# When electricity is flowing, what is the relationship between electrons and charges?

• I
Is electricity really the motion of electrons or charges? I'm kind of confused about the distinct differences. Any extra information would be greatly appreciated. I'd love to learn as much detail about this stuff as I can!

Thank you!

cnh1995
Homework Helper
Gold Member
Is electricity really the motion of electrons or charges?
Yes.

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Yes.
My thread title is incomplete? How?

And sure! Is electricity about the motion of charges or the motion of electrons? What got me to this question was wondering how turning on a lightbulb, for instance, seems so instantaneous. Are the electrons moving that fast, or is it the charges? Also in a current, what carries the energy, the charges or the electrons? I hope that clarifies things!

cnh1995
Homework Helper
Gold Member
My thread title is incomplete? How?
This is what it looks like on my screen..
When electricity is flowing, what is the relationship betwee

And sure! Is electricity about the motion of charges or the motion of electrons? What got me to this question was wondering how turning on a lightbulb, for instance, seems so instantaneous. Are the electrons moving that fast, or is it the charges? Also in a current, what carries the energy, the charges or the electrons? I hope that clarifies things!
Current in electrical circuits is actually the motion of electrons. It is called electron current.
But we use what is called as 'conventional current' in circuit analysis. It is the flow of positive charges, from higher potential point (+ve) to the lower potential point (-ve).

In general, current is the motion of charges, +ve or -ve.
Also in a current, what carries the energy, the charges or the electrons?
Neither.
The energy is carried by the electric and magnetic fields. Look up 'Poynting vector'.
Here are a few threads which you can refer.
https://www.physicsforums.com/posts/5521826/
https://www.physicsforums.com/posts/5667921/
https://www.physicsforums.com/posts/5507882/.

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CWatters
Homework Helper
Gold Member
What got me to this question was wondering how turning on a lightbulb, for instance, seems so instantaneous. Are the electrons moving that fast, or is it the charges?
Consider these two situations...

1) An empty garden hose pipe connected to a tap/faucet.
2) A hose pipe full of water connected to a tap/faucet.

In case 1) when you turn on the tap you have to wait for water to travel down the hose before any comes out of the end. In case 2) water comes out almost immediately.

Electricity is a bit like case 2) not case 1).

There are electrons in the metal wire before the switch is turned on. They move about rapidly in all directions but on average they go nowhere so the light does not shine. When you turn on the switch the electrons still wiz about in all directions but now they also drift along the wire as well. Like the water molecules in case 2) the electrons all start drifting at about the same time (but not exactly the same time).

Electrons actually drift quite slowly - a typical velocity would be around 0.1mm per second - but because there are a very large number of them the number flowing through the light per second is large.

conscience
russ_watters
Mentor
Is electricity really the motion of electrons or charges?
Everyone electron carries a specific (the same) amount of charge.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
My thread title is incomplete? How?

And sure! Is electricity about the motion of charges or the motion of electrons? What got me to this question was wondering how turning on a lightbulb, for instance, seems so instantaneous. Are the electrons moving that fast, or is it the charges? Also in a current, what carries the energy, the charges or the electrons? I hope that clarifies things!
This is very puzzling.

"electrons" are also "charges". Any particle with a net charge is considered to be a charge! So now do you see why your question is a bit strange?

Now, if you're asking if the direction of current correspond to the flow of negative or positive charge, then that makes more sense!

By convention, current is the direction of flow of positive charge. This means that if electrons are going in one direction, then current, by definition, points in the opposite direction.

In a conductor, the charge carriers are electrons. In a semiconductor, the charge carriers can be either electrons, or positive holes. In particle accelerators, the charge carriers can be anything charged!

The reason why it appears instantaneous? Read CWaters' post. How you think this somehow relates to the nature of charge carriers, I have no idea.

Zz.

Stephen Tashi
Is electricity really the motion of electrons or charges?
That's an interesting question. In the simplified model of everyday DC electrical current, we think of electrical current ("electricity") as being due to the movement of electrons. The movement of charge is explained by the fact that each electron "has" a charge. But, in a detailed model, individual electrons in a wire don't move along the wire with a constant velocity. The electric current is the combined effect of many electrons moving at different paths and with different velocities.

If we go beyond "household" situations, we can consider other types of charged particles (e.g. positrons). We can ask whether the movement of electric charge always requires that it be carried "in" some particle or whether electric charge can be something that could conceivably move around without any particles to carry it. I don't know the answer. This would get into all sorts of questions about definitions in atomic physics and controversies about their interpretation.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
That's an interesting question. In the simplified model of everyday DC electrical current, we think of electrical current ("electricity") as being due to the movement of electrons. The movement of charge is explained by the fact that each electron "has" a charge. But, in a detailed model, individual electrons in a wire don't move along the wire with a constant velocity. The electric current is the combined effect of many electrons moving at different paths and with different velocities.

