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CLASS OF 2010-2011!!!

ELECTRIC CIRCUITS

For an electric current to happen, there must be a circuit. A circuit is a closed path or loop around which an electric current flows. A circuit is usually made by linking electrical components together with pieces of wire cable. Thus, in a flashlight, there is a simple circuit with a switch, a lamp, and a battery linked together by a few short pieces of copper wire. When you turn the switch on, electricity flows around the circuit. If there is a break anywhere in the circuit, electricity cannot flow. If one of the wires is broken, for example, the lamp will not light. Similarly, if the switch is turned off, no electricity can flow. This is why a switch is sometimes called a circuit breaker.

You don’t always need wires to make a circuit, however. There is a circuit formed between a storm cloud and the Earth by the air in between. Normally air does not conduct electricity. However, if there is a big enough electrical charge in the cloud, it can create charged particles in the air called ions (atoms that have lost gained some electrons). The ions work like an invisible cable linking the cloud above and the air below. Lightning flows through the air between the ions.

How electricity moves in a circuit

Materials such as copper metal that conduct electricity (allow it to flow freely) are called conductors. Materials that don’t allow electricity to pass through them so readily, such as rubber and plastic, are called insulators. What makes copper a conductor and rubber an insulator?

A current of electricity is a steady flow of electrons. When electrons move from one place to another, round a circuit, they carry electrical energy from place to place like marching ants carrying leaves. Instead of carrying leaves, electrons carry a tiny amount of electric charge.

Illustration showing electrons flowing round a circuit between a battery and a lamp.

Electricity can travel through something when its structure allows electrons to move through it easily. Metals like copper have "free" electrons that are not bound tightly to their parent atoms. These electrons flow freely throughout the structure of copper and this is what enables an electric current to flow. In rubber, the electrons are more tightly bound. There are no "free" electrons and, as a result, electricity does not really flow through rubber at all. Conductors that let electricity flow freely are said to have a high conductance and a low resistance; insulators that do not allow electricity to flow are the opposite: they have a low conductance and a high resistance.

For electricity to flow, there has to be something to push the electrons along. This is called an electromotive force (EMF). A battery or power outlet creates the electromotive force that makes a current of electrons flow. An electromotive force is better known as a voltage.

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