Electricity and the Atomic Structure

Electricity is all around us. Electricity powers the modern world like our phones, computers, lights, refrigerators, even our bodies, all require electricity to work. This page will explore the relationship of electricity down to the atomic structure. It is important to understand the Atomic model because at its most basic electricity is defined as the flow of electric charge. Electric charge is property that leads to electromagnetic interactions between the particles that make up matter.

The Building Blocks of Atoms

An atom is built with a combination of three distinct particles: 

Charges can be + , – , or neutral. The movement of electrons from atom to atom is how electricity is created. Electrons always carry a negative charge, while protons are always positively charged. Neutrons (true to their name) are neutral, they have no charge. Both electrons and protons carry the same amount of charge, just a different type. The center of an atom, or nucleus, is where the protons and neutrons are densely packed together. Orbiting around the nucleus are the electrons with the outer most orbit of these called valence electrons

Valence Electrons

Electrons surround the nucleus of an atom in what are known as shells. The easiest way to picture these shells are as rings around the nucleus and there are a set number of electrons that each shell can hold. Once a shell fills with electrons the next electron tied to that atom will move outwards to the next shell. The electrons on the outermost shell of any atom, regardless of the number of shells, are known as the valence electrons.

The presence of valence electrons can determine the atom's chemical properties. An atom's reactivity is highly dependent upon its electron configuration:

Electric Charge

When an atom loses or gains electrons it becomes an ion and gains a positive or negative charge. When an atom gains electrons it becomes negative and when it loses electrons it becomes positive. Charging objects happens when atoms gain or lose electrons, and can happen three ways:

Electrostatic Force (Coulomb’s law)

Electrostatic force is a force that operates between charges. It states that charges of the same type push or repel each other, while charges of opposite types pull or are attracted together. Opposite charges attract, and like charges repel.

The amount of electrostatic force acting on two charges depends on:

Electron Flow

With enough outside force, a valence electron – either pushing it with another negative charge or attracting it with a positive charge – can escape the orbit of the atom and become free. Free electrons allow us to move charge, which is what electricity is all about. 


Some atoms are better than others at releasing their electrons. To get the best possible electron flow we want to use atoms that don’t hold very tightly to their valence electrons. An element’s conductivity measures how tightly bound an electron is to an atom.

Elements with high conductivity, which have very mobile electrons, are called Conductors. Metals like copper, silver, and gold are usually our top choices for good conductors.

Elements with low conductivity are called Insulators. Insulators serve a very important purpose: they prevent the flow of electrons. Popular insulators include glass, rubber, plastic, and air.

Conductivity Classifications


Conductors are materials with a low number of valence electrons. These materials allow charge to flow easily.


Insulators are materials with a high number of valence electrons. The materials are typically molecules whose atoms have strong bonds with each other. These materials don't allow charge to flow easily.


Semi Conductors are molecules whose pairs fill their valence electron shell. These molecules are then doped so that they have one or more additional free or missing electrons. These materials allow charge to flow at different rates depending on design.

Experiment with Charge! Build an Electroscope

An electroscope is an early scientific instrument used to detect the presence of electric charge on a body. An electroscope can only give a rough indication of the quantity of charge. 

What you'll need:

1 - Glass or Plastic Jar

1 - Non Conductive Plastic or Cork Lid

1 - 14 AWG Stripped Wire (Romex Wire)

2 - SqIn of Aluminum Foil

1 - Wire Stripper


The objective of creating an electroscope is to design and construct a simple yet effective device that can detect the presence and nature of electric charges. The electroscope will serve as a reliable tool for demonstrating and investigating static electricity, allowing users to observe and understand the behavior of charged objects and the principles of electrostatics. The primary goals of this project include:

Construction: Build an electroscope using easily accessible materials, such as a conducting 14 AWG wire, lightweight aluminum foil leaves, an insulating support, and a suitable housing, to create a functional and durable device.

Sensitivity: Ensure the electroscope is sensitive enough to detect even small amounts of charge, enabling users to observe and measure the presence of both positive and negative electric charges accurately.

By achieving these objectives, the created electroscope will provide an effective tool for scientific experiments, classroom demonstrations, and personal exploration, promoting a better understanding of electrostatic phenomena and fostering an interest in physics and electrical phenomena among users.


Step One

Take any jar or container that has a lid and poke a hole in the lid.

Step Two

Grab an 18" piece of 14 gauge solid core wire and coil one end.

Step Three

Insert the straight end of your wire through the hole in the lid and bend the end into a hook. The hook should be about 2 inches above the bottom of the container. 

Step Four

Create tear drop shaped tabs made from aluminum foil about a quarter in size. Poke a small hole near the top. 

Step Five

Add the tabs to the hook. Now, any time a charge is brought near your coil, your tabs will separate. 

Challenge once Built!

After building an electroscope, there are several activities you can engage in to explore its functionality and deepen your understanding of electrostatics. Here are a few activities you can try:

Remember to keep detailed records of your observations and findings during each activity. These activities will not only enhance your understanding of electrostatics but also enable you to develop a deeper appreciation for the behavior of electric charges and the principles underlying the electroscope's operation.