Additional Physics Topic 9 - Current Electricity

Current Electricity

In the last topic we looked at static electricity.  In this topic we will look at current electricity, the electricity that runs through wires made of conducting materials.  For current electricity to flow, we need:

All metals are conducting materials, as is the non-metal carbon.  Silicon and germanium are called semi-conductors which means that they can conduct electricity under certain circumstances.  Some compounds can be made to conduct electricity under certain circumstances as well.


Insulating materials keep parts of the circuit separate, for example the positive and negative terminals of a battery.  If the two are not kept separate, there will be a short circuit.  This can cause an electrical explosion or a fire.  The picture shows damage due to a short circuit.


Picture by Gabriel Acquistapace, Wikimedia Commons


Circuit Diagrams

We don't have to be good artists to draw good circuit diagrams.  They are useful because:

To make sense of circuit diagrams you must learn the following symbols:



It is also important that you know not just how parts of the circuit are connected, but also how parts are NOT connected:



The connection between wires is shown by the black circle, which can be thought of as representing a blob of solder.  Connections are called junctions.



Quantities in Electricity

Electricity has two important measurements from which other measurements can be worked out:



Current is a flow of charge.  We measure charge not in the total number of electrons, but in packets called coulombs (C).  (You buy a kilo of sugar, not 1 000 000 crystals of sugar.)


1 C = 6 × 1018 electrons


You can see why we don't count the number of electrons flowing.


Current is measured in ampères or amps (A).  If 1 coulomb of charge flows every second, a current is 1 amp.


1 A = 1 C/s


From this we can write an equation that links current and charge.


charge (C) = current (A) × time (s)


In Physics Code:

Q = It


In triangle form:



Make sure that time (t) is in seconds.  You know how many seconds there are in a minute, and how many there are in one hour, don't you?


Question 1

A current of 5 amps flows for 5 minutes.  How much charge has flowed?




A Model for Voltage

Voltage is the "electrical pressure" in a circuit.  (The correct definition is energy per unit charge, but you may find that a difficult concept at this stage.)  Look at this picture of a water circuit:


The pump pumps water at a certain pressure.  The work that can be got out of the load depends on two things:

This model can apply to an electric circuit:

There are all sorts of other models to explain voltage.  Ask your teacher.



Potential Difference

Potential difference is the more "formal" term for voltage.  In the exam, potential difference will be written in the questions, but you can use voltage in your answers.  I will use voltage in these notes as well.


Potential difference is defined as:

the energy per unit charge turned from electrical energy into other forms of energy


In other words, potential energy is defined in terms of joules per coulomb.


We can write this as an equation:


potential difference (V) = energy (J) ÷ charge (C)


In Physics Code we write:

V = E ÷ Q


In triangle form:

Question 2

Use your answer to Question 1 to work out how much energy is transferred if the potential difference is 20 volts.




Question 3

Do the  interactive matching exercise to link electrical quantities with their units




Sources of Voltage

Three obvious sources of voltage are:

Strictly speaking a battery consists of two or more cells, although to describe a single cell as a battery is perfectly OK.


The positive terminal of a cell is represented by the long line on the symbol; the negative is shown by the short line.


Conventional current flows from positive to negative.  Although we know that positives don't move and electrons (negatives) do, the early physicists got it wrong.  To get round it physicists have brought out the idea of conventional current.  In these notes and all text books, we will regard all currents as conventional.


Each cell gives out a voltage of 1.5 volts.  So two batteries wired in series as below will give out a voltage of 3.0 V.



Question 4

What is the voltage from these combinations of cells?










Relating Voltage and Current

The circuit below shows how to measure voltage and current:

Notice that:

We find that as the voltage doubles, the current doubles as well.  We say that the voltage is proportional to the current.


The resistance of the resistor is the ratio of the voltage and the current.  Resistance is the degree to which a component opposes the flow of electricity.


Learn this for the exam


potential difference (volt, V) = current (ampere, A) × resistance (ohm, W)


In Physics Code

V = IR


In triangle form:


The physics codes for resistance and voltage are simple enough to understand.  The code I for current comes from the French, Intensité du Courant (intensity of the current).


The strange unit symbol for resistance, W, is a Greek capital letter "Omega", a long "O" (Ō).  (It looks like a seal seen from the back.)



