How does a generator work and produce electricity?

Updated: Jan 28

Since the dawn of time, man has been searching for ways to create energy.

But in the earlier years of humankind's history, how we harnessed power was considerably more straightforward and primitive than it is today.

Therefore, one of the main turning points in human history was when we learned to generate and harness electrical energy. However, as useful and practical as electricity can be, the biggest problem with it is that we need other sources of energy to create it.

And this is precisely where the invention of the electric generator or "generator electrical" came into play! 

In the following article, we'll go over everything there is to know about the history of the electric generator and how to this day, this technological invention helps push the barriers of human innovation.

The History Of The Electric Generator

Roughly 200 years ago, back in 1820, two men named Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry invented a relatively simple electric motor.

However, it wasn't until 11 years later, in 1831, that the pair document the first proof that an electrical current could be generated in a wire when placed near a rotating magnet. 

This is the first documented evidence of the principle of the electric generator, often referred to as electromagnetic induction, which exploits the natural phenomena of a magnetic field. 

And while Faraday and Henry are two of the principal characters associated with harnessing a magnetic field and the invention itself, over the years, dozens of inventors and innovators have contributed to the development of this incredibly efficient and practical method for producing electricity. 

For instance, in 1832, the first commutated dynamo was in France, which used a fixed magnet, which was rotated by a hand crank. Dynamos were some of the first generations of electric generators capable of delivering massive amounts of power for industrial use.

Eventually, dynamos were replaced by the much more modern and simpler alternator, which is more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective than dynamo generators.

Today, the modern electric generator is used for dozens of different applications, ranging from powering simple home electronics and lights through to powering entire office buildings, factories and even small cities! 

What Exactly Is An Electric Generator?

When we talk of an electric generator, we're referring to a device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy, typically for human consumption. 

As we'll discuss shortly, generators consume many different sources of mechanical energy, ranging from natural resources like wind and water to human-made sources, such as steam, combustion, and even human-powered cranks. 

Generating electricity is a relatively simple process in which rotational force is used to harness the power of a magnetic field. 

This process creates the electric current that can then be used for any number of different applications. 

How Does A Generator Work And Generate Electricity?

Like the rotation of a wheel, a generator will work by using motive power and transferring it into electric energy. 

As demonstrated by Faraday, an electric magnetic field can easily be exploited when a conductor is moved around the magnetic field, like a coil of wire rotating around a stationary magnet. In turn, doing so is capable of generating and directing a flow, or current, of electric particles. 

Essentially, a generator is an electromagnet, which will work by harnessing the particles found in a magnetic field. 

Much like a water pump pumps water down a hose or pipe, the electric particles of the magnetic field are then pushed (by the force of a rotating magnet) down a wire in the form of useable electrical energy. 

In other words, the interaction between the magnet and the wire forces electrons through the circuit, which in turn, provides usable energy. Typically, this will be in the form of AC or DC electricity, which can be employed to power any number of electrical devices. 

What Are The Main Component Of An Electrical Generator?

Today, generators for electricity are a popular and modern tool that allows us to perform a wide range of industrial, commercial, and residential processes. 

But to produce a reliable electrical current, there are a few main components that any generator system needs. This includes: 

  • Engine/Motor/Turbine - While most small portable generators have a combustion engine or motor design, large power generators may utilize a giant turbine engine design instead. 

  • Fuel System - Gasoline, diesel fuel, and natural gas are some of the most common fuel sources for a generator system. However, turbines might exploit wind, water, or even geothermal energy as their source. 

  • Alternator - This is the primary design component that converts mechanical energy into the usable current. Alternators have two main parts: the stator, which consists of a stationary coil, and the rotor, which rotates inside the coil and generates the current. Additionally, an alternator will have a power transfer switch and a voltage regulator as part of its design to help ensure a steady, consistent flow of electricity. 

  • Lubrication, Exhaust, And Cooling Systems - Because generators rely on many moving parts, a lubrication and cooling system are often required to prevent the unit from overheating while it works. While some models may employ fans, typically, even a smaller generator engine will have an oil pan, which helps keep its internal parts lubed. Additionally, a generator that uses internal combustion will also have an exhaust system. 

What Type Of Fuel Can A Generator Use?

When the first electric generators were invented, they typically relied on either manual or gas/diesel-powered motors. However, thanks to the advent of modern technologies, an electricity generator can be powered by several energy sources such as wind energy, tidal energy, and even geothermal. 

Internal Combustion Generators

One of the most popular types of generators available today is the internal combustion-powered generator, which uses fossil fuel to power a motor and to generate a current.

