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what is electricity? part 6: ohm’s law, electron flow and ac/dc, not explained

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got it?

Canto: So we were getting into the behaviour of electrons in electrical field or currents, and the different ways electrons behave when voltage or electromotive force is applied to them, depending on the materials in which they’re embedded, whether that material is more or less conductive/resistant.

Jacinta: Which led to our light bulb moment. But we really need to look at electrons and their behaviour more closely, methinks.

Canto: I’ve noticed Quora questions such as ‘Why do electrons move against the electric field?’ and ‘Why do electrons experience force in direction opposite to electric field?’ Amongst other confusing things, responders note that there is simply a convention, created by Franklin. The convention being, I think, that electric fields/currents flow from positive to negative. This isn’t entirely clear to me, though I get the idea of conventional designations.

Jacinta: A number of responders point out, in different ways, that an electric current, say from a battery, flows from the positive terminal to the negative terminal. Electrons, being negatively charged, are repelled by the negative terminal and attracted to the positive terminal, due to the rule that like charges repel and opposite charges attract. So electrons flow in the opposite direction of the current/field. Which raises the question of why currents flow from positive to negative (presumably that’s just the convention).

Canto: So if the convention was turned around and we describe the flow as being from negative to positive, then we’d recognise the flow of electrons as going in that direction? I mean, which way do electrons flow really?

Jacinta: This might be a non-issue. A circuit attached to a voltage generator, such as a battery, sends the electrons in the direction of the current, which is arbitrarily designated as from the positive terminal to the negative one. Sounds like the electrons, negatively charged, are being pushed to the negative terminal, which would be expected to repel them, but that isn’t what’s happening. The electrons are just flowing in the direction of the current. Better to call the terminals A and B.

Canto: But if that was so, there’s an easy fix – we’d stop referring to those terminals as positive and negative. But I don’t think it is so. In one video I’ve watched, a battery is described as something which has two terminals, positively and negatively charged points, with a charge imbalance between them. The electrons are definitely described as being ‘pushed’ by the current from the negative point or terminal to the positive one, as you’d expect with opposite charges attracting. Though it also says that the flow of the charge is opposite to the flow of electrons, something to ponder. It also describes the negative point as a source, and the positive point as an attractor. The two-pronged electrical plugs use this system, one being the source, the other the attractor. And a ‘short circuit’ involves wires burning out because there is no resistance in the circuit – that’s to say, no appliances which work by applying resistance, which creates energy to run the appliance, as we saw with an incandescent bulb. Fuses act to prevent short circuits, cutting the current when the wire overheats.

Jacinta: Well, we seem to be learning something. This is better than a historical account it seems. But there are still so many problems. The ‘electricity explained’ video you’ve been describing says that the negative point is the source. So it’s saying negative to positive, simply ignoring the positive to negative convention. Perhaps we should too, but the video makes no mention of the convention, which confuses me.

Canto: Well, let’s push on. We’ll need to understand electrical fields, and of course the difference between ac and dc, and probably a host of other things, before we return to the historical discovery stuff, which of course is fascinating in its own quite different way.

Jacinta: Absolutely. And the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and Maxwell’s equations, haha. All without ever doing anything hands-on.

Canto: So I’m watching the apparently somewhat notorious recent Veritassium video on the subject, and I’ve learned in the first minute or so that a battery uses dc electricity whereas the grid connected to our homes uses ac. Though I knew that about the grid. Not that I know what it means exactly.

Jacinta: Yes, and he then says that in ac the electrons are just wiggling back and forth – as ‘alternating current’ suggests. But as mentioned earlier, I thought that was always the case – or, no, the electrons don’t flow, they just bump each other along, which obviously isn’t the same as ‘wiggling’. Each electron has moved, but only slightly. And I never thought of this in ac or dc terms.

Canto: So I’ve just watched the whole video, and I think I’ll pass on commenting at this stage. Obviously I don’t understand it all, nor do I understand the comments, many of them highly detailed.

Jacinta: Yes I think we should get our heads around the ac/dc stuff, and fields, then maybe get back to it.

Canto: This’ll probably take a lifetime, but we’ll start with direct current, dc. Your basic AA or AAA battery is a source of direct current. I’m looking at a typical AA 1.5 volt battery. It will provide 1.5 volts of, errr, voltage constantly in a circuit. Until it doesn’t. But also the circuit will have a resistance, measured in ohms, and we need to remember Ohm’s Law, from part 5, V (or E) = IR. That’s to say, the voltage is the current (I, in amps) multiplied by the resistance. I don’t know why that is, of course, but in any case a circuit connected by a certain voltage of battery will produce a particular current depending on the size of the resistance.

Jacinta: Like the dimensions of a pipe through which water flows. If you have one part of the pipe with a narrowed channel, that will effect the whole flow. The same with a resistor. And of course any wire will have resistance, depending on its conductivity. So why do we multiply the current by the resistance?

Canto: Ohm’s Law can be expressed as I = V/R. Here’s an elaboration of this:

This equation, i = v/r, tells us that the current, i, flowing through a circuit is directly proportional to the voltage, v, and inversely proportional to the resistance, r. In other words, if we increase the voltage, then the current will increase. But, if we increase the resistance, then the current will decrease.

I think it means that voltage will need to be increased to overcome the resistance, which reduces the current. It would be worthwhile to think of this in the brilliant.org way, to solve some simple problems. I’ve used study.com here, a site for engineers and such. Suppose you have a 10 volt battery connected to a light bulb with a resistance of 20 ohms. What is the current in the circuit?

Jacinta: So we have an equation with three variables. The current, in amps, is the voltage divided by the resistance, in this case 10/20, so the current should be 0.5 amps? Wow, I think I done some maths!

Canto: So if we double the voltage in this circuit, we double the current. Now, the great Khan, of Khan Academy fame, describes voltage as electric potential, as we’ve described before, or even energy potential. Think of a closed tap with potential energy. Open it, and you release kinetic energy in the flow. Current is measured as the flow of ‘electricity’, or electrical charge, per unit of time, I = Q/t.  But then he confuses me with coulombs, which I’m not ready for. Q means charge (possibly measured in coulombs), and I’m not sure of its relation to V.

Jacinta: We’re equally confused. Let’s focus briefly on ac electricity. Alternating current involves this ‘wiggling’ of electrons mentioned before. Apparently electrons can be made to wiggle back and forth at particular rates, measured in cycles. Each cycle involves the electrons moving forward and then back to their starting points. In some grids, the electrons wiggle like this at 50 cycles/second, in others, e.g in the US, at 60 cycles/ second, or 60 hertz. How electrons can be made to do this I’m not sure – it presumably involves pulses of force? From both ends? Anyway, this form of electricity is apparently safer because it doesn’t heat up the wires so much. I can’t clearly see why though. But then you need transformers to connect the wires to your house, which uses direct current, I think. And as far as I know, a transformer is, like – here, a miracle happens.

Canto: So, more questions than answers here. What, exactly, is a transformer? How does it work? Why doesn’t ac electricity heat up the wires so much? How exactly is ac electricity created? Does every home need a transformer, or is it one transformer per street, or district….? it just goes on and on…



What is electricity? – Electricity Explained – (1) , video from Into the Ordinary


Introduction to circuits and Ohm’s law | Circuits | Physics | Khan Academy

Alternating current, direct current & what is frequency? | Physics | Khan Academy


Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2022 at 11:02 am