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Water flowing in pipes is a lot like electricity flowing in a circuit. A battery is like a pump. Electrons flowing through wires are like water flowing through pipes.
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Electric Circuits: Like Water-in-Pipes

An electric current is a flow of electrons through a conductor (like a copper wire). Electrons are so tiny that we cannot possibly see them. How can we learn about electrical circuits if we can't see the electrons flowing? It turns out that water flowing in pipes is a lot like electrons flowing in wires!

This mechanical system consists of a pump pushing water through a closed pipe. Imagine that the electrical current is similar to the water flowing through the pipe. The following parts of the two systems are related:

  • The pipe is like the wire in the electric circuit
  • The pump is like the battery.
  • The pressure generated by the pump drives water through the pipe; that pressure is like the voltage generated by the battery which drives electrons through the circuit.
  • The seashells plug up the pipe and slow the flow of water, creating a pressure difference from one end to the other. In a similar way the resistance in the electric circuit resists the flow of electricity and creates a voltage drop from one end to the other. Energy is lost across the resistor and shows up as heat.

The power in the circuit equals the voltage times the current. The same power can be carried by a high voltage and a low current as is carried by a low voltage and a high current. The higher the current flow, however, the more energy is lost as heating of the wires. That's why high voltage and low current is used when transporting electrical energy along power lines.

Last modified February 17, 2009 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA