[Science] Basic Electricity Terms You Need to Know

Physics Science Basic Electricity Terms Eduhyme

It is easy to get a little confused when you are talking to an electrician or an engineer that has been called out to your home or office. This article contains definitions and explanations of terminology used and will help you understand what he or she is talking about.

Elements of an Atom

All matter is composed of molecules which are made up of a combination of atoms. Atoms have a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it. The nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons (not shown). Most atoms have an equal number of electrons and protons.

Electrons have a negative charge (-). Protons have a positive charge (+). Neutrons are neutral. The negative charge of the electrons is balanced by the positive charge of the protons. Electrons are bound in their orbit by the attraction of the protons. These are referred to as bound electrons.

Free Electrons

Electrons in the outer band can become free of their orbit by the application of some external force such as movement through a magnetic field, friction, or chemical action.

These are referred to as free electrons. A free electron leaves a void which can be filled by an electron forced out of orbit from another atom. As free electrons move from one atom to the next an electron flow is produced. This is the basis of electricity.

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An electric current is produced when free electrons move from one atom to the next. Materials that permit many electrons to move freely are called conductors.


Materials that allow few free electrons are called insulators. Materials such as plastic, rubber, glass, mica, and ceramic are good insulators. An electric cable is one example of how conductors and insulators are used.

Electrons flow along a copper conductor to provide energy to an electric device such as a radio, lamp, or a motor. An insulator around the outside of the copper conductor is provided to keep electrons in the conductor.


Semiconductor materials, such as silicon, can be used to manufacture devices that have characteristics of both conductors and insulators. Many semiconductor devices will act like a conductor when an external force is applied in one direction.

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When the external force is applied in the opposite direction, the semiconductor device will act like an insulator. This principle is the basis for transistors, diodes, and other solid state electronic devices.

Neutral State of an Atom

Elements are often identified by the number of electrons in orbit around the nucleus of the atoms making up the element and by the number of protons in the nucleus.

A hydrogen atom, for example, has only one electron and one proton. An aluminum atom has 13 electrons and 13 protons. An atom with an equal number of electrons and protons is said to be electrically neutral.

Positive and Negative Charges

Electrons in the outer band of an atom are easily displaced by the application of some external force. Electrons which are forced out of their orbits can result in a lack of electrons where they leave and an excess of electrons where they come to rest.

The lack of electrons is called a positive charge because there are more protons than electrons. The excess of electrons has a negative charge. A positive or negative charge is caused by an absence or excess of electrons. The number of protons remains constant.

Attraction and Repulsion of Electric Charges

The old saying, “opposites attract,” is true when dealing with electric charges. Charged bodies have an invisible electric field around them. When two like-charged bodies are brought together, their electric field will work to repel them. When two unlike-charged bodies are brought together, their electric field will work to attract them.

The electric field around a charged body is represented by invisible lines of force. The invisible lines of force represent an invisible electrical field that causes the attraction and repulsion. Lines of force are shown leaving a body with a positive charge and entering a body with a negative charge.

Coulomb’s Law

During the 18th century a French scientist, Charles A. Coulomb, studied fields of force that surround charged bodies. Coulomb discovered that charged bodies attract or repel each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of the charges, and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Today we call this Coulomb’s Law of Charges. Simply put, the force of attraction or repulsion depends on the strength of the charged bodies, and the distance between them.


Electricity is the flow of free electrons in a conductor from one atom to the next atom in the same general direction. This flow of electrons is referred to as current and is designated by the symbol “I”.

Electrons move through a conductor at different rates and electric current has different values. Current is determined by the number of electrons that pass through a cross-section of a conductor in one second. We must remember that atoms are very small.

It takes about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms to fill one cubic centimeter of a copper conductor. This number can be simplified using mathematical exponents.

Instead of writing 24 zeros after the number 1, write 1024. Trying to measure even small values of current would result in unimaginably large numbers. For this reason current is measured in amperes which is abbreviated “amps”. The letter “A” is the symbol for amps.

A current of one amp means that in one second about 6.24 x 1018 electrons move through a cross-section of conductor. These numbers are given for information only and you do not need to be concerned with them. It is important, however, that the concept of current flow be understood.

Units of Measurement

The following chart reflects special prefixes that are used when dealing with very small or large values of current:

  • 1 kiloampere – 1 kA – 1000 A
  • 1 milliampere – 1 mA – 1/1000 A
  • 1 microampere – 1 mA – 1/1,000,000 A

Direction of Current Flow

Some authorities distinguish between electron flow and current flow. Conventional current flow theory ignores the flow of electrons and states that current flows from positive to negative. To avoid confusion, this book will use the electron flow concept which states that electrons flow from negative to positive.


Electricity can be compared with water flowing through a pipe. A force is required to get water to flow through a pipe. This force comes from either a water pump or gravity. Voltage is the force that is applied to a conductor that causes electric current to flow.

Electrons are negative and are attracted by positive charges. They will always be attracted from a source having an excess of electrons, thus having a negative charge, to a source having a deficiency of electrons which has a positive charge.

The force required to make electricity flow through a conductor is called a difference in potential, electromotive force (emf), or more simply referred to as voltage. voltage is designated by the letter “E”, or the letter “V”. The unit of measurement for voltage is volts which is also designated by the letter “V”.

Voltage Sources

An electrical voltage can be generated in various ways. A battery uses an electrochemical process. A car’s alternator and a power plant generator utilizes a magnetic induction process. All voltage sources share the characteristic of an excess of electrons at one terminal and a shortage at the other terminal. This results in a difference of potential between the two terminals.

Voltage Circuit Symbol

The terminals of a battery are indicated symbolically on an electrical drawing by two lines. The longer line indicates the positive terminal. The shorter line indicates the negative terminal.


A third factor that plays a role in an electrical circuit is resistance. All material impedes the flow of electrical current to some extent. The amount of resistance depends upon composition, length, cross-section and temperature of the resistive material.

As a rule of thumb, resistance of a conductor increases with an increase of length or a decrease of cross section. Resistance is designated by the symbol “R”. The unit of measurement for resistance is ohms (Ω).

Resistance Circuit Symbols

Resistance is usually indicated symbolically on an electrical drawing by one of two ways. An unfilled rectangle is commonly used. A zigzag line may also be used.

Resistance can be in the form of various components. A resistor may be placed in the circuit, or the circuit might contain other devices that have resistance.

An Electric Circuit

A fundamental relationship exists between current, voltage, and resistance. A simple electric circuit consists of a voltage source, some type of load, and a conductor to allow electrons to flow between the voltage source and the load.

An Electrical Circuit Schematic

The following schematic is a representation of an electrical circuit, consisting of a battery, a resistor, a voltmeter and an ammeter.

The ammeter, connected in series with the circuit, will show how much current flows in the circuit. The voltmeter, connected across the voltage source, will show the value of voltage supplied from the battery. Before an analysis can be made of a circuit, we need to understand Ohm’s Law.

George Simon Ohm and Ohm’s

The relationship between current, voltage and resistance was Law studied by the 19th century German mathematician, George Simon Ohm.

Ohm formulated a law which states that current varies directly with voltage and inversely with resistance. From this law the following formula is derived:

  • I = E/R or Current = Voltage/Resistance

Ohm’s Law is the basic formula used in all electrical circuits. Electrical designers must decide how much voltage is needed for a given load, such as computers, clocks, lamps and motors. Decisions must be made concerning the relationship of current, voltage and resistance.

All electrical design and analysis begins with Ohm’s Law. There are three mathematical ways to express Ohm’s Law. Which of the formulas is used depends on what facts are known before starting and what facts need to be known.

  • I = E/R
  • E = I x R
  • R = E/I

Ohm’s Law Triangle

There is an easy way to remember which formula to use. By arranging current, voltage and resistance in a triangle, one can quickly determine the correct formula.


Current flow through a resistive material causes heat. An electrical component can be damaged if the temperature is too high. For this reason, electrical equipment is often rated for a maximum wattage. The higher the wattage rating, the more heat the equipment can dissipate.


The principles of magnetism are an integral part of electricity. Electromagnets are used in some direct current circuits. Alternating current cannot be understood without first understanding magnetism.

Types of Magnets

The three most common forms of magnets are the horse-shoe, bar and compass needle. All magnets have two characteristics. They attract and hold iron. If free to move, like the compass needle, the magnet will assume roughly a north-south position.

Magnetic Lines of Flux

Every magnet has two poles, one north pole and one south pole. Invisible magnetic lines of flux leave the north pole and enter the south pole. While the lines of flux are invisible, the effects of magnetic fields can be made visible.

When a sheet of paper is placed on a magnet and iron filings loosely scattered over it, the filings will arrange themselves along the invisible lines of flux. By drawing lines the way the iron filings have arranged themselves, the following picture is obtained.

Broken lines indicate the paths of magnetic flux lines. The field lines exist outside and inside the magnet. The magnetic lines of flux always form closed loops. Magnetic lines of flux leave the north pole and enter the south pole, returning to the north pole through the magnet.

Interaction between Two Magnets

When two magnets are brought together, the magnetic flux field around the magnet causes some form of interaction. Two unlike poles brought together cause the magnets to attract each other. Two like poles brought together cause the magnets to repel each other.

Left-Hand Rule for Conductors

An electromagnetic field is a magnetic field generated by current flow in a conductor. Whenever current flows a magnetic field exists around the conductor. Every electric current generates a magnetic field.

A definite relationship exists between the direction of current flow and the direction of the magnetic field. The left-hand rule for conductors demonstrates this relationship.

If a current-carrying conductor is grasped with the left hand with the thumb pointing in the direction of electron flow, the fingers will point in the direction of the magnetic lines of flux.

Current-Carrying Coil

A coil of wire carrying a current, acts like a magnet. Individual loops of wire act as small magnets. The individual fields add together to form one magnet. The strength of the field can be increased by adding more turns to the coil. The strength can also be increased by increasing the current.

Left-Hand Rule for Coils

A left-hand rule exists for coils to determine the direction of the magnetic field. The fingers of the left hand are wrapped around the coil in the direction of electron flow. The thumb points to the north pole of the coil.


An electromagnet is composed of a coil of wire wound around a core. The core is usually a soft iron which conducts magnetic lines of force with relative ease. When current is passed through the coil, the core becomes magnetized. The ability to control the strength and direction of the magnetic force makes electromagnets useful.

As with permanent magnets, opposite poles attract. An electromagnet can be made to control the strength of its field which controls the strength of the magnetic poles.

A large variety of electrical devices such as motors, circuit breakers, contactors, relays and motor starters use electromagnetic principles.

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