Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Current-Conducting Properties of Materials

Ohm's law has a remarkable property, which is that current will flow even in response to a voltage difference that is as small as we care to make it. In the analogy of pushing a crate across a floor, it is as though even a flea could slide the crate across the floor, albeit at some very low speed. The flea cannot do this because of static friction, which we can think of as an effect arising from the tendency of the microscopic bumps and valleys in the crate and floor to lock together. The fact that Ohm's law holds for nearly all solids has an interesting interpretation: at least some of the electrons are not "locked down" at all to any specific atom.

More generally we can ask how charge actually flows in various solids, liquids, and gases. This will lead us to the explanations of many interesting phenomena, including lightning, the bluish crust that builds up on the terminals of car batteries, and the need for electrolytes in sports drinks.


In atomic terms, the defining characteristic of a solid is that its atoms are packed together, and the nuclei cannot move very far from their equilibrium positions. It makes sense, then, that electrons, not ions, would be the charge carriers when currents flow in solids. This fact was established experimentally by Tolman and Stewart, in an experiment in which they spun a large coil of wire and then abruptly stopped it. They observed a current in the wire immediately after the coil was stopped, which indicated that charged particles that were not permanently locked to a specific atom had continued to move because of their own inertia, even after the material of the wire in general stopped. The direction of the current showed that it was negatively charged particles that kept moving. The current only lasted for an instant, however; as the negatively charged particles collected at the downstream end of the wire further particles were prevented joining them due to their electrical repulsion, as well as the attraction from the upstream end, which was left with a net positive charge. Tolman and Stewart were even able to determine the mass-to-charge ratio of the particles. We need not go into the details of the analysis here, but a particle with high mass would be difficult to decelerate, leading to a stronger and longer pulse of current, while particles with high charge would feel stronger electrical forces decelerating them, which would cause a weaker and shorter pulse. The mass-to-charge ratio thus determined was consistent with the m/q of the electron to within the accuracy of the experiment, which essentially established that the particles were electrons.

The fact that only electrons carry current in solids, not ions, has many important implications. For one thing, it explains why wires don't fray or turn to dust after carrying current for a long time. Electrons are very small (perhaps even pointlike), and it is easy to imagine them passing between the cracks among the atoms without creating holes or fractures in the atomic framework. For those who know a little chemistry, it also explains why all the best conductors are on the left side of the periodic table. The elements in that area are the ones that have only a very loose hold on their outermost electrons.


The molecules in a gas spend most of their time separated from each other by significant distances, so it is not possible for them to conduct electricity the way solids do, by handing off electrons from atom to atom. It is therefore not surprising that gases are good insulators.

Gases are also usually nonohmic. As opposite charges build up on a stormcloud and the ground below, the voltage difference becomes greater and greater. Virtually zero current flows, however, until finally the voltage reaches a certain threshold and we have an impressive example of what is known as a spark or electrical discharge. If air was ohmic, the current between the cloud and the ground would simply increase steadily as the voltage difference increased, rather than being zero until a threshold was reached. This behavior can be explained as follows. At some point, the electrical forces on the air electrons and nuclei of the air molecules become so strong that electrons are ripped right off of some of the molecules. The electrons then accelerate toward either the cloud or the ground, whichever is positively charged, and the positive ions accelerate the opposite way. As these charge carriers accelerate, they strike and ionize other molecules, which produces a rapidly growing cascade.


Molecules in a liquid are able to slide past each other, so ions as well as electrons can carry currents. Pure water is a poor conductor because the water molecules tend to hold onto their electrons strongly, and there are therefore not many electrons or ions available to move. Water can become quite a good conductor, however, with the addition of even a small amount of certain substances called electrolytes, which are typically salts. For example, if we add table salt, NaCl, to water, the NaCl molecules dissolve into Na+ and Cl- ions, which can then move and create currents. This is why electric currents can flow among the cells in our bodies: cellular fluid is quite salty. When we sweat, we lose not just water but electrolytes, so dehydration plays havoc with our cells' electrical systems. It is for this reason that electrolytes are included in sports drinks and formulas for rehydrating infants who have diarrhea.

Since current flow in liquids involves entire ions, it is not surprising that we can see physical evidence when it has occurred. For example, after a car battery has been in use for a while, the H2SO4 battery acid becomes depleted of hydrogen ions, which are the main charge carriers that complete the circuit on the inside of the battery. The leftover SO4 then forms a visible blue crust on the battery posts.

Speed of currents and electrical signals

When I talk on the phone to my mother in law two thousand miles away, I do not notice any delay while the signal makes its way back and forth. Electrical signals therefore must travel very quickly, but how fast exactly? The answer is rather subtle. For the sake of concreteness, let's restrict ourselves to currents in metals, which consist of electrons.

The electrons themselves are only moving at speeds of perhaps a few thousand miles per hour, and their motion is mostly random thermal motion. This shows that the electrons in my phone cannot possibly be zipping back and forth between California and New York fast enough to carry the signals. Even if their thousand-mile-an-hour motion was organized rather than random, it would still take them many minutes to get there. Realistically, it will take the average electron even longer than that to make the trip. The current in the wire consists only of a slow overall drift, at a speed on the order of a few centimeters per second, superimposed on the more rapid random motion. We can compare this with the slow westward drift in the population of the U.S. If we could make a movie of the motion of all the people in the U.S. from outer space, and could watch it at high speed so that the people appeared to be scurrying around like ants, we would think that the motion was fairly random, and we would not immediately notice the westward drift. Only after many years would we realize that the number of people heading west over the Sierras had exceeded the number going east, so that California increased its share of the country's population.

So why are electrical signals so fast if the average drift speed of electrons is so slow? The answer is that a disturbance in an electrical system can move much more quickly than the charges themselves. It is as though we filled a pipe with golf balls and then inserted an extra ball at one end, causing a ball to fall out at the other end. The force propagated to the other end in a fraction of a second, but the balls themselves only traveled a few centimeters in that time.

Because the reality of current conduction is so complex, we often describe things using mental shortcuts that are technically incorrect. This is OK as long as we know that they are just shortcuts. For example, suppose the presidents of France and Russia shake hands, and the French politician has inadvertently picked up a positive electrical charge, which shocks the Russian. We may say that the excess positively charged particles in the French leader's body, which all repel each other, take the handshake as an opportunity to get farther apart by spreading out into two bodies rather than one. In reality, it would be a matter of minutes before the ions in one person's body could actually drift deep into the other's. What really happens is that throughout the body of the recipient of the shock there are already various positive and negative ions which are free to move. Even before the perpetrator's charged hand touches the victim's sweaty palm, the charges in the shocker's body begin to repel the positive ions and attract the negative ions in the other person. The split-second sensation of shock is caused by the sudden jumping of the victim's ions by distances of perhaps a micrometer, this effect occurring simultaneously throughout the whole body, although more violently in the hand and arm, which are closer to the other person.

Last Update: 2009-06-21