Electric current

Electric current

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Electric current is a flow of electric charge
Electric charge
Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

 through a medium.
This charge is typically carried by moving electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

s in a conductor
Electrical conductor
In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is a material which contains movable electric charges. In metallic conductors such as copper or aluminum, the movable charged particles are electrons...

 such as wire
Wire
A wire is a single, usually cylindrical, flexible strand or rod of metal. Wires are used to bear mechanical loads and to carry electricity and telecommunications signals. Wire is commonly formed by drawing the metal through a hole in a die or draw plate. Standard sizes are determined by various...

. It can also be carried by ion
Ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s in an electrolyte, or by both ions and electrons in a plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

.

The SI
International System of Units
The International System of Units is the modern form of the metric system and is generally a system of units of measurement devised around seven base units and the convenience of the number ten. The older metric system included several groups of units...

 unit for measuring the rate of flow of electric charge is the ampere
Ampere
The ampere , often shortened to amp, is the SI unit of electric current and is one of the seven SI base units. It is named after André-Marie Ampère , French mathematician and physicist, considered the father of electrodynamics...

, which is charge flowing through some surface at the rate of one coulomb per second. Electric current is measured using an ammeter
Ammeter
An ammeter is a measuring instrument used to measure the electric current in a circuit. Electric currents are measured in amperes , hence the name. Instruments used to measure smaller currents, in the milliampere or microampere range, are designated as milliammeters or microammeters...

.

Symbol


The conventional symbol for current is , which originates from the French phrase intensité de courant, or in English current intensity. This phrase is frequently used when discussing the value of an electric current, especially in older texts; modern practice often shortens this to simply current but current intensity is still used in many recent textbooks. The symbol was used by André-Marie Ampère
André-Marie Ampère
André-Marie Ampère was a French physicist and mathematician who is generally regarded as one of the main discoverers of electromagnetism. The SI unit of measurement of electric current, the ampere, is named after him....

, after whom the unit of electric current is named, in formulating the eponymous Ampère's force law
Ampère's force law
In magnetostatics, the force of attraction or repulsion between two current-carrying wires is often called Ampère's force law...

 which he discovered in 1820. The notation travelled from France to England, where it became standard, although at least one journal did not change from using to until 1896.

Conduction mechanisms in various media



In metallic solids, electricity flows by means of electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

s, from lower to higher electrical potential. In other media, any stream of charged objects may constitute an electric current. To provide a definition of current that is independent of the type of charge carriers flowing, conventional current is defined to flow in the same direction as positive charges. So in metals where the charge carriers (electrons) are negative, conventional current flows in the opposite direction as the electrons. In conductors where the charge carriers are positive, conventional current flows in the same direction as the charge carriers.

In a vacuum
Vacuum
In everyday usage, vacuum is a volume of space that is essentially empty of matter, such that its gaseous pressure is much less than atmospheric pressure. The word comes from the Latin term for "empty". A perfect vacuum would be one with no particles in it at all, which is impossible to achieve in...

, a beam of ions or electrons may be formed. In other conductive materials, the electric current is due to the flow of both positively and negatively charged particles at the same time. In still others, the current is entirely due to positive charge flow
Proton conductor
A proton conductor is an electrolyte, typically a solid electrolyte, in which H+ are the primary charge carriers.-Composition:For practical applications, proton conductors are usually solid materials. Typical materials are polymers or ceramic. Typically the pores in practical materials are small...

. For example, the electric currents in electrolytes are flows of electrically charged atoms (ions), which exist in both positive and negative varieties. In a common lead-acid electrochemical
Electrochemistry
Electrochemistry is a branch of chemistry that studies chemical reactions which take place in a solution at the interface of an electron conductor and an ionic conductor , and which involve electron transfer between the electrode and the electrolyte or species in solution.If a chemical reaction is...

 cell, electric currents are composed of positive hydrogen ions (protons) flowing in one direction, and negative sulfate ions flowing in the other. Electric currents in sparks
Electric spark
An electric spark is a type of electrostatic discharge that occurs when an electric field creates an ionized electrically conductive channel in air producing a brief emission of light and sound. A spark is formed when the electric field strength exceeds the dielectric field strength of air...

 or plasma are flows of electrons as well as positive and negative ions. In ice and in certain solid electrolytes, the electric current is entirely composed of flowing ions. In a semiconductor
Semiconductor
A semiconductor is a material with electrical conductivity due to electron flow intermediate in magnitude between that of a conductor and an insulator. This means a conductivity roughly in the range of 103 to 10−8 siemens per centimeter...

 it is sometimes useful to think of the current as due to the flow of positive "holes
Electron hole
An electron hole is the conceptual and mathematical opposite of an electron, useful in the study of physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering. The concept describes the lack of an electron at a position where one could exist in an atom or atomic lattice...

" (the mobile positive charge carriers that are places where the semiconductor crystal is missing a valence electron). This is the case in a p-type semiconductor.

Metals


A solid
Solid
Solid is one of the three classical states of matter . It is characterized by structural rigidity and resistance to changes of shape or volume. Unlike a liquid, a solid object does not flow to take on the shape of its container, nor does it expand to fill the entire volume available to it like a...

 conductive
Electrical conductor
In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is a material which contains movable electric charges. In metallic conductors such as copper or aluminum, the movable charged particles are electrons...

 metal contains mobile, or free electrons, originating in the conduction electrons. These electrons are bound to the metal lattice but no longer to any individual atom. Even with no external electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

 applied, these electrons move about randomly due to thermal energy
Thermal energy
Thermal energy is the part of the total internal energy of a thermodynamic system or sample of matter that results in the system's temperature....

 but, on average, there is zero net current within the metal. Given a surface through which a metal wire passes, the number of electrons moving from one side to the other in any period of time is on average equal to the number passing in the opposite direction. As George Gamow
George Gamow
George Gamow , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov , was a Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, Big Bang nucleosynthesis, cosmic microwave...

 put in his science-popularizing book, One, Two, Three...Infinity (1947), "The metallic substances differ from all other materials by the fact that the outer shells of their atoms are bound rather loosely, and often let one of their electrons go free. Thus the interior of a metal is filled up with a large number of unattached electrons that travel aimlessly around like a crowd of displaced persons. When a metal wire is subjected to electric force applied on its opposite ends, these free electrons rush in the direction of the force, thus forming what we call an electric current."

When a metal wire is connected across the two terminals of a DC
Direct current
Direct current is the unidirectional flow of electric charge. Direct current is produced by such sources as batteries, thermocouples, solar cells, and commutator-type electric machines of the dynamo type. Direct current may flow in a conductor such as a wire, but can also flow through...

 voltage source
Voltage source
In electric circuit theory, an ideal voltage source is a circuit element where the voltage across it is independent of the current through it. A voltage source is the dual of a current source. In analysis, a voltage source supplies a constant DC or AC potential between its terminals for any current...

 such as a battery
Battery (electricity)
An electrical battery is one or more electrochemical cells that convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy. Since the invention of the first battery in 1800 by Alessandro Volta and especially since the technically improved Daniell cell in 1836, batteries have become a common power...

, the source places an electric field across the conductor. The moment contact is made, the free electrons of the conductor are forced to drift toward the positive terminal under the influence of this field. The free electrons are therefore the charge carrier
Charge carrier
In physics, a charge carrier is a free particle carrying an electric charge, especially the particles that carry electric currents in electrical conductors. Examples are electrons and ions...

 in a typical solid conductor. For an electric current of 1 ampere, 1 coulomb of electric charge (which consists of about 6.242 × 1018 elementary charge
Elementary charge
The elementary charge, usually denoted as e, is the electric charge carried by a single proton, or equivalently, the absolute value of the electric charge carried by a single electron. This elementary charge is a fundamental physical constant. To avoid confusion over its sign, e is sometimes called...

s) drifts every second
Second
The second is a unit of measurement of time, and is the International System of Units base unit of time. It may be measured using a clock....

 through any plane through which the conductor passes.

For a steady flow of charge through a surface, the current I (in amperes) can be calculated with the following equation:

where Q is the electric charge transferred through the surface over some time
Time
Time is a part of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change such as the motions of objects....

 t. If Q and t are measured in coulombs and seconds respectively, I is in amperes.

More generally, electric current can be represented as the rate at which charge flows through a given surface as:

Electrolytes



Electric currents in electrolyte
Electrolyte
In chemistry, an electrolyte is any substance containing free ions that make the substance electrically conductive. The most typical electrolyte is an ionic solution, but molten electrolytes and solid electrolytes are also possible....

s are flows of electrically charged particles (ion
Ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s). For example, if an electric field is placed across a solution of Na
Sodium
Sodium is a chemical element with the symbol Na and atomic number 11. It is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal and is a member of the alkali metals; its only stable isotope is 23Na. It is an abundant element that exists in numerous minerals, most commonly as sodium chloride...

