Understanding the Simple Mysteries of Electricity
A fluidly fluent approach
HOW ARE WATTS,
OHMS, AMPS, and VOLTS RELATED?
But
none of these links give a direct answer to the question. Be warned! A useful
answer is going to be HUGE! (grin)
Conductive
objects are always full of movable electric charges, and the overall
motion of these charges is called an 'electric current.' Voltage can cause
electric currents because a difference in voltage acts like a difference in
pressure which pushes the conductors' own charges along. A conductor offers a
certain amount of electrical resistance or "friction," and the
friction against the flowing charges heats up the resistive object. The
flow-rate of the moving charges is measured in Amperes. The transfer of
electrical energy (as well as the rate of heat output) is measured in Watts.
The electrical resistance is measured in Ohms. Amperes, Volts, Watts, and
Ohms.
Not
so simple? Then let's take a much deeper look. First the watts and amperes.
Watts and amps are somewhat confusing because both are flow-rates, yet we
rarely talk about the "stuff" which does the flowing. I suspect
it's impossible to understand a flow rate without first understanding the
substance which flows. Take water flow for example, could we really
understand gallons-per-second, if we didn't understand gallons, and we had never
touched water? It's not easy to understand flow rates like Amperes or Watts
without understanding the "flowing material." First let's do the
Amperes.
Since a current is a flow of charge, the common expression
"flow of current" should be avoided, since literally it means "flow of flow of charge."
- Modern College Physics. Sears,Zemanski,Richards,Wher
Current
isn't a stuff. Electric currents are the flows of a stuff. OK then,
what's the name of the stuff that flows during an electric current? The
flowing stuff is called "Charge." |
AMPERES
A
quantity of charge is measured in units called COULOMBS, and the word Ampere
means the same thing as "one Coulomb of charge flowing per second."
If we were talking about water, then Coulombs would be like gallons, and
amperage would be like gallons-per-second.
- Charges of electricity
- Electrons
- Charged atoms (ions in salt water etc.)
- Electric charge
- Electrical substance
- The Electron sea
- The ocean of charge
- Electric fluid
- "Charge-stuff"
Why
are Amperes confusing? Simple: textbooks almost always teach us about amperes
and current, but without first clearly explaining the coulombs and charges!
Suppose that we had no name for "water," yet our teachers wanted us
to learn all about the mysterious flow inside metal plumbing pipes? Suppose
we're required to understand "gallons-per-second," but we had to do
this without knowing anything about water or about gallons?
We only can understand the electrical flow in wires (the amperes) if we first understand the stuff that flows inside wires. What flows through wires? It's the charge, it's the metal's own particle-sea, the Coulombs...
CHARGE
"Charge" is the stuff inside wires, but usually nobody tells us that all metals are always jam-packed full of movable charge. Always. A hunk of metal is like a tank full of water. Shake a metal block, and the "water" swirls around inside. This "water" is the movable electric charge found inside the metal. In our science classrooms we call this by the name "electron sea," or even "electric fluid." This movable charge is part of all metals. In copper, the electric fluid is actually the outer electrons of all the copper atoms. In any metal, the outer electrons do not orbit the individual atoms. The electrons do not behave as textbook diagrams usually depict atoms. Instead, the atoms' outer electrons drift around inside the metal as a whole.
The
movable charge-stuff within a metal gives the metal its silvery metallic color.
We could even say that charge-stuff is like a silver liquid. At least it
appears silver-colored when it's in metals. When it's within some other
materials, the movable charges don't usually look silvery.
"Silvery-looking charges" applies to metals, but isn't a hard and
fast rule.
ELECTRIC CURRENT
Whenever
the charge-stuff within metals is forced to flow, we say that "electric
currents" are created. The word "current" simply means
"charge flow." We normally measure the flowing charges in terms of amperes.
