waves. The materials that insulate the wires also influence the speed of the electricity by responding slowly to the changing fields. The fastest wires are ones with carefully chosen shapes and almost empty space for insulation. In general, the less the charges in the wire respond to the passing electromagnetic waves, the faster those waves can move.

1234. I am doing a science fair project on conductors and insulators. What are some of the best and worst conductors of electricity? — LM
The best conventional conductors are silver, copper, gold, and aluminum. What makes them good conductors is that electrons move through them for relatively long distances without colliding with anything that wastes their energy. These materials become better conductors as their purities increase and as their temperatures decrease. A cold, near-perfect crystal is ideal, because all of the atoms are then neatly arranged and nearly motionless, and the electrons can move through them with minimal disruption. However, there is a class of even better conductors: the so-called "superconductors." These materials allow electric current to travel through them will absolutely no loss of energy. The carriers of electric current are no longer simply independent electrons; they are typically pairs of electrons. Still, superconductivity appears because the moving charged particles can no longer suffer collisions that waste their energy-they move with perfect ease. We would be using superconductors everywhere in place of copper or aluminum wires if it weren't for the fact that superconductors only behave that way at low temperatures.

As for the best insulators, I'd vote for good crystals of salts like lithium fluoride and sodium chloride (table salt), and covalently-bound substances like aluminum oxide (sapphire) or diamond. All of these materials are pretty nearly perfect insulators.

1214. It is difficult for me to understand current flowing from a battery through a circuit. A battery has both a positive end and a negative end. Which direction does the current flow? — SK
When you connect a battery in a circuit, negatively charged electrons flow away from the battery's negative end and they return toward the battery's positive end. The battery then pumps the electrons back to its negatively charged end and they begin the journey all over again (hence the name "circuit"). But because the electrons have a negative charge, current does not flow in their direction. Instead, current is defined as flowing in the direction of positive charge flow. In the present case, current flows from the battery's positive end, through the circuit, and back to the battery's negative end. Current is thus flowing in the direction opposite to the direction of electron movement! If you want to know which way current is flowing, you can normally find the direction in which electrons are flowing and then reverse it. Life for physicists and electrical engineers would be so much simpler if Benjamin Franklin hadn't made an unfortunate choice that gave electrons—the principal carriers of electricity—a negative electric charge. We have been living with the consequences of that choice ever since.

1213. I understand how computer information travels as bits from source to destination, but how does each bit travel through the wire at a molecular level? — JCC, Atlanta, Georgia
At the simplest level, a bit travels as a packet of positive or negative charge through a wire. To start this movement, the source injects a small amount of charge onto the end of the wire. Since like charges repel and opposite charges attract, this new charge pushes on charges further down the wire, and those charges push on charges still farther down the wire, and so on. Overall, a wave of forces and responses rushes along the wire until it reaches the destination end of the wire. There charges flow off the wire and into the destination device. While these charges aren't really the same ones that were put on the wire by the source, they have the same charge and one can imagine that charge has simply moved from the source device to the destination device by way of the wire. The destination device can examine this charge to determine whether the source was sending a 0 or a 1.
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