+ and Cl
Chlorine
Chlorine is the chemical element with atomic number 17 and symbol Cl. It is the second lightest halogen, found in the periodic table in group 17. The element forms diatomic molecules under standard conditions, called dichlorine...

(and conditions are right) the sodium ions move towards the negative electrode (cathode), while the chloride ions move towards the positive electrode (anode). Reactions take place at both electrode surfaces, absorbing each ion.

Water-ice and certain solid electrolytes called proton conductor
Proton conductor
A proton conductor is an electrolyte, typically a solid electrolyte, in which H+ are the primary charge carriers.-Composition:For practical applications, proton conductors are usually solid materials. Typical materials are polymers or ceramic. Typically the pores in practical materials are small...

s contain positive hydrogen ions or "protons" which are mobile. In these materials, electric currents are composed of moving protons, as opposed to the moving electrons found in metals.

In certain electrolyte mixtures, brightly-colored ions form the moving electric charges. The slow migration of these ions means that the current is visible.

Gases and plasmas


In air and other ordinary gas
Gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

es below the breakdown field, the dominant source of electrical conduction is via a relatively small number of mobile ions produced by radioactive gases, ultraviolet light, or cosmic rays. Since the electrical conductivity is low, gases are dielectric
Dielectric
A dielectric is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material, as in a conductor, but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric...

s or insulator
Electrical insulation
thumb|250px|[[Coaxial Cable]] with dielectric insulator supporting a central coreThis article refers to electrical insulation. For insulation of heat, see Thermal insulation...

s. However, once the applied electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

 approaches the breakdown value, free electrons become sufficiently accelerated by the electric field to create additional free electrons by colliding, and ionizing, neutral gas atoms or molecules in a process called avalanche breakdown
Avalanche breakdown
Avalanche breakdown is a phenomenon that can occur in both insulating and semiconducting materials. It is a form of electric current multiplication that can allow very large currents within materials which are otherwise good insulators. It is a type of electron avalanche...

. The breakdown process forms a plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

 that contains a significant number of mobile electrons and positive ions, causing it to behave as an electrical conductor. In the process, it forms a light emitting conductive path, such as a spark
Electrostatic discharge
Electrostatic discharge is a serious issue in solid state electronics, such as integrated circuits. Integrated circuits are made from semiconductor materials such as silicon and insulating materials such as silicon dioxide...

, arc
Electric arc
An electric arc is an electrical breakdown of a gas which produces an ongoing plasma discharge, resulting from a current flowing through normally nonconductive media such as air. A synonym is arc discharge. An arc discharge is characterized by a lower voltage than a glow discharge, and relies on...

 or lightning
Lightning
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

.

Plasma
Plasma (physics)
In physics and chemistry, plasma is a state of matter similar to gas in which a certain portion of the particles are ionized. Heating a gas may ionize its molecules or atoms , thus turning it into a plasma, which contains charged particles: positive ions and negative electrons or ions...

 is the state of matter where some of the electrons in a gas are stripped or "ionized" from their molecule
Molecule
A molecule is an electrically neutral group of at least two atoms held together by covalent chemical bonds. Molecules are distinguished from ions by their electrical charge...

s or atoms. A plasma can be formed by high temperature
Temperature
Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses the common notions of hot and cold. Objects of low temperature are cold, while various degrees of higher temperatures are referred to as warm or hot...

, or by application of a high electric or alternating magnetic field as noted above. Due to their lower mass, the electrons in a plasma accelerate more quickly in response to an electric field than the heavier positive ions, and hence carry the bulk of the current.

Vacuum


Since a "perfect vacuum" contains no charged particles, it normally behaves as perfect insulator. However, metal electrode surfaces can cause a region of the vacuum to become conductive by injecting free electrons or ion
Ion
An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s through either field electron emission or thermionic emission
Thermionic emission
Thermionic emission is the heat-induced flow of charge carriers from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. This occurs because the thermal energy given to the carrier overcomes the binding potential, also known as work function of the metal. The charge carriers can be electrons or ions, and...

. Thermionic emission occurs when the thermal energy exceeds the metal's work function
Work function
In solid-state physics, the work function is the minimum energy needed to remove an electron from a solid to a point immediately outside the solid surface...

