Dear Zoe,

Scientists could see and feel electricity in nature long before they discovered how to make it. Maybe you’ve seen it during a powerful electrical storm or felt a little shock from static electricity.

It happens because of tiny parts of atoms. They’re called electrons and they are everywhere.

Humans and cats carry electrons, too. Electrons have a negative charge. Negatively charged things are drawn to positively charged things, which is why you’ll see the negative end of a magnet move towards the positive end of another magnet.

Sometimes, if you pick up extra electrons, they’ll fill your body with a negative charge. If you touch a doorknob that has a positive charge, electrons will start jumping from you to the door. The opposite charges attract and you feel the zap of electrons on the move.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 4.08.12 PMEven if electrons are everywhere, they need to do more than jump to make electricity. They have to start flowing. As electricity flows in a current, it can cover the distance of Seattle to New York City in just about a second.

To find out if we’ll ever run out of it, I visited my friend Chen-Ching Liu. Liu is an electrical engineer who researches energy here at Washington State University.

“Of course, we’ll run out of electricity,” he explains. “Unless we work hard and smart.” Phew. I was glad he added that last part. We need electricity to make new discoveries and power up tools we use every day—like my self-cleaning litter box.

It takes generators at power plants to turn one kind of energy into another. Generators make electrons flow. The generator needs fuel to work, too. Most of that fuel comes from materials that have been forming since the days of dinosaurs.

Oil, coal, and gas started forming under the earth’s surface out of plant and animal remains hundreds of millions of years ago. Nowadays, humans use fossil fuels faster than the planet can replenish them. They are non-renewable resources.

Liu and a team of all kinds of scientists and engineers are working to make sure we have renewable energy for the future. Part of their work includes designing and building smart cities.

“How can a city be smart?” Liu asked. “First, it has to be clean,“ he says.

When humans burn fossil fuels to make steam and power generators, carbon dioxide escapes into the air. Too much carbon dioxide is bad for the environment. That’s why smart cities are powered with clean energy.

For example, sunlight can also start the flow of electrons when it hits a solar panel. Wind can power a turbine in a windmill and help electrons get a move on. We probably won’t run out of sun or wind anytime soon, Liu said.

While we are certainly changing the way we make electricity, there may be other ways to generate electricity that haven’t been discovered yet. Liu said if you are interested in finding creative ways to power the planet, perhaps you could join his team one day.

“We are only limited by our imagination,” he said. “The future is in our own hands.”

And our paws.


Dr. Universe

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