FHSST Physics/Electricity/Voltage and Current in a Practical Circuit

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The Free High School Science Texts: A Textbook for High School Students Studying Physics
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Flow of Charge - Circuits - Voltage and Current - Resistance - Voltage and Current in a Practical Circuit - How Voltage, Current, and Resistance Relate

- Ohm's Law Analogy - Power in Electric Circuits - Calculating Electric Power - Resistors - Nonlinear Conduction - Circuit Wiring - Polarity of Voltage Drops - Series and Parallel - Simple Series Circuits - Simple Parallel Circuits - Power Calculations - Using Ohm's Law - Conductor Size - Fuses - Important Equations and Quantities

Voltage and current in a practical circuit[edit]

Because it takes energy to force electrons to flow against the opposition of a resistance, there will be voltage manifested (or "dropped") between any points in a circuit with resistance between them. It is important to note that although the amount of current (the quantity of electrons moving past a given point every second) is uniform in a simple circuit, the amount of voltage (potential energy per unit charge) between different sets of points in a single circuit may vary considerably:

Fhsst electricity22.png

Take this circuit as an example. If we label four points in this circuit with the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, we will find that the amount of current conducted through the wire between points 1 and 2 is exactly the same as the amount of current conducted through the lamp (between points 2 and 3). This same quantity of current passes through the wire between points 3 and 4, and through the battery (between points 1 and 4).

However, we will find the voltage appearing between any two of these points to be directly proportional to the resistance within the conductive path between those two points, given that the amount of current along any part of the circuit's path is the same (which, for this simple circuit, it is). In a normal lamp circuit, the resistance of a lamp will be much greater than the resistance of the connecting wires, so we should expect to see a substantial amount of voltage between points 2 and 3, with very little between points 1 and 2, or between 3 and 4. The voltage between points 1 and 4, of course, will be the full amount of "force" offered by the battery, which will be only slightly greater than the voltage across the lamp (between points 2 and 3).

This, again, is analogous to the water reservoir system:

Fhsst electricity23.png

Between points 2 and 3, where the falling water is releasing energy at the water-wheel, there is a difference of pressure between the two points, reflecting the opposition to the flow of water through the water-wheel. From point 1 to point 2, or from point 3 to point 4, where water is flowing freely through reservoirs with little opposition, there is little or no difference of pressure (no potential energy). However, the rate of water flow in this continuous system is the same everywhere (assuming the water levels in both pond and reservoir are unchanging): through the pump, through the water-wheel, and through all the pipes. So it is with simple electric circuits: the rate of electron flow is the same at every point in the circuit, although voltages may differ between different sets of points.

When Benjamin Franklin made his conjecture regarding the direction of charge flow (from the smooth wax to the rough wool), he set a precedent for electrical notation that exists to this day, despite the fact that we know electrons are the constituent units of charge, and that they are displaced from the wool to the wax - not from the wax to the wool - when those two substances are rubbed together. This is why electrons are said to have a negative charge: because Franklin assumed electric charge moved in the opposite direction that it actually does, and so objects he called "negative" (representing a deficiency of charge) actually have a surplus of electrons.

By the time the true direction of electron flow was discovered, the nomenclature of "positive" and "negative" had already been so well established in the scientific community that no effort was made to change it, although calling electrons "positive" would make more sense in referring to "excess" charge. You see, the terms "positive" and "negative" are human inventions, and as such have no absolute meaning beyond our own conventions of language and scientific description. Franklin could have just as easily referred to a surplus of charge as "black" and a deficiency as "white," in which case scientists would speak of electrons having a "white" charge (assuming the same incorrect conjecture of charge position between wax and wool).

However, because we tend to associate the word "positive" with "surplus" and "negative" with "deficiency," the standard label for electron charge does seem backward. Because of this, many engineers decided to retain the old concept of electricity with "positive" referring to a surplus of charge, and label charge flow (current) accordingly. This became known as conventional flow notation:

Fhsst electricity24.png

Others chose to designate charge flow according to the actual motion of electrons in a circuit. This form of symbology became known as electron flow notation:

Fhsst electricity25.png

In conventional flow notation, we show the motion of charge according to the (technically incorrect) labels of + and -. This way the labels make sense, but the direction of charge flow is incorrect. Does it matter, really, how we designate charge flow in a circuit? Not really, so long as we're consistent in the use of our symbols. You may follow an imagined direction of current (conventional flow) or the actual (electron flow) with equal success insofar as circuit analysis is concerned. Concepts of voltage, current, resistance, continuity, and even mathematical treatments such as Ohm's Law (chapter 2) and Kirchhoff's Laws (chapter 6) remain just as valid with either style of notation.