, while field electron emission occurs when the electric field at the surface of the metal is high enough to cause tunneling, which results in the ejection of free electrons from the metal into the vacuum. Externally heated electrodes are often used to generate an electron cloud as in the filament or indirectly heated cathode
Cathode
A cathode is an electrode through which electric current flows out of a polarized electrical device. Mnemonic: CCD .Cathode polarity is not always negative...

 of vacuum tubes. Cold electrodes
Cold cathode
A cold cathode is a cathode used within nixie tubes, gas discharge lamps, discharge tubes, and some types of vacuum tube which is not electrically heated by the circuit to which it is connected...

 can also spontaneously produce electron clouds via thermionic emission when small incandescent regions (called cathode spots or anode spots) are formed. These are incandescent regions of the electrode surface that are created by a localized high current flow. These regions may be initiated by field electron emission, but are then sustained by localized thermionic emission once a vacuum arc
Vacuum arc
A vacuum arc can arise when the surfaces of metal electrodes in contact with a good vacuum begin to emit electrons either through heating or via an electric field that is sufficient to cause field electron emission...

 forms. These small electron-emitting regions can form quite rapidly, even explosively, on a metal surface subjected to a high electrical field. Vacuum tube
Vacuum tube
In electronics, a vacuum tube, electron tube , or thermionic valve , reduced to simply "tube" or "valve" in everyday parlance, is a device that relies on the flow of electric current through a vacuum...

s and sprytron
Krytron
The krytron is a cold-cathode gas filled tube intended for use as a very high-speed switch, and was one of the earliest developments of the EG&G Corporation. It is somewhat similar to thyratron...

s are some of the electronic switching and amplifying devices based on vacuum conductivity.

Current density and Ohm's law



Current density is a measure of the density of an electric current. It is defined as a vector whose magnitude is the electric current per cross-sectional area. In SI units
Si
Si, si, or SI may refer to :- Measurement, mathematics and science :* International System of Units , the modern international standard version of the metric system...

, the current density is measured in amperes per square meter.


where I is current in the conductor, J is the current density, and A is the cross-sectional area.
The dot product
Dot product
In mathematics, the dot product or scalar product is an algebraic operation that takes two equal-length sequences of numbers and returns a single number obtained by multiplying corresponding entries and then summing those products...

 of the two vector quantities (A and J) is a scalar
Scalar (mathematics)
In linear algebra, real numbers are called scalars and relate to vectors in a vector space through the operation of scalar multiplication, in which a vector can be multiplied by a number to produce another vector....

 that represents the electric current.

Current density (current per unit area) J in a material is proportional to the conductivity σ and electric field
Electric field
In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

  in the medium:


Instead of conductivity, reciprocal quantity called resistivity ρ, can be used:


Conduction in semiconductor devices may occur by a combination of electric field (drift) and diffusion, which is proportional to diffusion constant  and charge density
Charge density
The linear, surface, or volume charge density is the amount of electric charge in a line, surface, or volume, respectively. It is measured in coulombs per meter , square meter , or cubic meter , respectively, and represented by the lowercase Greek letter Rho . Since there are positive as well as...

 . The current density is then:


with being the elementary charge
Elementary charge
The elementary charge, usually denoted as e, is the electric charge carried by a single proton, or equivalently, the absolute value of the electric charge carried by a single electron. This elementary charge is a fundamental physical constant. To avoid confusion over its sign, e is sometimes called...

 and the electron density. The carriers move in the direction of decreasing concentration, so for electrons a positive current results for a positive density gradient. If the carriers are holes, replace electron density by the negative of the hole
Electron hole
An electron hole is the conceptual and mathematical opposite of an electron, useful in the study of physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering. The concept describes the lack of an electron at a position where one could exist in an atom or atomic lattice...

 density .

In linear anisotropic
Anisotropy
Anisotropy is the property of being directionally dependent, as opposed to isotropy, which implies identical properties in all directions. It can be defined as a difference, when measured along different axes, in a material's physical or mechanical properties An example of anisotropy is the light...

 materials, σ, ρ and D are tensor
Tensor
Tensors are geometric objects that describe linear relations between vectors, scalars, and other tensors. Elementary examples include the dot product, the cross product, and linear maps. Vectors and scalars themselves are also tensors. A tensor can be represented as a multi-dimensional array of...

s.