If we go beyond "household" situations, we can consider other types of charged particles (e.g. positrons). We can ask whether the movement of electric charge always requires that it be carried "in" some particle or whether electric charge can be something that could conceivably move around without any particles to carry it. I don't know the answer. This would get into all sorts of questions about definitions in atomic physics and controversies about their interpretation.
Er... sorry, why is this "controversial" and what is the controversy?

The APS used to have positrons circulating around its synchrotron ring instead of electrons. I noticed no issues at all there! The physics were all identical as it would have been with electrons. This is true as well in particle accelerators around the world, no matter the type of charges that are being used.

Secondly, if you are invoking the spin-charge separation that has been detected, i.e. in Luttinger liquids, then that's an entirely different beast. This is because this is a many-body effect. It doesn't apply here.

Zz.

Stephen Tashi
and what is the controversy?
- whether charge can exist independently of a particular particle and whether any change in the spatial position of charge must always be due to the change in spatial position of some particle.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
- whether charge can exist independently of a particular particle and whether any change in the spatial position of charge must always be due to the change in spatial position of some particle.
What is the source of this question? Do you have any physics or any experimental indication that this can happen? In other words, can you cite papers that point to this being a source of contention, especially at this elementary level that the OP is asking?

Zz.

rumborak
...whether any change in the spatial position of charge must always be due to the change in spatial position of some particle.
The position of a subatomic particle is undefined until it is measured, so possibly the location of the associated electric field is also similarly undefined.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
I had in mind, articles like this: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/1997/oct/24/fractional-charge-carriers-discovered . It won't surprise me if there is controversy about the interpretation - which I don't claim to understand.
Sorry, but this is EXACTLY what I questioned you about when I brought up the example of the spin-charge separation.

These are QUASIPARTICLES. They are renormalized particles after you take into account many-body effects. There are no "controversy" here on the physics, and no one who works in this area would make the association that you are making.

In other words, maybe you need to actually understand this before invoking it here.

Zz.

Dale
Mentor
2020 Award
Is electricity about the motion of charges or the motion of electrons?
As others have said, that is the same thing. A charge is just a particle with non-zero charge. That is electrons or protons.

What got me to this question was wondering how turning on a lightbulb, for instance, seems so instantaneous. Are the electrons moving that fast, or is it the charges?
Neither. What is almost instantaneous is the propagation of the electromagnetic field.

Also in a current, what carries the energy, the charges or the electrons?
Again, neither. The fields carry the energy.

LLT71
As others have said, that is the same thing. A charge is just a particle with non-zero charge. That is electrons or protons.

Neither. What is almost instantaneous is the propagation of the electromagnetic field.

Again, neither. The fields carry the energy.
Replace the light bulb with a capacitor. Current flows into the capacitor to charge it up with ... what?

The field. It's the static electric field between the plates that contain the energy.

The field. It's the static electric field between the plates that contain the energy.
What causes the static electric field in the charged capacitor?

Comparing an uncharged capacitor with the charged one what physically is different which causes one to have the field and the other not to have the field?

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
What causes the static electric field in the charged capacitor?

Comparing an uncharged capacitor with the charged one what physically is different which causes one to have the field and the other not to have the field?
Wait. Are you telling us that you don't know how to charge a capacitor?

And I don't know how this pertains to the topic of this thread.

Zz.

What causes the static electric field in the charged capacitor?

Comparing an uncharged capacitor with the charged one what physically is different which causes one to have the field and the other not to have the field?
Of course it is the charges that have moved that create said field. I am merely pointing out that the stored energy resides, for the most part, in the electric field.

Dale
Mentor
2020 Award
Replace the light bulb with a capacitor. Current flows into the capacitor to charge it up with ... what?
I don't think "charge it up" has a rigorous definition, but from colloquial usage I would say it is charged up with energy. That being the meaning that is commonly associated with batteries.

In a capacitor the energy is stored using fields from surface charges in the conductor and bulk polarization in the insulator. In a battery the energy is stored chemically.

cnh1995
Is electricity really the motion of electrons or charges? I'm kind of confused about the distinct differences. Any extra information would be greatly appreciated. I'd love to learn as much detail about this stuff as I can!

Thank you!
in the free electron model, valence electrons in the metal conductor flows like a fluid that carry the negative charge. in a battery, it is ions and not necessarily electrons that carry the net charge. a voltage potential (electromotive force) as the source is just a dipole. if the circuit is driven by the battery, the charged terminal repels via coulomb force the free electrons in the metal conductor causing the electrons to have a net flow towards the other end of the other terminal busy attracting the electrons. so an electrical force is intrinsic to charges and charges is intrinsic to particles.

ObjectivelyRational
I'm not sure why you need to make a reference to there. Practically everything that was said there was covered in this thread, and MORE.
Zz.
There are so many different answers I find on this discussion. As per my point of view, references are good to know more about such things.

The OP is highly confused, and haven't responded to the discussion in nearly a week.
Zz.
That is why I prefer to give some reference, so that OP can find some extra information.