Here's a way to visualize it. Bend a metal rod to form a ring, then weld the ends together. Remember that all metals are full of "liquid" charge, so the metal ring acts like a water-filled loop of tubing. If you push a magnet's pole into this ring, the magnetic forces will cause the electron-stuff within the whole ring to turn like a wheel (as if the ring contained a movable drive-belt). By moving the magnet in and out of the metal donut, we pump the donut's movable charges, and the charges flow in a circle. That's essentially how electric generators work.
Electric generators are magnet-driven charge pumps. The changing magnetic field pushes the wire's movable sea of charges, creating the amperes of charge flow, but this can only occur when a closed ring or "complete circuit" exists. Break the ring and you create a blockage, since the charges can't easily escape the metal to jump across the break in the ring. If the charges within the metal are like a drive-belt, then a gap in the ring is like a "brake" that grabs the belt in one spot and stops all belt motion. A complete metal ring is a "closed electric circuit," while a broken ring is an "open circuit."
A battery is another kind of charge pump. Cut a slot in our metal ring and install a battery in the slot. This lets the battery pump the ring's charge-stuff in a circle. Batteries and generators are similar in that both can pump charge through themselves and back out again. With a battery installed in our metal ring, the battery draws charge into one end and forces it out the other, and this makes the entire contents of the metal ring start moving. Make another cut in the metal ring, install a light bulb in the cut, and then the "friction" of the narrow light bulb filament against the flowing charge-stuff creates high temperatures, and the wire filament inside the bulb glows white-hot. The battery drives the ring of charge into motion, the charge moves along like a solid rubber drive belt, and the light bulb "rubs" against the moving charge, which makes the filament grow hot.
Important note: inside wires, usually the charge-stuff flows extremely slowly; slower than centimeters per minute. Amperes are an extremely slow, circular flow. See SPEED OF ELECTRICITY for info.
WATTS
Watts
have the same trouble as Amperes. "Watts" are the name of an electrical
flow... but what stuff does the flowing? Energy! A "watt" is just a
fancy way of saying "quantity of electrical energy flowing per
second." But what is a quantity of electrical energy? I'll get to that in
a sec. But briefly, any sort of energy is measured in terms of Joules. A joule
of electrical energy can move from place to place along the wires. When you
transport one joule of energy through a channel every second, the flow-rate of
energy is 1 Joule/Sec, and "one Joule per second" means "one watt."
(It might help keep things traight if you erase all the "watts" in
your textbook, and instead write "joules per second.)
FLOWING ELECTRICAL ENERGY
OK,
what then is electrical energy? It has another name: electromagnetism. Electrical energy
is the same stuff as radio waves and light. It's made up of magnetic fields and
electrostatic fields. A joule's worth of of radio waves is the same as a joule
of electrical energy. But what does this have to do with understanding electric
circuits? Quite a bit! I'll delve deeper into this. But first...
AMPERES are NOT a FLOW of ENERGY
Note
that with the battery and bulb, the joules of energy flowed one way,
down both wires.
The battery created the electrical energy, and the light bulb consumed it. This
was not a circular flow. The energy went from battery to bulb, and none
returned. At the same time, the charge-stuff flowed slowly in a circle within
the entire ring. Two things were flowing at the same time through the one
circuit. There you have the main difference between amperes and watts. The
coulombs of charge are flowing slowly in a circle, while the joules of energy
are flowing rapidly from an "energy source" to an "energy
sink". Charge is like a rubber drive belt, and electrical energy is like
the 'horsepower' sent between the distant parts of the belt. Amperes are slow
and circular, while watts are fast and one-way. Amperes are a flow of copper
charges, while watts are a nearly-instant flow of electrical energy created by
a battery or generator. For a better view of this topic, see WHERE DOES ENERGY FLOW IN CIRCUITS?
VOLTS
There
is a relationship between amperes and watts. They are not totally separate. To
understand this, we need to add "voltage" to the mix. You've probably
heard that voltage is like electrical pressure. What's usually not taught is
that voltage is a major part of static electricity, so whenever we deal with
voltage, we're dealing with static electricity. If I grab some electrons and
pull them away from a wire, that wire will have excess protons left behind. If
I place those electrons into another wire, then my two wires have
oppositely-imbalanced charge. They have a voltage between them too, and a
static-electric field extends across the space between them. This fields
*is* the voltage.
