Different Ways Electricity Exists in Nature
As solar wind plays with the Earth’s magnetic field, the static electricity build-up that forms is what we get to call Auroras. They are just one of several instances of electricity in nature. As we have mastered the magnetic field, electric signals, and both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC), we seem to have forgotten where electricity as we know it comes from – nature. Let’s dive right in and revise what we used to know.
What is Electricity
Electricity is a release of a build-up electrical charge. Electrons, subatomic particles that we call electric current whenever they start flowing through a wire, can change their positions and can be transmitted from one atom to the next. This usually happens as the result of friction or magnetic forces. As this happens, an electrical charge is formed.
Once this electric charge is released, as in let run through power lines, electric current develops and we get what we call electricity. It is one of the few forces that humankind has mastered and has made useful – in fact, there are dozens of devices and appliances in your own home that run on electricity. From your iPhone to your electric stove, electricity has found its way into the homes of humankind.
Still dangerous, but utterly useful, electricity is something to beware of, but also something that enables life as we know it. Indeed, without electricity, there would be no communication, traveling would be difficult, if not impossible and electronics in all shapes and forms would not exist. However, humankind has managed only to make use of what it has found in nature.
Electricity in Nature
Indeed, the animal and the plant kingdoms have many more examples of electricity that can be both frightening and breathtaking. Seeing how small animals, such as bees use electricity to find particular flowers, and how eels use it to fend off and attack other animals are great examples of just how diverse uses for electricity can be. And while we may ponder how exactly they do this, we are left with not enough space to explain the phenomena we can see around us. Rather, let’s focus on some great examples of electricity in nature.
Our body, just like the body of any other animal, uses charged particles and electrical signals to communicate between its different parts. When you see, smell, and touch, the electrical signals travel through the nerves in the form of neuro-electrical signals and go straight into your brain. The brain then uses those same electrical particles to process the information, much like your laptop uses electricity to do its calculations.
Once the brain has processed what has happened, it sends out new signals to the body – and the body reacts. All these signals are instances of negative charge which travel through all bodies – even our bodies – and give commands such as “smell,” “walk,” “run,” etc. This is how we can rely on changes in the environment so quickly.
Another great example of electricity in nature is lightning. As humid air masses pass over dryer air closer to the Earth’s surface, positive and negative charge forms. The negative charge is the charge that forms in the upper, wet layers of air masses. As they are very high, they get cool quickly, clouds form, and the electrical charge increases. The charge does not get released since there is a column of air – an insulator – between the clouds and the Earth.
However, as the charge keeps building up, the chances of a release increase. Once the charge is strong enough to breach the column of insulating air, lightning forms as all the electric charge is released. As all the electrons pass from the clouds to the Earth, the air heats up, starts glowing, and turns into highly conductive plasma for a fraction of a second. It is this high-temperature plasma creation that creates the loud nose called thunder.
Electric signals are not the only kind of electricity that can be seen in the animal kingdom. In fact, animals have another kind of electricity up their sleeves – the electric currents that they use to numb and kill their prey or scare off predators. The electric eel and stingray are the best-known examples of electricity in animals.
The electric eel can deliver powerful electric shocks to nearby animals. The eel uses electric pulses to scare other animals away, protecting its living environment, and when it hunts. Not only does it release a strong charge, but eels have also evolved ways to make this electric shock even more powerful – by releasing a gel-like substance that acts as a superconductor.
The stingray that we can see in the waters of the Pacific Coast of California use electromagnetic pulses to stun their enemies and prey. They can deliver up to 400 pulses of electricity per second and are known to completely numb and stun their prey. However, these are not the most fantastic displays of electricity in nature:
Besides these forms of electricity, some animals are known to use electricity to detect objects around them. Bees, for example, can detect other animals and flowers by the small static electricity field that these animals emit. This is how, in part, bees always find a way to their flowers. It is believed that this same ability to sense charged particles and magnetic waves helps bees orient themselves.
As magnetic fields and electric charge go hand in hand, it is worth mentioning that some birds may use similar organs to those of bees to find their way to the south during winter and back north during the summer. Although the phenomenon has not been described in full, it is noticeable that migratory birds indeed use some kind of electrical or magnetic sensing to find their way around.
Static electricity is something that we are all familiar with. Far from a physics classroom, static electricity can also be seen in the world around us. Try rubbing a plastic comb against your sweater and then using that same comb to attract a balloon. Or try rubbing your socks against the carpet and then touching someone – the small shock that you can both feel is the electrostatic energy that is similar to clouds discharge during a storm.
In fact, electricity mostly comes in static form. This is what gives the planet Earth its magnetic field. This is why thunder and lightning happen and this is how so many experiments in physics class take place – they only appear when electrostatic energy builds up. This electricity is what makes your hair stand up.
The surface of the Earth is not the only place where we can see electrostatic phenomena. They also happen below the Earth’s surface. As the inner layers of magma revolve around the core, they rub against it, and static electricity forms. This static electricity then forms a huge (electro)magnetic field, the same one that protects the Earth from solar winds and storms. Particularly electrically charged regions are the poles, where this magnetic field leaves the Earth, circles around it, and returns back to it. Once this starts happening, interesting phenomena take place.
These phenomena are called Auroras. There are two kinds: Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis – although they go by different names as well: northern lights and polar lights. Auroras happen when the Earth’s magnetic field picks up light and other particles from space and carries them toward the poles. Once they reach Earth’s atmosphere, their charge plays with air molecules, making them release light.
Auroras can be green or blue, depending on which gasses in the atmosphere get excited by the radiation coming from space. As they are very weak, they appear only around the poles and cannot always be seen. This is a complex system of the interplay of solar radiation and negative and positive charge particles, whereas photons (light particles) get released.
Is water a source of electricity?
Yes, water is a source of electricity. Water does not create electricity per se, but the kinetic energy of the water can. This simple phenomenon is used in hydro dams around the world, as it is run over turbines which generate electricity. Water is also a good conductor of electricity, which is the reason we say that electricity and water should not be mixed – often due to a deadly outcome.
Can you live without electricity?
You can live without electricity, although life would be much more difficult. The Amish community, which stays away from technological advances, has started slowly implementing low amounts of electricity into their lives – mostly in the form of solar panels used to provide some form of light during the night.
Why is electricity so important?
Electricity runs the world. Every appliance and device we have run on it. A world without electricity would be a bleak one, especially as electricity illuminates the night, makes the trains run and powers your Tesla. Even in a gas car, electricity powers the radio and all other electrical components that make the car go.
Can we get electricity from trees?
There is no direct way to get electricity from trees. However, as trees grow, they catch and store carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere. Once the tree is cut and burned in a thermal power plant, the energy that is released is used to heat water and spin turbines which generate electricity.
The loud noise you can hear when lightning strikes, as well as the large flash that you can see for a short period, are all instances of electricity in nature. Eels, stingrays, and other fish produce sometimes huge amounts of electricity that they can release to stun and catch their prey or make the predators leave them alone.
These charged particles that make up electricity can also be contained in an object – which is what we call static electricity. Huge electric currents can be released once these charged particles find their way to the ground. Earth’s huge electric currents protect us from the radiation coming from space and enable life on Earth. These are just some examples of electricity in nature.