In modern times, the world runs on electricity. It powers our TV’s, our phones, our lights, and even our cars. But unlike the resources of old, electricity is not something we can simply harness from nature. We have to generate it ourselves. To do this, we use aptly named devices called generators. But what are generators, and how do they work?
It’s important to understand some background knowledge in order to truly understand the function of generators, and it’s really all about energy. Energy can come in many different forms. Heat, light, nuclear, kinetic, mechanical, electrical and sound energy are just some of the different types of energy we encounter on a daily basis.
And they can all come from a variety of sources. For example, the sun generates heat and light energy. A ringing bell produces sound energy. And every time you move, whether it’s running, doing a push-up or just waving at a friend, you use kinetic energy.
The law of Conservation of Energy states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. But it can be changed. Every day we transfer energy into forms that are more practical for us. Every time someone plucks a guitar, they are turning the kinetic energy in their body into the sound energy produced by the guitar. And as mentioned earlier, one of the most important types of energy for us is electrical energy. That’s where generators come in.
The Role of Generators
Generators turn the mechanical energy of moving objects into useful electrical energy, also known as electricity. This is done by causing an object known as a turbine to spin as quickly as possible. Virtually all generators work on this principle, but many have different ways of making their turbine spin. The most common way of doing this is with steam.
A fuel such as natural gas, coal, wood or oil is burned and used to heat up large quantities of water. The water boils and generates steam at such a force that it turns the turbine. Other methods include dams which use falling water to spin their turbines and windmills which, not surprisingly, use wind. But how does a spinning turbine generate electricity?
In 1831, a British scientist by the name of Michael Faraday discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, and it changed the world. He discovered that if an electrical conductor, most commonly a copper wire, was moved through a magnetic field, an electrical current would move through the wire. This is how the generator works. A copper wire is wrapped around a shaft connected to the turbine.
As the turbine spins, so does the wire. The spinning wire moves through a magnetic field created within the generator, and electrical current is moved through the wire. Remember that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so this process doesn’t ‘create’ energy.
It simply changes the mechanical energy in the spinning turbine into practical electrical energy. That electrical current is then moved throughout our homes, and gives us the electricity that powers modern life!