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Electricity - Generating Electricity

Electricity is one of the main topics studied at in GCSE Physics. In this quiz we look at some of the methods used when generating electricity, including fossil fuels, nuclear fuel renewable sources of energy.

Generating electricity can be done by burning fuels, using nuclear reactors or capturing energy from the environment. When fuels are burnt, they release greenhouse gases and other gases that cause acid rain. Some of the fuels we use, for example wood and biodiesel, are sustainable whilst others, called non-renewable fuels, will be used up at some point in the future (although for coal, oil and gas we could wait for tens of millions of years for them to re-form!).

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The burning of fossil fuels is thought by many scientists to contribute to the problem of global warming. The reason that they think this is happening is because fossil fuels contain carbon that was locked out of the carbon cycle millions of years ago. When they are burnt, this carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) adds to the carbon in the present day carbon cycle. Normally, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is kept fairly constant by photosynthesis, but at the present time, it appears that photosynthesis can't keep up with this extra quantity and carbon dioxide levels are rising.

When fuels are used to generate electricity, the process is essentially the same for them all, including nuclear fuel. Heat is released from the fuel and is used to boil water. This water is turned into steam. The steam is passed through turbines which then rotate at high speed. The rotation of the turbines is then used to turn the generators to produce the electricity.

Renewable energy is a term that is applied to methods of generating electricity that will always be available, like wind and water power. Solar power is usually associated with generating electricity from the Sun's light (like solar powered garden lights, solar powered calculators etc) but you can actually track most renewable energy back to the Sun - geothermal energy is an obvious exception. Wind power, wave power and most hydroelectric power all depend on the weather which is caused by the Sun heating different parts of the Earth's surface by different amounts. Biomass and other biofuels like wood come from food chains which require the Sun's light for photosynthesis.

Generating electricity from renewable sources has both advantages and disadvantages, for example solar cells produce free electricity and without pollution once they are installed but they are expensive and produce no electricity at night. Similar disadvantages can be applied to the other forms of renewable energy - they don't generate electricity all the time, the amount they generate varies and they tend to be expensive to set up. On the other hand, they have similar advantages, the electricity they produce is free once they are set up and it will always be available. One of the biggest advantages is that when they are generating electricity, they are not a source of gases that cause either acid rain or contribute to the greenhouse effect that causes global warming.

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  1. What materials are used as fuels in nuclear power stations?
    The heat from these fuels comes from natural radioactive decay of their atoms
  2. What is heated to produce steam in power stations?
    Whilst coal and gas may be used to create heat within the power plant, water is heated to produce steam which forces a turbine to rotate
  3. What is geothermal energy?
    Geothermal energy has been used for thousands of years for hot water but it was only in the early years of the 20th century that it was used to generate electricity
  4. What is an advantage of solar panels and solar cells?
    We do not pay for sunlight, so the energy it provides is free!
  5. Which of the following is/are associated with the term 'renewable energy'?
    Solar panels use the Sun's heat to supply hot water while solar cells generate electricity from the Sun's light. Many students get the two mixed up. Solar cells are also known as photovoltaic panels
  6. What types of materials are fossil fuels?
    They were formed from dead organisms millions of years in the past
  7. What is a disadvantage of wind turbines?
    One of the other objections is that they are usually sited in areas of natural beauty and create visual pollution too
  8. What is a disadvantage of burning fossil fuels?
    Burning fossil fuels releases a variety of gases into the Earth's atmosphere including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and sulphur and nitrogen oxides. Carbon monoxide is toxic, carbon dioxide contributes to the greenhouse effect whilst sulphur and nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain
  9. What is a disadvantage of using nuclear energy?
    Whilst nuclear energy does not release harmful gases into the atmosphere, it does create harmful radioactive waste which can take decades or even centuries for the radiation emitted to reduce to safe levels
  10. What is a disadvantage of solar panels and solar cells?
    Both work much better on cloudless days

Author: Martin Moore

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