This type of generator typically runs on either gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or propane. 

When it comes to high-quality diesel generators in the UK, Prime Power Solution is one of the most well-known manufacturers of diesel generators that meet high British standards.

Additionally, there are some, eco-friendly generators that use bio-diesel, a form a diesel created from natural sources like corn or used cooking grease. 

Wind Generators

Wind turbines work by using the wind's energy and movement to power their alternators. 

For example, by turning a windmill's blades, the rotational force and mechanical energy created can be transformed into electrical power. In turn, the wind generator is capable of producing electricity in a completely eco-friendly manner. 

However, on calm days when there isn't much wind, the wind generator becomes more or less useless, as it cannot produce electricity unless there is enough wind turns the turbine. 

Hydro Or Tidal Generators

For thousands of years, humans have been using the power of streams and rivers to transform the force of water into usable mechanical energy. 

Traditionally, y in the form of flour mills that would use the movement of a river or stream to turn its grind wheel. 

More recently, in human history, hydroelectric dams have been used to harness the power and movement of water for human consumption. Additionally, although it might not be the most common form of electrical generator, the ocean's tidal energy is also being harnessed to produce electricity. 

For this, giant turbines need to be placed under the ocean's surface, where the current and the ocean's ebb and flow are powerful enough to move them. Then, as these unstoppable forces rotate these giant turbines underneath the water, we can turn this mechanical energy into electricity. 

Once again, because these two types of generators rely on the utterly renewable water movement, they're also some of the most eco-friendly methods of producing power.


Geothermal Generators

Geothermal energy is typically utilized by home and business owners to generate an eco-friendly way of heating and cooling the interior of their respective structures. 

However, instead of using a source of moving energy, like wind, or movement of the ocean, the geothermal process uses the convection of natural heat from hot magma deep within the Earth's crust to turn a turbine and produce electricity. 

The biggest downside to using either a solar, wind, or geothermal generator is that they typically only produce a lower voltage output. And, they also aren't often as reliable as an internal combustion-powered generator, which doesn't rely on it being sunny or windy. 

Backup Power Generators Vs. Standby Generators

Generally, you would install a backup or standby generator to kick on or fire up as soon as a home or building loses power. Alternatively, these generators can be used as a power source as needed.

But, since they're a backup source of energy, not all standby generators offer readily-available electricity.

With that said, backup generators are typically utilized by homeowners who live in locations prone to power outages or by companies who rely on a continuous source of power for their computer systems or servers. 

Police headquarters, fire departments, and hospitals are just a few of the critical locations that require power 24/7. You'll usually find a backup generator hooked up to these buildings, which prevent a total power outage. 

How Can A Generator Be Used?

Although the main reason for using a generator is to generate an electric current as a form of useable energy, there are many different applications for modern generators. 

For instance, you'll find generators in all sorts of industrial factories and manufacturing processes, as well as for many residential (home/personal) or commercial applications. 

Industrial Applications For Generators

When it comes to industrial applications, a generator might be employed to help in any number of industrial manufacturing processes. 

All over the world, the mining industry is one of the most significant users of generated electricity. 

Oil and petrol companies also often use generators in their industrial processes, as well as the construction industry, which too requires power sources in remote locations. 

Commercial Applications For Generators

Like previously mentioned, a generator often an alternative backup source of power. This way, when a power outage does strike, the generator will kick in, and the building won't lose power. 

Typically, a backup generator will be found in offices, malls, hospitals, and many other public locations. 

Home/Personal Applications For Generators

Generators work by producing a current when there is none available. Therefore, generators are also an ideal solution for homes in areas where a power outage is a common occurrence.  

Additionally, small portable generators are often brought camping or employed to power RVs. 

How To Size A Generator?

Since there are many different types of generators, as well as makes and models, it's essential to understand how to properly judge what output of generator you'll need for your own specific needs.

For instance, if you're a homeowner, who's only looking for a small, portable generator to use once or twice a year as a backup, there's no use in buying a massive, heavy-duty model. 

Alternately, suppose you're a business owner looking to purchase a large backup generator to keep your office's computer systems up and running 24/7. In that case, you're going to need a generator that offers a considerable amount of output. 

With that said, to determine the exact size of the generator needed for your application, it's going to be best to contact a certified professional who specializes in installing generator systems. 

So to get an idea, or to determine this, there are a few simple guidelines to follow.

For instance, anyone looking for either standby or backup unit, let's say to power an RV, will need somewhere around 2,000 watts of output. 

