Electrical current is the movement of electrons. This electron movement is referred to as current, flow, or current flow. In practical terms, this movement of electrons must take place within a conductor (wire). Current is typically measured in amps. The symbol for current is I and the symbol for amps is A.
The current flow is actually the movement of the free electrons found within conductors. Common conductors include 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 are 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. So, the measure of current is actually the number of electrons moving through a conductor in a given amount of time.
The internationally accepted unit for current is the ampere (A). One ampere (A) of current is equivalent to 1 coulomb (C) of charge passing through a conductor in 1 second. One coulomb of charge equals 6.28 × 1018 electrons. Obviously, the unit of amperes is a much more convenient term to use than coulombs. The unit of coulombs is simply too small to be practical.
When current flow is in one direction, it is called direct current (DC). Later in the text, the form of current that periodically oscillates back and forth within the circuit is discussed. The present discussion is concerned only with the use of DC. It should be noted that as with the movement of any mass, electron movement (current flow) only occurs when there is a force present to push the electrons. This force is commonly called voltage (described in more detail in the next section). 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 within a conductor. 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 low 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. [Figure 9-3]
It can be seen that a ball introduced in one end of the tube, which represents the conductor, immediately causes 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.
Conventional Current Theory and Electron Theory
There are two competing schools of thought regarding the flow of electricity. The two explanations are the conventional current theory and the electron theory. Both theories describe the movement of electrons through a conductor. They simply explain the direction current moves. Typically during troubleshooting or the connection of electrical circuits, the use of either theory can be applied as long as it is used consistently. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially defines current flow using electron theory (negative to positive).
The conventional current theory was initially advanced by Benjamin Franklin, who reasoned that current flowed out of a positive source into a negative source or an area that lacked an abundance of charge. The notation assigned to the electric charges was positive (+) for the abundance of charge and negative (−) for a lack of charge. It then seemed natural to visualize the flow of current as being from the positive (+) to the negative (−). Later discoveries were made that proved that just the opposite is true. Electron theory describes what actually happens in the case of an abundance of electrons flowing out of the negative (−) source to an area that lacks electrons or the positive (+) source. Both conventional flow and electron flow are used in industry.
Electromotive Force (Voltage)
Voltage is most easily described as electrical pressure force. It is the electromotive force (EMF), or the push or pressure from one end of the conductor to the other, that ultimately moves the electrons. The symbol for EMF is the capital letter E. EMF is always measured between two points and voltage is considered a value between two points. For example, across the terminals of the typical aircraft battery, voltage can be measured as the potential difference of 12 volts or 24 volts. That is to say that between the two terminal posts of the battery, there is a voltage available to push current through a circuit. Free electrons in the negative terminal of the battery move toward the excessive number of positive charges in the positive terminal. The net result is a flow or current through a conductor. There cannot be a flow in a conductor unless there is an applied voltage from a battery, generator, or ground power unit. The potential difference, or the voltage across any two points in an electrical system, can be determined by:
V1 – V2 = VDrop
The voltage at one point is 14 volts. The voltage at a second point in the circuit is 12.1 volts. To calculate the voltage drop, use the formula above to get a total voltage drop of 1.9 volts.
Figure 9-4 illustrates the flow of electrons of electric current. Two interconnected water tanks demonstrate that when a difference of pressure exists between the two tanks, water flows until the two tanks are equalized. Figure 9-4 shows the level of water in tank A to be at a higher level, reading 10 pounds per square inch (psi) (higher potential energy), than the water level in tank B, reading 2 psi (lower potential energy). Between the two tanks, there is 8 psi potential difference. If the valve in the interconnecting line between the tanks is opened, water flows from tank A into tank B until the level of water (potential energy) of both tanks is equalized. It is important to note that it was not the pressure in tank A that caused the water to flow; rather, it was the difference in pressure between tank A and tank B that caused the flow. This comparison illustrates the principle that electrons move, when a path is available, from a point of excess electrons (higher potential energy) to a point deficient in electrons (lower potential energy). The force that causes this movement is the potential difference in electrical energy between the two points. This force is called the electrical pressure (voltage), the potential difference, or the electromotive force (electron moving force).