Electrons in motion make up an electric current. This electric current is usually referred to as “current” or “current flow,” no matter how many electrons are moving. Current is a measurement of a rate at which a charge flows through some region of space or a conductor. The moving charges are the free electrons found in conductors, such as copper, silver, aluminum, and gold. The term “free electron” describes a condition in some atoms where the outer electrons are loosely bound to their parent atom. These loosely bound electrons can be easily motivated to move in a given direction when an external source, such as a battery, is applied to the circuit. These electrons are attracted to the positive terminal of the battery, while the negative terminal is the source of the electrons. The greater amount of charge moving through the conductor in a given amount of time translates into a current.
The System International unit for current is the Ampere (A), where
That is, 1 ampere (A) of current is equivalent to 1 coulomb (C) of charge passing through a conductor in 1 second(s). One coulomb of charge equals 6.28 billion billion electrons. The symbol used to indicate current in formulas or on schematics is the capital letter “I.” When current flow is one direction, it is called direct current (DC). Later in the text, we will discuss the form of current that periodically oscillates back and forth within the circuit. The present discussion will only be concerned with the use of direct current.
The velocity of the charge is actually an average velocity and is called drift velocity. To understand the idea of drift velocity, think of a conductor in which the charge carriers are free electrons. These electrons are always in a state of random motion similar to that of gas molecules. When a voltage is applied across the conductor, an electromotive force creates an electric field within the conductor and a current is established. The electrons do not move in a straight direction but undergo repeated collisions with other nearby atoms. These collisions usually knock other free electrons from their atoms, and these electrons move on toward the positive end of the conductor with an average velocity called the drift velocity, which is relatively a slow speed. To understand the nearly instantaneous speed of the effect of the current, it is helpful to visualize a long tube filled with steel balls as shown in Figure 37. It can be seen that a ball introduced in one end of the tube, which represents the conductor, will immediately cause a ball to be emitted at the opposite end of the tube. Thus, electric current can be viewed as instantaneous, even though it is the result of a relatively slow drift of electrons.
Figure 37. Electron movement.