Electric Current The Easy Way

Electric Current The Easy Way: a very simple and qualitative approach to understanding what electric current is and how it flows.

Watching a number of YouTube videos, I realized there is some misconception regarding the electric current and how it flows. Some people don’t understand what the current is made of and whether it flows from positive to negative or vice versa.

So here I am, trying to shedding some light to clear the obscurity on this subject.

This post approaches the subject in a very basic qualitative way. No formulas and no calculations are involved.

Here it is!

From the Webster Dictionary

Current:
A flowing or passing; onward motion. Hence: A body of
fluid moving continuously in a certain direction; a
stream; esp., the swiftest part of it; as, a current of
water or of air; that which resembles a stream in motion;
as, a current of electricity.

So, current is the flow of something, some kind of material thing like the molecules of water in a river.

fresh river_400

But, what is the material that makes the electric current?

Electric current is made of electric charges. These charges have the ability of moving in a medium like, for example, an electric wire. Like the water in a river, charges have to move from a higher level to a lower level of potential energy.

charges_in_wire

For a river, the higher level of potential energy is the higher ground, and so the water flows from a higher ground to a lower ground, from a mountain or a hill toward the valley below or the sea, or the ocean.

Similarly, for an electric current, charges have to move from a higher ground of electric potential energy to a lower ground.

The problem with the electric current is that different kind of charges can make it, depending on the medium, and depending on the kind of charges. So, the definition of higher ground may change.

This seems utterly complicated, and it is. Think if we had to consider the kind of medium and/or the kind of charge every time we need to describe what happens with a current.

So, since we don’t like complications, we make some simplification. We always define a higher ground as a positive electric potential energy level, and we always say that the current flows from the positive potential energy level to the negative.

positive_charges

Hum… Positive? Negative?

Well, yes, because charges can only be positive or negative. Think at the electrons and the protons in the atoms. Those are the basic charges and they are negative for the electrons and positive for the protons.

protons_and_electrons

Wait, what we just said? Electrons are charged negatively and protons positively? How do we know that?

We don’t!

Positive and negative are just made up names that we use because it is convenient to do so.

We could have as well said that electrons are positively charged and protons are negatively charged. But, historically, we have defined the polarity of the charges in a certain way and therefore we continue to do so, because we don’t like changes, and we like concepts to be simple.

So, here we are, saying that an electric current is made of charges. That the charges can be positive or negative. That positive charges like to go from their kind of higher ground, a positive electric potential level, to a lower ground, which is a lower positive electric potential level that we call negative, to distinguish from the other one. And, finally, we say that negative charges like to go from their kind of higher ground, the negative electric potential level, to their kind of lower ground, which now we understand we can call positive electric potential level.

Hum, it seems too much, isn’t it?

And yes, it is: too complicated to use it in every day conversations.

Simplification? Sure, let’s do that. Let’s say that whenever an electric current is involved, we will always say that it is made up of positive charges, and that positive charges always go from positive to negative electric potential level. How’s that? Simple enough?

Now doesn’t matter the medium being an electric wire, were the current is made up of electrons moving through it, or the acid solution in a car battery, where the electric current is made of ions, of both positive and negative kinds, creating two different currents flowing simultaneously in opposite directions.

solution

 

Lesson learned: we like to make things simple. We define the electric current as the flow of positive electric charges in a medium, whatever it is, going from the positive potential level to the negative.

circuit

And that’s it. That’s enough for us. With this definition we can address problems involving electric currents always the same way, without worrying what is really happening behind the scenes. This is a very important concept. All about electrical engineering is based on this definition of current. Well… at least part of it.

Capacitors – Part 1

A brief introduction to capacitors: what they are, how they are made, and their basic functionality.

capacitorsA capacitor is an electric device capable of storing energy in the form of electric charges (electric field).

In the most simple form, a capacitor is made of two conductive plates facing each other and an insulator in between, which is normally called a dielectric. The two plates are then attached to wires, that are used to connect the capacitor in an electric circuit.

capacitor

The schematic diagram reflects exactly the physical nature of the device:

schematic_symbol

When a capacitor is connected to a power supply, like a battery, electrons leave the plate that is connected to the positive side of the battery, while the same amount of electrons is pushed into the plate connected to the negative side of the battery. Once the difference of charges at the plates of the capacitor is enough to establish a voltage on the capacitor that is identical to the battery, electrons stop moving around the circuit and an equilibrium is reached.

capacitor_and_battery

At this point, if the connection with the battery is severed, the capacitor will retain the amount of charges on its plates: extra charges on the negative plate and defect of charges on the positive plate. If we connect a load to the capacitor, for example a resistor, charges will start moving in the circuit pushed by the voltage at the wires, called electrodes, of the capacitor. So, electrons will leave the negative plate moving toward the load, and an equal amount of electrons will move from the load into the positive plate of the capacitor. The movement of the electrons causes the voltage at the plates of the capacitor to lower until, when an equilibrium of charged is reached, the voltage will be zero and the current will stop flowing through the circuit. At this point all the energy that was stored in the capacitor has been used and the capacitor is said to be discharged.

capacitor_and_load

Both during charge and discharge, the ratio between the amount of charge stored on the capacitor and its voltage remains constant. This can be verified experimentally. We define this constant as the capacitance of the capacitor:

C = Q / V

which is measured in Farad. However, since the Farad is a very big unit, capacitors are normally measured in fractions of Farad, like microFarad (μF, 1 millionth of a Farad)), nanoFarad (nF, one billionth of a Farad), and picoFarad (pF, one trillionth of Farad).

Using the above formula, and calculating the work done to move the charges in and out of the capacitor with the help of some calculus, we can determine the energy stored in a capacitor as:

energy

And, finally, the actual capacitance can also be determined by the physical parameters of the capacitor itself. We can see experimentally that the capacitance is directly proportional to the area of the plates of the capacitor, it is inversely proportional to the distance between the plates, and depends on the type of dielectric in between the plates. The type of dielectric is identified in the formula by the Greek letter ε (epsilon). Each type of dielectric has its own value of ε (permittivity), which is the product of the vacuum permittivity and the relative permittivity of the material.

capacitance

For more information on this subject, please look also to the corresponding video on my YouTube channel.