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Electrical Energy and Circuits

Electricity (electric current) is a flow, or movement, of charged particles. When two points which are at different potentials, are joined by a wire, electrons, which are negatively charged, will drift through the wire from the low potential end to that of high potential. A complete pathway, or circuit, is needed for a current to flow. The size of the current depends on the rate at which the charge moves. When a large amount of charge moves quickly, a large current is said to flow. The voltage (or potential difference) is related to the amount of energy that the electrons possess.

Did you know that originally, electric currents were thought to be due to positive charges in motion? Positive charges were said to move from a point of high potential to a point of low potential. Though we now know that electric current involves the movement of electrons, we still use the convention that electric current flows in the opposite direction to the

The flow of electrons through a circuit can be likened to the flow of water in a hose. The voltage is represented by the water pressure and the current is the rate of flow of the water. The same amount of water that left the pump is returned to it (i.e. the pump does not make the water, it provides the energy to move the water around the circuit). Current is measured in ampere (A), and voltage in volts (V).

Constructing an Electric Circuit

An electric circuit requires at least four components:
1. A power source - e.g. battery or powerpoint 2. A resistor to use the available electricity - e.g. a light bulb as depicted in the diagram below 3. A switch which closes to complete the circuit 4. Wires to connect components 1-3 together

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The diagram on the right shows the flow of current when a circuit is complete. Electrons move from the negative terminal of a battery through the light bulb which uses the electrical energy and the electrons then join the curren t positive terminal. Current however by definition refers to a flow of positive charges. Although we now know that positive charges do NOT move in a circuit, for historical reasons, current flow is always a flow of positive charges and is opposite to the direction of electron flow.

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Circuit symbols used in constructing circuit diagrams are shown below:

Some books still use the older resistor symbol:

Direct Current
A school power-pack or transformer- rectifier unit has two sets of terminals, A.C. and D.C.. These initials stand for alternating electric current and direct electric current, respectively. The unit is supplied with 240 volts A.C. from the power point. Inside the unit, there is a transformer, which reduces this voltage to a safe level. There is also a rectifier, which changes A.C. to D.C., if required. D.C. is believed to be a stream of electrons flowing in one direction. If supplied by a transformer-rectifier unit, the electrons are believed to flow from the negative terminal, through the external circuit, to the positive terminal. If there is a lamp in the circuit, its filament, which has high resistance to the flow of electrons, may become white hot and give off light.

Alternating Current
Electricity generated to power houses, and supplied through power points, is alternating current (A.C.). Alternating current is believed to consist of electrons oscillating forwards and backwards in the circuit. Although electrons move back and forth continuously, the net movement of electrons is from negative to positive.

Conductors and Insulators

A substance is considered a conductor if it allows an electric current to flow through easily. Metals are good conductors with copper being the most commonly used material in wires. A copper atom has only one electron in its outer shell which is bound loosely to the nucleus. This allows the electron to be easily lost from the parent atom to become free electrons. Free electrons are considered to be delocalized as they are not bound to any atom but can freely move between atoms.

When a voltage is applied to a conductor, the free electrons move towards the negative terminal, thus allowing a electrical current to form. Insulators on the other hand do not possess free electrons and hence do not share electrons around. Most non-metallic substances are insulators. These include air, glass, plastic, rubber, cloth and wood. Insulators have their valence electrons bound tightly to the nucleus and hence not easily lost, resulting in no free electrons available to form a current. In a wire, the copper conductor is covered with a layer of insulating to prevent the user from coming into direct contact the conducting wire.


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Current, Voltage and Resistance

Current is a measure of the rate of charge flow and is represented by the symbol /. As stated earlier, a conventional electrical current is a flow of positive charges and is opposite to the flow of electrons. Therefore conventional current flows from the positive terminal of a cell or battery to the negative terminal. The faster that charges flow, the greater the current. Current flow in a circuit is measured in amperes or amps (A) can be measured using an ammeter. Voltage is a measure of differences in potential energy between two points in a circuit. When charges flow out of the positive terminal of the battery, they have high potential energy. These charges move in response to an electrical force that is caused by the existence of an electric field established in the wire once the circuit is complete. As these charges move through the circuit, they lose potential energy that gets used up by devices in the circuit such as a light bulb which converts electrical potential energy into heat and light. Hence when the charges return to the negative terminal of a battery, they have a lower potential energy than they had when they first flowed out the positive terminal. These differences in potential energy are known as voltage drops. Voltage is measured in volts (V) and is measured using a voltmeter.

Resistance is a measure electrical conductivity of a material. A good conductor has low resistance, allowing a high current flow while poor conductors and insulators have high resistance and results in little or no current flow. The resistance of a wire depends on its length and diameter as well as its temperature. Thick wires have lower resistance than thin wires while short wires have lower resistance than long wires. The resistance of a wire also increases with temperature. Loss of electrical energy results in charges possessing low potential energy near the negative terminal

Charges possess high potential energy near the positive terminal Resistor uses some electrical potential energy earned by the charges

Devices that are manufactured to provide resistance are called resistors. Useful resistors such as light bulbs convert electrical energy of the current to other forms of energy such as heat and light. In some appliances resistors are used to limit current flow in certain parts of a circuit as high current flow can be dangerous. Therefore resistors in a circuit are responsible for voltage drops as electrical potential energy is used in resistors. Resistance is represented by the symbol R and is the unit for resistance is ohms