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An electron is a negatively charged subatomic particle. It can be either free (not attached to any atom), or bound to the nucleus of an atom. Electrons in atoms exist in spherical shells of various radii, representing energy levels. The larger the spherical shell, the higher the energy contained in the electron.

In electrical conductors, current flow results from the movement of electrons from atom to atom individually, and from negative to positive electric poles in general. In semiconductor materials, current also occurs as a movement of electrons. But in some cases, it is more illustrative to envision the current as a movement of electron deficiencies from atom to atom. An electron-deficient atom in a semiconductor is called a hole. Holes "move" from positive to negative electric poles in general.

The charge on a single electron is considered as the unit electrical charge. It is assigned negative polarity. The charge on an electron is equal, but opposite, to the positive charge on a proton or hole. Electrical charge quantity is not usually measured in terms of the charge on a single electron, because this is an extremely small charge. Instead, the standard unit of electrical charge quantity is the coulomb, symbolized by C, representing about 6.24 x 1018 electrons. The electron charge, symbolized by e, is about 1.60 x 10-19 C. The mass of an electron at rest, symbolized me, is approximately 9.11 x 10-31 kilogram (kg). Electrons moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, for example in a particle accelerator, have greater mass because of relativistic effects.





Current is a flow of electrical charge carriers, usually electrons or electron-deficient atoms. The common symbol for current is the uppercase letter I. The standard unit is the ampere, symbolized by A. One ampere of current represents one coulomb of electrical charge (6.24 x 1018 charge carriers) moving past a specific point in one second. Physicists consider current to flow from relatively positive points to relatively negative points; this is called conventional current or Franklin current. Electrons, the most common charge carriers, are negatively charged. They flow from relatively negative points to relatively positive points.

Electric current can be either direct or alternating. Direct current (DC) flows in the same direction at all points in time, although the instantaneous magnitude of the current might vary. In an alternating current (AC), the flow of charge carriers reverses direction periodically. The number of complete AC cycles per second is the frequency, which is measured in hertz. An example of pure DC is the current produced by an electrochemical cell. The output of a power-supply rectifier, prior to filtering, is an example of pulsating DC. The output of common utility outlets is AC.

Current per unit cross-sectional area is known as current density. It is expressed in amperes per square meter, amperes per square centimeter, or amperes per square millimeter. Current density can also be expressed in amperes per circular mil. In general, the greater the current in a conductor, the higher the current density. However, in some situations, current density varies in different parts of an electrical conductor. A classic example is the so-called skin effect, in which current density is high near the outer surface of a conductor, and low near the center. This effect occurs with alternating currents at high frequencies. Another example is the current inside an active electronic component such as a field-effect transistor (FET).

An electric current always produces a magnetic field. The stronger the current, the more intense the magnetic field. A pulsating DC, or an AC, characteristically produces an electromagnetic field. This is the principle by which wireless signal propagation occurs.




Alternating current


In electricity, alternating current (AC) occurs when charge carriers in a conductor or semiconductor periodically reverse their direction of movement. Household utility current in most countries is AC with a frequency of 60 hertz (60 complete cycles per second), although in some countries it is 50 Hz. The radio-frequency (RF) current in antennas and transmission lines is another example of AC.

An AC waveform can be sinusoidal, square, or sawtooth-shaped. Some AC waveforms are irregular or complicated. An example of sine-wave AC is common household utility current (in the ideal case). Square or sawtooth waves are produced by certain types of electronic oscillators, and by a low-end uninterruptible power supply (UPS) when it is operating from its battery. Irregular AC waves are produced by audio amplifiers that deal with analog voice signals and/or music.

The voltage of an AC power source can be easily changed by means of a power transformer. This allows the voltage to be stepped up (increased) for transmission and distribution. High-voltage transmission is more efficient than low-voltage transmission over long distances, because the loss caused by conductor resistance decreases as the voltage increases.

The voltage of an AC power source changes from instant to instant in time. The effective voltage of an AC utility power source is usually considered to be the DC voltage that would produce the same power dissipation as heat assuming a pure resistance. The effective voltage for a sine wave is not the same as the peak voltage. To obtain effective voltage from peak voltage, multiply by 0.707. To obtain peak voltage from effective voltage, multiply by 1.414. For example, if an AC power source has an effective voltage of 117 V, typical of a household in the United States, the peak voltage is 165 V.




Direct current

DC (Direct current) is the unidirectional flow or movement of electric charge carriers, usually electron. The intensity of the current can vary with time, but the general direction of movement stays the same at all times. As an adjective, the term DC is used in reference to voltage whose polarity never reverses.

In a DC circuit, electrons emerge from the negative, or minus, pole and move towards the positive, or plus, pole. Nevertheless, physicists define DC as traveling from plus to minus.

Direct current is produced by electrochemical and photovoltaic cells and batteries. In contrast, the electricity available from utility mains in most countries is AC (alternating current). Utility AC can be converted to DC by means of a power supply consisting of a transformer, a rectifier (which prevents the flow of current from reversing), and a filter (which eliminates current pulsations in the output of the rectifier).

Virtually all electronic and computer hardware needs DC to function. Most solid-state equipment requires between 1.5 and 13.5 volts. Current demands can range from practically zero for an electronic wristwatch to more than 100 amperes for a radio communications power amplifier. Equipment using vacuum tubes, such as a high-power radio or television broadcast transmitter or a CRT (cathode-ray tube) display, require from about 150 volts to several thousand volts DC.







An ampere is a unit of measure of the rate of electron flow or current in an electrical conductor. One ampere of current represents one coulomb of electrical charge (6.24 x 1018 charge carriers) moving past a specific point in one second. Physicists consider current to flow from relatively positive points to relatively negative points; this is called conventional current or Franklin current. The ampere is named after Andre Marie Ampere, French physicist (1775-1836).




The abampere (symbolized abA) is the unit of current in the cgs (centimeter/gram/second) system of electromagnetic units. It is the equivalent of one abcoulomb (1 abC) of charge carriers moving past a specific point in one second.

The abampere is a moderately large unit of current, equivalent to 10 amperes (A). In most applications, the ampere, which is the unit of current in the International System of Units (SI), is preferred.



ampere hour


An ampere hour (abbreviated Ah, or sometimes amp hour) is the amount of energy charge in a battery that will allow one ampere of current to flow for one hour.  A milliampere hour (mAh) is 1,000th of an Ah, and is commonly used as a measure of charge in portable computer batteries. The mAh provides an indication of how long the PC will operate on its battery without having to recharge it.



ampere per meter


The ampere per meter (symbolized A/m) is the International Unit of magnetic field strength. It is derived from basic standard units, but is expressed directly in base units and cannot be further reduced.

Consider the interior of a long, cylindrical coil with a single winding and an air core. Suppose that the linear current density in this coil is 1 ampere per meter of displacement as measured along the coil axis. (This expression differs from current density per unit area, which is expressed in amperes per meter squared.) Then the magnetic field strength in the interior of the coil is defined as 1 A/m.


ampere per meter illustration

For a given coil, the magnetic field strength is directly proportional to the linear current density. Thus, if the linear current density doubles, so does the magnetic field strength; if the linear current density becomes 1/10 as great, the magnetic field strength also diminishes by a factor of 10.

Sometimes, magnetic field strength is expressed in units called oersteds (symbolized Oe). The oersted is a larger unit than the ampere per meter. Approximate conversions are:

1 Oe = 79.578 A/m
1 A/m = 0.012566 Oe