A Peak Inside Your Generator

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Generators are enormously helpful in a wide variety of situations; it tends to be pleasant to have access to electricity, especially if you’ve moved to a place that’s off the grid and you already are roughing it to some extent. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how your handy generator powers your hair dryer, this article is for you.

A generator is a device that moves a magnet near a wire in such a way that it creates a steady flow of electrons. Exactly how it does that varies greatly among different models created during different time periods and can range from hand cranks and steam engines to nuclear fission, but regardless the basic principle remains the same: move electrons using a magnet.

If it’s difficult for you to imagine electrons being forced to move, try to think of a pump pushing water through a pipe. A generator does the same to electricity, but uses a magnet to push electrons, so to speak. It pushes a certain number of electrons by using a certain amount of pressure.

voltageIn the context of an electrical circuit, the number of electrons being moved is called the amperage or current, and it’s measured in amps. The “pressure” that dictates how hard the electrons are being pushed is called the voltage and is measured in volts. So to make use of these terms, a generator that spins at 1,000 rotations per minute might produce 1 amp at 6 volts. The 1 amp refers to how many electrons are moving (specifically, an amp implies that 6.24 X 10^18 ¬†electrons per second are moving through a wire). The 6 volts tell us the pressure behind these electrons.

The first electric generator was invented by British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday. His first generator was called the dynamo, and he also invented the first electric motor.

So how do the generators actually work? Well in Faraday’s case, coils of copper wire are made to rotate between the poles of a magnet, producing a steady current of electricity. The coils can rotate simply by use of a hand crank, but a more practical and effective way of generating electricity involves attaching the shaft of the generator to a turbine and then letting another energy source power the turbine. Falling water is often employed for this.

niagara power plantIn fact, one of the first and largest energy-generating plants is powered by Niagara Falls. Engineers built a water intake near the bottom of the dam wall that forces water through a narrow channel called a penstock in which the turbine is stationed. The turbine is a huge propeller that is pushed by the force of the flowing water. Its spinning motion rotates the shaft of the generator and rotates the copper coils of the generator. This spinning of the copper coils within the circle of magnets produces electricity. This electricity is then carried to homes and businesses via power lines.

Other power plants rely on steam to spin the turbine of a generator; burning coal allows for the boiling of water and the generation of steam, so coal tends to fuel the creation of electricity. It’s also possible to create electricity by using controlled nuclear reactions to turn water into steam. This allows people to rely less on coal, but people tend to be frightened of nuclear power because of a few famous nuclear meltdowns.

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