Electrostatic
fields are measured in terms of volts per distance, and if you have an electric
field, you always have a voltage. To create voltage, take charges out of one
object and stick them in another. You always do this when you scuff your shoes
across the carpet in the wintertime. Batteries and generators do this all the
time too. It's part of their "pumping" action. Voltage is an
electrostatic concept, and a battery is a "static electric" device.
So, the battery "charged up" the two halves of the copper ring. The light bulb provided a path to discharge them again, and this created the flow of charge in the light bulb filament. The battery pushes charge through itself, and this also forces a pressure-imbalance in the ring, and forces charges to flow through the light bulb filament. But where does energy fit into this? To understand that, we also have to know about electrical friction or "resistance." Also: What is Voltage?
OHMS
Imagine
a pressurized water tank.
Connect a narrow hose to it and open the valve. You'll get a certain flow of
water because the hose is a certain size and length. Now the interesting part:
make the hose twice as long, and the flow of water decreases by exactly two
times. Makes sense? If we imagine the hose to have "friction", then
by doubling its length, we double its friction. (The friction always doubles
whether the water is flowing or not.) Make the hose longer and the water flows
slower (fewer gallons per second,) make the hose shorter and the reduced
friction lets the water flow faster (more gallons per second.) Now suppose we
connect a very thin wire between the ends of a battery. The battery will supply
its pumping pressure (its "voltage"), and this will cause the
charge-stuff inside the thin wire and the charge-stuff within the battery to
start moving. The charge flows in a complete circle. Double the length of the
wire, and you double the friction. The extra friction cuts the charge flow (the
amperes) in half. The friction is the "Ohms," it is the electrical
resistance.
To
alter the charge-flow in a circle of wire, we can change the resistance of our
piece of wire by changing its length. Connect a long thin wire to a battery and
the charge flow will be slow (low amps.) Connect a shorter wire to the battery
and the charge will be faster (high amps.) But we can also change the flow by
changing the pressure. Add another battery in series. This gives twice the
pressure-difference applied to the ends of the wire circle... which doubles the
flow. We've just discovered "Ohm's Law:" Ohm's law simply says that
the rate of charge flow is directly proportional to the pressure difference, and
if the pressure goes up, the flow goes up in proportion. It also says that the
resistance affects the charge flow. If the resistance goes up while the
pressure-difference stays the same, the flow gets LESS by an
"inverse" proportional amount. The harder you push, the faster it
flows. The bigger the resistance, the smaller the flow (if the push is kept the
same.) That's Ohm's law.
VOLTS, AMPS, OHMS, ENERGY FLOW
Let’s
go back to the copper ring with the battery and bulb. Suppose the battery
grabs charge-stuff out of one side of the ring and pushes it into the other.
This makes charge start flowing around the whole circle, and also sends energy
instantly from the battery to the light bulb. It takes a certain voltage to
force the charges to flow at a certain rate, and the light bulb offers
"friction" or resistance to the flow. All these things are related,
but how? (Try bicycle
wheel analogy.)
VOLTS/OHMS = COULOMBS/SEC The harder the push, the faster flows the charge
Note
that coulombs per second is the same as "amperes." It says that a
large voltage causes coulombs of charge to flow faster through a particular
wire. But we usually think of current in terms of amps, not in terms of flowing
charge. Here's the more common way to write Ohm's law:
VOLTS/OHMS = AMPERES Voltage across resistance causes current
Voltage
divided by resistance equals current. Make the voltage twice as large, then the
charges flow faster, and you get twice as much current. Make the voltage less,
and the current becomes less.
Here's a third way of looking at Ohm's law: WHEN A CONSTANT CURRENT ENCOUNTERS FRICTION, A VOLTAGE APPEARS. We can rewrite Ohm's law to show this:
AMPERES x OHMS = VOLTS A flow of charge produces a voltage if it encounters resistance
If
resistance stays the same, then the more current, the more volts you get. Or,
if the current is forced to stay the same and you increase the friction, then
more volts appear. Since most power supplies provide a constant voltage rather
than a constant current, the above equation is used less often. Usually we
already know the voltage applied to a device, and we want to find the amperage.
