Electric current is the flow (movement) of electric charge. The SI unit of electric current is the ampere, and electric current is measured using an ammeter. For the definition of the ampere, see the Ampere article.
Current in a metal wire
A solid conductive metal contains a large population of mobile, or free, electrons. These electrons are bound to the metal lattice but not to any individual atom. Even with no external electric field applied, these electrons move about randomly due to thermal energy but, on average, there is zero net current within the metal. Given an imaginary plane through which the 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.
When a metal wire is connected across the two terminals of a DC voltage source such as a battery, 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 current carrier in a typical solid conductor. For an electric current of 1 ampere, 1 coulomb of electric charge (which consists of about 6.242 × 1018 electrons) drifts every second through any imaginary plane through which the conductor passes.
The current I in amperes can be calculated with the following equation:
It follows that:
Current density is a measure of the density of electrical current. It is defined as a vector whose magnitude is the electric current per cross-sectional area. In SI units, the current density is measured in amperes per square meter.
The drift speed of electric charges
The mobile charged particles within a conductor move constantly in random directions, like the particles of a gas. 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 metals and they follow an erratic path, bouncing from atom to atom, but generally drifting in the direction of the electric field. The speed at which they drift can be calculated from the equation:
- is the electric current
- is number of charged particles per unit volume
- is the cross-sectional area of the conductor
- is the drift velocity, and
- is the charge on each particle.
Electric currents in solids typically flow very slowly. For example, in a copper wire of cross-section 0.5 mm², carrying a current of 5 A, the drift velocity of the electrons is of the order of a millimetre per second. To take a different example, in the near-vacuum inside a cathode ray tube, the electrons travel in near-straight lines ("ballistically") at about a tenth of the speed of light.
Any accelerating electric charge, and therefore any changing electric current, gives rise to an electromagnetic 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, and is therefore many times faster than the drift velocity of the electrons. For example, in AC power lines, the waves of electromagnetic energy propagate through the space between the wires, moving from a source to a distant 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 nature 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; while the random motion of charges is analogous to heat - the thermal velocity of randomly vibrating gas particles.
- I is the current, measured in amperes
- V is the potential difference measured in volts
- R is the resistance measured in ohms
Conventional current was defined early in the history of electrical science as a flow of positive charge. In solid metals, like wires, the positive charge carriers are immobile, and only the negatively charged electrons flow. Because the electron carries negative charge, the electron current is in the direction opposite to that of conventional (or electric) current.
In other conductive materials, the electric current is due to the flow of charged particles in both directions at the same time. Electric currents in electrolytes are flows of electrically charged atoms (ions), which exist in both positive and negative varieties. For example, an electrochemical cell may be constructed with salt water (a solution of sodium chloride) on one side of a membrane and pure water on the other. The membrane lets the positive sodium ions pass, but not the negative chloride ions, so a net current results. Electric currents in plasma are flows of electrons as well as positive and negative ions. In ice and in certain solid electrolytes, flowing protons constitute the electric current. To simplify this situation, the original definition of conventional current still stands.
There are also materials where the electric current is due to the flow of electrons and yet it is conceptually easier to think of the current as due to the flow of positive "holes" (the spots that should have an electron to make the conductor neutral). This is the case in a p-type semiconductor.
Natural examples include lightning and the solar wind, 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 across long distances and the smaller wires within electrical and electronic equipment. In electronics, other forms of electric current include the flow of electrons through resistors or through the vacuum in a vacuum tube, the flow of ions inside a battery, and the flow of holes within a semiconductor.
Electric current produces a magnetic field. 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, but this method involves breaking the 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 sensors, current clamps, current transformers, and Rogowski coils.
When solving 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.
The most obvious hazard is electrical shock, where a current passes through part of the body. It is the amount of current passing through the body that determines the effect, and this depends on the nature of the contact, the condition of the body part, the current path through the body and the voltage of the source. While a very small amount can cause a slight tingle, too much can cause severe burns if it passes through the skin or even cardiac arrest if enough passes through the heart. The effect also varies considerably from individual to individual. (For approximate figures see Shock Effects under electric shock.)
Due to this and the fact that passing current cannot be easily predicted in most practical circumstances, any supply of over 50 volts should be considered a possible source of dangerous electric shock. In particular, note that 110 volts (a minimum voltage at which AC mains power is distributed in much of the Americas, and 4 other countries, mostly in Asia) can certainly cause a lethal amount of current to pass through the body.
Electric arcs, which can occur with supplies of any voltage (for example, a typical arc welding machine has a voltage between the electrodes of just a few tens of volts), are very hot and emit ultra-violet (UV) and infra-red radiation (IR). Proximity to an electric arc can therefore cause severe thermal burns, and UV is damaging to unprotected eyes and skin.
Accidental electric heating can also be dangerous. An overloaded power cable is a frequent cause of fire. A battery as small as an AA cell placed in a pocket with metal coins can lead to a short circuit heating the battery and the coins which may inflict burns. NiCad, NiMh cells, and lithium batteries are particularly risky because they can deliver a very high current due to their low internal resistance.
- Alternating current
- Current density
- Direct current
- Electrical conduction for more information on the physical mechanism of current flow in materials
- Hydraulic analogy
- SI electromagnetism units
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- All about circuits - a useful site introducing electricity and electronics
- Electric current and Ohm's law
- Electric current and power
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