In linear materials such as metals, and under low frequencies, the current density across the conductor surface is uniform. In such conditions, Ohm's law
Ohm's law
Ohm's law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the potential difference across the two points...

 states that the current is directly proportional to the potential difference between two ends (across) of that metal (ideal) resistor
Resistor
A linear resistor is a linear, passive two-terminal electrical component that implements electrical resistance as a circuit element.The current through a resistor is in direct proportion to the voltage across the resistor's terminals. Thus, the ratio of the voltage applied across a resistor's...

 (or other ohmic device):

where is the current, measured in amperes; is the potential difference, measured in volt
Volt
The volt is the SI derived unit for electric potential, electric potential difference, and electromotive force. The volt is named in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta , who invented the voltaic pile, possibly the first chemical battery.- Definition :A single volt is defined as the...

s; and is the resistance
Electrical resistance
The electrical resistance of an electrical element is the opposition to the passage of an electric current through that element; the inverse quantity is electrical conductance, the ease at which an electric current passes. Electrical resistance shares some conceptual parallels with the mechanical...

, measured in ohms. For alternating current
Alternating current
In alternating current the movement of electric charge periodically reverses direction. In direct current , the flow of electric charge is only in one direction....

s, especially at higher frequencies, skin effect
Skin effect
Skin effect is the tendency of an alternating electric current to distribute itself within a conductor with the current density being largest near the surface of the conductor, decreasing at greater depths. In other words, the electric current flows mainly at the "skin" of the conductor, at an...

 causes the current to spread unevenly across the conductor cross-section, with higher density near the surface, thus increasing the apparent resistance.

Drift speed


The mobile charged particles within a conductor move constantly in random directions, like the particles of a gas
Gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

. In order for there to be a net flow of charge, the particles must also move together with an average drift rate. Electrons are the charge carriers in metal
Metal
A metal , is an element, compound, or alloy that is a good conductor of both electricity and heat. Metals are usually malleable and shiny, that is they reflect most of incident light...

s and they follow an erratic path, bouncing from atom to atom, but generally drifting in the opposite direction of the electric field. The speed at which they drift can be calculated from the equation:
where is the electric current is number of charged particles per unit volume (or charge carrier density) is the cross-sectional area of the conductor is the drift velocity
Drift velocity
The drift velocity is the average velocity that a particle, such as an electron, attains due to an electric field. It can also be referred to as Axial Drift Velocity since particles defined are assumed to be moving along a plane. In general, an electron will 'rattle around' in a conductor at the...

, and is the charge on each particle.
Electric currents in solids typically flow very slowly. For example, in a copper
Copper
Copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. Pure copper is soft and malleable; an exposed surface has a reddish-orange tarnish...

 wire of cross-section 0.5 mm2, carrying a current of 5 A, the drift velocity of the electrons is on the order of a millimetre per second. To take a different example, in the near-vacuum inside a cathode ray tube
Cathode ray tube
The cathode ray tube is a vacuum tube containing an electron gun and a fluorescent screen used to view images. It has a means to accelerate and deflect the electron beam onto the fluorescent screen to create the images. The image may represent electrical waveforms , pictures , radar targets and...

, the electrons travel in near-straight lines at about a tenth of the speed of light
Speed of light
The speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, is a physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its value is 299,792,458 metres per second, a figure that is exact since the length of the metre is defined from this constant and the international standard for time...

.

Any accelerating electric charge, and therefore any changing electric current, gives rise to an electromagnetic
Electromagnetism
Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation...

 wave that propagates at very high speed outside the surface of the conductor. This speed is usually a significant fraction of the speed of light, as can be deduced from Maxwell's Equations
Maxwell's equations
Maxwell's equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, classical optics, and electric circuits. These fields in turn underlie modern electrical and communications technologies.Maxwell's equations...

, and is therefore many times faster than the drift velocity of the electrons. For example, in AC power lines
Electric power transmission
Electric-power transmission is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to Electrical substations located near demand centers...

, the waves of electromagnetic energy propagate through the space between the wires, moving from a source to a distant load
External electric load
If an electric circuit has a well-defined output terminal, the circuit connected to this terminal is the load....

, even though the electrons in the wires only move back and forth over a tiny distance.

The ratio of the speed of the electromagnetic wave to the speed of light in free space is called the velocity factor, and depends on the electromagnetic properties of the conductor and the insulating materials surrounding it, and on their shape and size.