Worked Example

A current of 2.0 amps passes through a resistor at a voltage of 10 V.  What is the value of the resistor?


R = V/I = 10 V ÷ 2.0 A = 5 W


A German physicist, Georg Simon Ohm gave us an important rule.  This is Ohm’s Law, which states:


The current in a metallic conductor is directly proportional to the voltage between its ends provided that the temperature and other physical conditions are the same.


A conductor that obeys Ohm’s Law is called an ohmic conductor.



Question 5

What are the key points to Ohm’s Law?



Question 6

A 15 ohm resistor is connected across a 3 V supply.  What is the current?



If we plot a voltage current graph we see the following:



This graph is a straight line.  Note that we put the voltage on the vertical axis and the current on the horizontal axis.  If we measure the gradient, we get the resistance.  Notice that the graph goes through the origin


Question 7

Why does the line go through the origin?




Voltage-Current Graph for a Lamp

A light bulb is not an ohmic conductor.  Its graph looks like this:




Question 8

Why is the graph of a light bulb shaped like this?





Question 9

A lamp takes a current of 0.3 A at a voltage of 6 V.  What is its resistance?  Some students measure the resistance of the lamp with an ohmmeter and find that the resistance is only 4 ohms.  Explain why this happens.




Some Electronic Components

Electronic components do interesting things with electricity as we will see. 



A diode is a one way "electrical valve".  The picture below shows the idea. 


If the water is pumped forward, the valve is opened as above.  If the water is pumped backwards, the valves slam shut as below:



If the pump is worked hard enough, eventually the valves will burst open.


Diodes look like this.  You can see that there are different types.



The diode is made of semi-conductor material.  It behaves in the following way:

This can be shown as a voltage current graph.



The forward biased diode starts to conduct at +0.6 V.  The reverse biased diode breaks down at about -30 V.  The breakdown voltage varies according to the type of diode.



Question 10

Describe what is happening on this graph at Points A to D.



The light emitting diode (LED) is a special kind of diode that when forward biased gives out light. 



It is possible to get LEDs that have different colours, or emit infra red light, as in a remote controller for your TV set.




The light dependent resistor (LDR) has a resistance that decreases as the light level goes up. 



The most obvious use for the LDR is as a light detector.  Light detectors can be found in:



The thermistor is a component whose resistance goes down as its temperature rises.  Here is a picture of a thermistor protecting a power supply.



Thermistors have uses wherever temperature is detected electronically.  Examples include:


Basic Electrical Circuits

Components in electrical circuits can be wired:

Series Circuit


In this circuit the current has to flow through resistor R1 then R2, which are in series.  There are three points to learn about a series circuit:

  1. The current is the same all the way round;

  2. The voltages across the resistors add up to the battery voltage.  In other words, V1 + V2 = VB, where VB is the battery voltage;

  3. The resistances add up to a total resistance Rtotal = R1 + R2.


Look at this circuit:


Question 11

What are the readings on voltmeters V1 and V2?  How do they compare to the battery voltage?  What is the total resistance of the circuit?




Parallel Circuit

The diagram shows a circuit of two resistors in parallel.


You can see that an electron can pass through either R1 or R2, but not both.  There are two main points to learn from a parallel circuit:

  1. The voltage is the same across each resistor.  So the voltage across R1 and the voltage across R2 and the battery voltage are all the same.

  2. The currents in each branch add up to the total current.  If ammeter A1 reads current I1, A2 reads I2, and AT reads total current I tot, I tot = I1 + I2

Now look at this circuit:





Question 12

What are the currents through the 2 ohm and 4 ohm resistors?  What is the total current in this circuit?




Question 13

Fill in the spaces in the interactive exercise.




Question 14

Have a go at the Crossword




  • Circuits need a source of voltage.

  • Conventional currents go from positive to negative.

  • Short circuits cause damage.

  • Voltage is the electrical pressure.

  • Current is the number of electrons passing a point each second.

  • Resistance is the opposition to the flow of electricity.

  • V = IR

  • Diodes allow electricity to flow one way only.

  • The resistance of an LDR decreases as the light level goes up.

  • The resistance of a thermistor goes down as the temperature goes up.

  • In series circuits, the voltages and resistances add up.  The current stays the same.

  • In parallel circuits, the voltage is the same, but the currents add up.