In order to understand how electric charge moves from one atom to another, we need to know something about atoms. Everything in the universe is made of atoms—every star, every tree, every animal. The human body is made of atoms. Air and water are, too. Atoms are the building blocks of the universe. Atoms are so small that millions of them would fit on the head of a pin.
Atoms are made of even smaller particles. The center of an atom is called the nucleus. It is made of particles called protons and neutrons. The protons and neutrons are very small, but electrons are much, much smaller. Electrons spin around the nucleus in shells a great distance from the nucleus. If the nucleus were the size of a tennis ball, the atom would be the size of the Empire State Building. Atoms are mostly empty space.
If you could see an atom, it would look a little like a tiny center of balls surrounded by giant invisible bubbles (or shells). The electrons would be on the surface of the bubbles, constantly spinning and moving to stay as far away from each other as possible. Electrons are held in their shells by an electrical force.
The protons and electrons of an atom are attracted to each other. They both carry an electrical charge. An electrical charge is a force within the particle. Protons have a positive charge (+) and electrons have a negative charge (-). The positive charge of the protons is equal to the negative charge of the electrons. Opposite charges attract each other. When an atom is in balance, it has an equal number of protons and electrons. The neutrons carry no charge and their number can vary.
The number of protons in an atom determines the kind of atom, or element, it is. An element is a substance in which all of the atoms are identical (the Periodic Table shows all the known elements). Every atom of hydrogen, for example, has one proton and one electron, with no neutrons. Every atom of carbon has six protons, six electrons, and six neutrons. The number of protons determines which element it is.
Electrons usually remain a constant distance from the nucleus in precise shells. The shell closest to the nucleus can hold two electrons. The next shell can hold up to eight. The outer shells cans hold even more. Some atoms with many protons can have as many as seven shells with electrons in them.
The electrons in the shells closest to the nucleus have a strong force of attraction to the protons. Sometimes, the electrons in the outermost shells do not. These electrons can be pushed out of their orbits. Applying a force can make them move from one atom to another. These moving electrons are electricity.