The magnitudes (but, not the natures) of these three velocities can be illustrated by an analogy with the three similar velocities associated with gases.
  • The low drift velocity of charge carriers is analogous to air motion; in other words, winds.
  • The high speed of electromagnetic waves is roughly analogous to the speed of sound in a gas (these waves move through the medium much faster than any individual particles do)
  • The random motion of charges is analogous to heat - the thermal velocity of randomly vibrating gas particles.

This analogy is extremely simplistic and incomplete: The rapid propagation of a sound wave doesn't impart any change in the air molecules' drift velocity, whereas EM waves do carry the energy to propagate the actual current at a rate which is much, much higher than the electrons' drift velocity. To illustrate the difference: The sound and the change in the air's drift velocity (the force of the wind gust) cross distance at rates equaling the speeds of sound and of mechanical transmission of force (not higher than rate of drift velocity); while a change in an EM field and the change in current (electrons' drift velocity) both propagate across distance at rates much higher than the actual drift velocity. You can hear wind much earlier than the force of the gust reaches you, but you don't observe a change in an EM field earlier than you can observe the change of current.

Electromagnetism



Electric current produces a magnetic field
Magnetic field
A magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...

. The magnetic field can be visualized as a pattern of circular field lines surrounding the wire.

Electric current can be directly measured with a galvanometer
Galvanometer
A galvanometer is a type of ammeter: an instrument for detecting and measuring electric current. It is an analog electromechanical transducer that produces a rotary deflection of some type of pointer in response to electric current flowing through its coil in a magnetic field. .Galvanometers were...

, but this method involves breaking the electrical circuit, which is sometimes inconvenient. Current can also be measured without breaking the circuit by detecting the magnetic field associated with the current. Devices used for this include Hall effect
Hall effect
The Hall effect is the production of a voltage difference across an electrical conductor, transverse to an electric current in the conductor and a magnetic field perpendicular to the current...

 sensor
Sensor
A sensor is a device that measures a physical quantity and converts it into a signal which can be read by an observer or by an instrument. For example, a mercury-in-glass thermometer converts the measured temperature into expansion and contraction of a liquid which can be read on a calibrated...

s, current clamp
Current clamp
In electrical and electronic engineering, a current clamp or current probe is an electrical device having two jaws which open to allow clamping around an electrical conductor. This allows properties of the electric current in the conductor to be measured, without having to make physical contact...

s, current transformer
Current transformer
In electrical engineering, a current transformer is used for measurement of electric currents. Current transformers, together with voltage transformers , are known as instrument transformers...

s, and Rogowski coil
Rogowski coil
A Rogowski coil, named after Walter Rogowski, is an electrical device for measuring alternating current or high speed current pulses. It consists of a helical coil of wire with the lead from one end returning through the centre of the coil to the other end, so that both terminals are at the same...

s.

The theory of Special Relativity allows one to transform the magnetic field into a static electric field for an observer moving at the same speed as the charge in the diagram. The amount of current is particular to a reference frame.

Conventions


A flow of positive charges gives the same electric current, and has the same effect in a circuit, as an equal flow of negative charges in the opposite direction. Since current can be the flow of either positive or negative charges, or both, a convention for the direction of current which is independent of the type of charge carrier
Charge carrier
In physics, a charge carrier is a free particle carrying an electric charge, especially the particles that carry electric currents in electrical conductors. Examples are electrons and ions...

s is needed. The direction of conventional current is defined arbitrarily to be the direction of the flow of positive charges.

In metals, which make up the wires and other conductors in most electrical circuits, the positive charges are immobile, and only the negatively charged electrons flow. Because the electron carries negative charge, the electron motion in a metal conductor is in the direction opposite to that of conventional (or electric) current.

Reference direction


When analyzing electrical circuits, the actual direction of current through a specific circuit element is usually unknown. Consequently, each circuit element is assigned a current variable with an arbitrarily chosen reference direction. When the circuit is solved, the circuit element currents may have positive or negative values. A negative value means that the actual direction of current through that circuit element is opposite that of the chosen reference direction.
In electronic circuits the reference current directions are usually chosen so that all currents flow toward ground. This often matches conventional current direction, because in many circuits the power supply
Power supply
A power supply is a device that supplies electrical energy to one or more electric loads. The term is most commonly applied to devices that convert one form of electrical energy to another, though it may also refer to devices that convert another form of energy to electrical energy...

 voltage is positive with respect to ground.

