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Flow of charge

We have been talking about moving charge. But how much charge is moving, and how fast is it moving? The concept that represents this information is called current . Current allows us to quantify the movement of charge.

When we talk about current we talk about how much charge moves past a fixed point in circuit in one second. Think of charges being pushed around the circuit by the battery; there are charges in the wires but unless there is a battery they won't move. When one charge moves, the charges next to it also move. They keep their spacing as if you had a tube of marbles like in this picture.

If you push one marble into the tube then one must come out the other side. If you look at any point in the tube and push one marble into the tube, one marble will move past the point you are looking at. This is similar to charges in the wires of a circuit.

If one charge moves then they all move and the same number move at every point in the circuit. This is due to the conservation of charge.


Now that we've thought about moving charges and visualised what is happening we need to get back to quantifying moving charge. We've already said that we call moving charge current but we define it precisely as follows:


Current is the rate of flow of charge, i.e. the rate at which charges move past a fixed point in a circuit. We use the symbol I to show current and it is measured in amperes (A). One ampere is one coulomb of charge moving in one second. The relationship between current, charge and time is given by:

I = Q Δ t

When current flows in a circuit we show this on a diagram by adding arrows. The arrows show the direction of flow in the circuit. By convention we say that charge flows from the positive end ( or terminal) of a battery, through the circuit, and back to the negative end ( or terminal) of the battery. This is shown in the diagram below. We measure the current with an instrument called an ammeter.

The arrows in this picture show you the direction that charge will flow in the circuit. Note that the arrows point from the positive end of the battery, through the circuit, towards the negative end of the battery.

Interesting fact

Benjamin Franklin made a guess about the direction of charge flow when rubbing smooth wax with rough wool.He thought that the charges flowed from the wax to the wool (i.e. from positive to negative) which was opposite to the realdirection. Due to this, electrons are said to have a negative charge and so objects which Ben Franklin called "negative" (meaning a shortage of charge) really have an excess of electrons. By the time the true direction of electron flow wasdiscovered, the convention of ´positive¡ and ´negative¡ had already been so well accepted in the scientific world that noeffort was made to change it.
A battery does not produce the same amount of current no matter what is connected to it. While the voltageproduced by a battery is constant, the amount of current supplied depends on what is in the circuit.

Exercises: current

Using the relationship between current, charge, and time, calculate the current in a circuit which has 0,8 C of charge passing a point every second.

  1. I = Q Δ t I = {Q} over {%DELTA t}
  2. Given: Q = 0,8 C

    Δ t = 1 s

    Asked for: I

  3. I = 0,8 C 1 s x = 0,8 A

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Siyavula textbooks: grade 10 physical science [caps]. OpenStax CNX. Sep 30, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11305/1.7
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