However, a current in a thin extension cord causes loss of final voltage, and
also transistor circuits involve constant currents with changing voltages, so
the above ideas are still very useful.
VOLTS x COULOMBS = JOULES It takes energy to push some charge against the voltage pressure
Charge
flows slowly through the resistor and back out again. For every coulomb of
charge that's pulled slowly through the resistor, a certain number of joules of
electrical energy race into the resistor and get converted to heat.
The charge-flow and the energy-flow are usually written as amps and watts. This conceals the fact that some quantities of "stuff" are flowing. But once we understand what's really going on inside a circuit, it's simpler to write amperes of charge-flow and watts of energy-flow:
VOLTS x COULOMBS/SEC = JOULES/SEC It takes a flow of energy to make charge flow forward against pressure
Don't
forget that "Amps" is shorthand for the charge inside wires flowing
per second. And "watts" is shorthand for flowing energy. We can
rewrite the equation to make it look simpler. It's not really simpler. We've
just hidden the complexity of the above equation. It's shorthand. But before
using the shorthand, you'd better understand the full-blown concept!
VOLTS x AMPERES = WATTS Pushing a current through a voltage requires energy flow or "power."
We
can get the Ohms into the act too. Just combine this equation with Ohm's law.
Charge flow is caused by volts pushing against ohms, so let's get rid of amps
in the above equation and replace it with voltage and ohms. This forms the
equation below. Notice: increasing the voltage will increase the energy flow
that's required, but it also increases the charge flow... which increases the
energy flow too! If voltage doubles, current doubles, and wattage doesn't just
double, instead the doubling doubles too (wattage goes up by four times.)
Tripling the voltage makes the wattage go up by NINE times. Write it like this:
VOLTS x (VOLTS/OHMS) = WATTS Voltage applied across ohms uses up a constant flow of electrical energy
So,
if you double the voltage, energy flow increases by four, but if you cut the
friction in half while keeping voltage the same, energy flow goes up by two,
not four. (The amperes also change, but they're hidden.)
(AMPERESxOHMS) x AMPERES = WATTS When charge is flowing against ohms, electrical energy is being used up
So,
the watts of energy flow will go up by four if you double the current. But if
you can somehow force the current to stay the same, then when you double the
friction in the circuit, the energy flow will only double (and the voltage will
change, but that part's hidden.)
Guess what. The same books and people who talk about "flows of power" will also talk about "flows of current." They'll try to convince you that "current" is a stuff that can flow through wires. Ignore them, they're wrong. Elecric charge is like a stuff that exists inside all wires, but current is different. When pumped by a battery or a generator, the wire's internal charge-stuff starts flowing. We call the flow by the name "an electrical current." But there is no such STUFF as "current." Current cannot flow. (Ask yourself what flows in rivers, current... or water? Can you go down to the creek and collect a bucket of "current?") If you want a big shock, read through a textbook or an electronics magazine and see how many times the phrase "current flow" appears. Like the phrase "power-flow," it's not just wrong, it's STUPID.
Authors are trying to teach us about flows of charge, but instead they end up convincing us that "current" is a kind of stuff! It's so weird. And it's a bit frightening because it's so widespread. It's very rare to find a book which avoids the phrase "current flow" and explain charge-flow. Most books instead talk about this crazy flow of "current." It's no wonder that students have trouble understanding electricity. They essentially think that waterpipes are totally different from circuits because you can fill a glass with water, but who on earth can imagine filling a container with "current?"
OK, I've run out of steam for now. Ooo! Ooo! No I haven't. I must now go on a crusade about How Capacitors Are Explained Wrong. Then I'll go on and on about Why most explanations of transistors basically suck.
From Amasci @ http://amasci.com/elect/vwatt1.html
For more info about electromagnetism see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/electromagnetism
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