Occurrences


Natural examples include lightning
Lightning
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

 and the solar wind
Solar wind
The solar wind is a stream of charged particles ejected from the upper atmosphere of the Sun. It mostly consists of electrons and protons with energies usually between 1.5 and 10 keV. The stream of particles varies in temperature and speed over time...

, the source of the polar auroras (the aurora borealis and aurora australis). The artificial form of electric current is the flow of conduction electrons in metal wires, such as the overhead power lines that deliver electrical energy
Electric power transmission
Electric-power transmission is the bulk transfer of electrical energy, from generating power plants to Electrical substations located near demand centers...

 across long distances and the smaller wires within electrical and electronic equipment. In electronics
Electronics
Electronics is the branch of science, engineering and technology that deals with electrical circuits involving active electrical components such as vacuum tubes, transistors, diodes and integrated circuits, and associated passive interconnection technologies...

, other forms of electric current include the flow of electrons through resistor
Resistor
A linear resistor is a linear, passive two-terminal electrical component that implements electrical resistance as a circuit element.The current through a resistor is in direct proportion to the voltage across the resistor's terminals. Thus, the ratio of the voltage applied across a resistor's...

s or through the vacuum in a vacuum tube
Vacuum tube
In electronics, a vacuum tube, electron tube , or thermionic valve , reduced to simply "tube" or "valve" in everyday parlance, is a device that relies on the flow of electric current through a vacuum...

, the flow of ions inside a battery
Battery (electricity)
An electrical battery is one or more electrochemical cells that convert stored chemical energy into electrical energy. Since the invention of the first battery in 1800 by Alessandro Volta and especially since the technically improved Daniell cell in 1836, batteries have become a common power...

 or a neuron
Neuron
A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information by electrical and chemical signaling. Chemical signaling occurs via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons connect to each other to form networks. Neurons are the core components of the nervous...

, and the flow of holes
Electron hole
An electron hole is the conceptual and mathematical opposite of an electron, useful in the study of physics, chemistry, and electrical engineering. The concept describes the lack of an electron at a position where one could exist in an atom or atomic lattice...

 within a semiconductor
Semiconductor
A semiconductor is a material with electrical conductivity due to electron flow intermediate in magnitude between that of a conductor and an insulator. This means a conductivity roughly in the range of 103 to 10−8 siemens per centimeter...

.

Current measurement


Current can be measured using an ammeter
Ammeter
An ammeter is a measuring instrument used to measure the electric current in a circuit. Electric currents are measured in amperes , hence the name. Instruments used to measure smaller currents, in the milliampere or microampere range, are designated as milliammeters or microammeters...

.

At the circuit level, there are various techniques that can be used to measure current:
  • Shunt resistors
  • Hall effect
    Hall effect
    The Hall effect is the production of a voltage difference across an electrical conductor, transverse to an electric current in the conductor and a magnetic field perpendicular to the current...

     current sensor transducers
  • Transformers (however DC cannot be measured)
  • Magnetoresistive field sensors

See also


  • Alternating current
    Alternating current
    In alternating current the movement of electric charge periodically reverses direction. In direct current , the flow of electric charge is only in one direction....

  • Current density
    Current density
    Current density is a measure of the density of flow of a conserved charge. Usually the charge is the electric charge, in which case the associated current density is the electric current per unit area of cross section, but the term current density can also be applied to other conserved...

  • Current 3-vector
  • Direct current
    Direct current
    Direct current is the unidirectional flow of electric charge. Direct current is produced by such sources as batteries, thermocouples, solar cells, and commutator-type electric machines of the dynamo type. Direct current may flow in a conductor such as a wire, but can also flow through...

  • Electric shock
    Electric shock
    Electric Shock of a body with any source of electricity that causes a sufficient current through the skin, muscles or hair. Typically, the expression is used to denote an unwanted exposure to electricity, hence the effects are considered undesirable....

  • Electrical measurements
    Electrical measurements
    Electrical measurements are the methods, devices and calculations used to measure electrical quantities. Measurement of electrical quantities may be done to measure electrical parameters of a system...

  • History of electrical engineering
    History of electrical engineering
    This article details the history of electrical engineering. Topics also included are the general developments and notable individuals within the electrical engineering profession.- Ancient developments:...

  • Hydraulic analogy
    Hydraulic analogy
    The electronic–hydraulic analogy is the most widely used analogy for "electron fluid" in a metal conductor. Since electric current is invisible and the processes at play in electronics are often difficult to demonstrate, the various electronic components are represented by hydraulic...

  • SI electromagnetism units

External links