We have established that voltage is simply energy per unit charge (see last post). What then is current and how does it relate to voltage?
Electric current is a flow of charge, just as a river current is a flow of water. By definition, an electric current I is the amount of charge q flowing per second, hence I = q/t . Current is measured in Colombs per second (also called Amperes, see below). However, we noted last day that the charge on the electron is only a tiny fraction of a Coulomb – hence a current of 1 Coulomb per second corresponds to an awful lot of electrons running around. (How many?)
The lamp lights because the current goes through it to complete the circuit
Since charge will only flow if there is a voltage difference between the terminals of a circuit (last day), you might expect that there is a simple relation between voltage and current. In fact, the German scientist Georg Ohm was the first to discover that there is a linear relationship between the two in many materials. Ohm’s law states that the current I passing through a material connected to an energy source V is given by the equation I = V/R. Here, R is the constant of proportionality and is called electrical resistance and you can see why from the equation: a material with a very large value of R will pass almost no current (electrical insulator), while another material with very small R will yield a large current for the same voltage (good electrical conductor).
Many materials have a linear relation between voltage and current – the slope of the graph is the material’s resistance
1. Ohm’s law is a bit of a misnomer – it is not a universal law of physics but simply a property of some materials (many materials have a nonlinear response to voltage, including your cat)
2. Current can be considered a fundamental physical quantity in its own right and indeed the ampere is defined as a fundmental unit (see here). However, it’s much better to define it in terms of electric charge, since this is more fundamental.
3. Some unfortunate people quote Ohm’s law as V = IR and play silly games with triangles. In my opinion, I = V/R conveys the physics of the situation much more clearly.
4. It seems from Ohm’s law that a material with zero resistance could pass infinite current! No such materials are known, but some materials have extremely low resistance at very low temperatures – known as superconductors. A good application of superconductivity can be found at the Large Hadron Collider, where protons are guided around the ring by magnets made of superconducting material: this reduces power consumption enormously but the snag is that the experiments have to be done at at extremely low temperatures.