But to feed a full-sized family home, a 50,000 watt unit might be needed. 

On the other hand, larger, industrial generators also vary in size, but they're always going to be significantly bigger than portable or personal generators. 

For instance, a small-sized industrial generator might be capable of producing anywhere between 20-30kW to as much as 3MW! 

When we're talking about generators that produce this type of wattage, we're speaking of hydroelectric dams and massive generators for mining or industrial purposes. These large generators often use three-phase motors and other heavy-duty features that are capable of producing such tremendous amounts of power. 

What Type Of Maintenance Does A Generator Need?

Because a generator has a wide range of moving parts and components, regular maintenance with a few necessary tools is essential to ensuring the proper functionality and a long lifespan for your unit. 

On most modern, gas-powered portable generators, routine oil changes, which can be done with a few essential tools, are required at regular intervals (usually measured in running hours) to ensure the unit will continue to operate correctly at all times. For this, the engine oil will need to be drained and replaced by new, clean oil.

Additionally, some portable units might require the filter to be also changed. But, with a little bit of knowledge and understanding, all this can easily be done at home with a wrench and a few other tools.  

If unsure how to properly maintain your generator, contact the manufacturer or a dealer near you for more information. 

Final Word

In the end, the modern electricity generator isn't only an incredibly innovative tool for generating power and electricity; it has also helped shape modern human society by allowing us to use electricity exactly when and where we need it most. 

For instance, with a small, portable gas-powered generator, we can now bring an AC or DC power source virtually anywhere we need power, no matter how remote the location might be.

And today, many energy companies and innovative young minds are looking for new and futuristic methods of generating electricity. Since the invention of the modern generator was only a couple hundred years ago, we've only just begun to see what we're able to use and harness in terms of electricity generation. 

If you're in the market for a good generator, it's important to find a manufacturer that you can trust to provide you with a generator that is going be long-lasting and will provide power when and where you need it most.

Prime Power Solution is one such company, that has been around for years. We are well-known as a reputable and reliable provider of high quality diesel generators, manufactured to meet high UK standards.

F.A.Q. - Frequently Asked Questions On Generators

Although we've covered pretty much all there is to know about electricity generators; if you own or plan on purchasing a generator, we thought it might be a good idea to go over a few frequently asked generator-related questions. 

  1. Why do generators fail? - Unfortunately, there are dozens of reasons why a generator might fail to produce an electric current. However, there are a few common culprits, which might be preventing a generator from functioning correctly.  One of the most common reasons a generator fails is due to overheating. Many times, if not properly serviced or maintained, generators might become depleted of lubricant, which will cause the unit to overheat. Otherwise, a dead battery or a burnt-out alternator are also common reasons for a generator to fail. If unable to diagnose the source of your problem, it might be best to contact the manufacturer to help you resolve the issue.

  2. How long do generators last? - Although some generators or generator brands might come with specific life expectancies, for the most part, the lifespan of a generator will depend on the brand, quality, and its ongoing usage, wear and tear, and how well it's maintained. With that said, your average electricity generator comes with anywhere from a one to a three-year limited warranty, which should cover most breakdowns and repairs within that period. However, depending on the brand, model, the amount it gets ran, most generators will last much longer than this as long as they are properly maintained. As a rule-of-thumb, most portable electrical generators have a life expectance of between 10,000 and 20,000 running hours. 

  3. Can you run an electricity generator 24/7? - Depending on the specific make and model of the generate, some may be capable of running for up to 24 hours or more. However, no matter what type of generator you're talking about, the main factor that will determine its runtime capacity will be the size of its fuel tank. After all, no electrical generator is going to be able to produce power without a continuous source of fuel. With that said, as long as an electrical generator has a source of fuel, and undergoes routine maintenance such as regular oils changes, then it should be capable of running continuously. 

  4. Can a generator function in the rain? - Although some makes and models may be rated for use in the rain, because we're talking about a portable source of electricity that uses a magnetic field, generators should never be allowed to run in a rainy or wet environment. Water and moisture are potent conductors of electricity. Therefore, not only do you risk frying your generator's components, but you also run the risk of electric shock. 

  5. What size generator is needed for a typical home? - Factors such as the overall size of the home, how many circuits will be powered, and the types of appliances in the house are all factors that will determine the actual wattage output needed by a generator to power a home. Still, it's generally assumed that a generator with an output of between 5K and 7.5K watts or 5-7.5kW should be capable of powering most common household appliances, such as a fridge, freezer, and lighting circuits, all at the same time. But to reduce the risk of outages or power spikes, a large generator may be required.