1 : ircuits

This Chapter introduces you to electronic circuits and explains what is meant by current, voltage, and resistance. You can also find out about the important types of components used in building electronic circuits.


Shining a light Ohm's equations
Current Ohm's equation calculator
Which way does the current flow? LINKS . . .

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Shining a light

Have you ever taken an electric torch to pieces to find out how it works? Look at the diagram below which shows the arrangement of parts inside one kind of torch:

Structure of an electric torch

Why did the designer choose this particular combination of materials? The metal parts of the torch must conduct electric current if the torch is to function, but they must also be able to stand up to physical forces. The spring holding the cells in place should stay springy, while the parts of the switch must make good electrical contact and be undamaged by repeated use.

The lamp and reflector make up an optical system, often intended to focus the light into a narrow beam. The plastic casing is an electrical insulator. Its shape and colour are important in making the torch attractive and easy to handle and use.

A torch is a simple product, but a lot of thought is needed to make sure that it will work well. Can you think of other things which the designer should consider?

A different way of describing the torch is by using a circuit diagram in which the parts of the torch are represented by symbols:

circuit diagramCircuit diagram of an electric torch

There are two electric cells ('batteries'), a switch and a lamp (the torch bulb). The lines in the diagram represent the metal conductors which connect the system together.

A circuit is a closed conducting path. In the torch, closing the switch completes the circuit and allows current to flow. Torches sometimes fail when the metal parts of the switch do no make proper contact, or when the lamp filament is 'blown'. In either case, the circuit is incomplete.

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An electric current is a flow of charged particles. Inside a copper wire, current is carried by small negatively-charged particles, called electrons. The electrons drift in random directions until a current starts to flow. When this happens, electrons start to move in the same direction. The size of the current depends on the number of electrons passing per second.

Current is represented by the symbol I, and is measured in amperes, or 'amps', A. One ampere is a flow of 6.24 x 1018 electrons per second past any point in a wire. That's more than six million million million electrons passing per second. This is a lot of electrons, but electrons are very small and each carries a very tiny charge.

In electronic circuits, currents are most often measured in milliamps, mA, that is, thousandths of an amp.

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In the torch circuit, what causes the current to flow? The answer is that the cells provide a 'push' which makes the current flow round the circuit. When the cells are new, enough current flows to light the lamp brightly. On the other hand, if the cells have been used for some time, they may be 'flat' and the lamp glows dimly or not at all.

Each cell provides a push, called its potential difference, or voltage. This is represented by the symbol V , and is measured in volts, V.

Typically, each cell provides 1.5 V. Two cells connected one after another, in series, provide 3 V, while three cells would provide 4.5 V:

Cells connected in series

Which arrangement would make the lamp glow most brightly? Lamps are designed to work with a particular voltage, but, other things being equal, the bigger the voltage, the brighter the lamp.

Strictly speaking, a battery consists of two or more cells. These can be connected in series, as is usual in a torch circuit, but it is also possible to connect the cells in parallel, like this:

Cells connected in parallel

A single cell can provide a little current for a long time, or a big current for a short time. Connecting the cells in series increases the voltage, but does not affect the useful life of the cells. On the other hand, if the cells are connected in parallel, the voltage stays at 1.5 V, but the life of the battery is doubled.

A torch lamp which uses 300 mA from C-size alkaline cells should operate for more than 20 hours before the cells are exhausted.

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Which way does the current flow?

One terminal of a cell or battery is positive, while the other is negative. It is convenient to think of current as flowing from positive to negative. This is called conventional current. Current arrows in circuit diagrams always point in the conventional direction. However, you should be aware that this is the direction of flow for a positively-charged particle.

In a copper wire, the charge carriers are electrons. Electrons are negatively-charged and therefore flow from negative to positive. This means that electron flow is opposite in direction to conventional current.

Current flow in electronic systems often involves charge carriers of both types. For example, in transistors, current can be carried by electrons and also by holes, which behave as positive charge carriers.

When the behaviour of a circuit is analysed, what matters is the amount of charge which is being transferred. The effect of the current can be accurately predicted without knowing about whether the charge carriers are positively or negatively charged.

A cell provides a steady voltage, so that current flow is always in the same direction. This is called direct current, or d.c. In contrast, the domestic mains provides a constantly changing voltage which reverses in polarity 50 times every second. This gives rise to alternating current, or a.c., in which the charge carriers move backwards and forwards in the circuit.

For safety reasons, you must NEVER connect circuits to the mains supply.

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If a thick copper wire was connected from the positive terminal of a battery directly to the negative terminal, you would get a very large current for a very short time. In a torch, this does not happen.

Part of the torch circuit limits, or resists, the flow of current. Most of the circuit consists of thick metal conductors which allow current to flow easily. These parts, including the spring, switch plates and lamp connections, have a low resistance. The lamp filament, on the other hand, is made up of very thin wire. It conducts much less easily than the rest of the circuit and has a higher resistance.

The flow of current through the filament causes it to heat up and glow white hot. In air, the filament would quickly oxidise. This is prevented by removing all the air inside the glass of the lamp and replacing it with a non-reactive gas.

The resistance, R , of the filament is measured in ohms, W. If the battery voltage is 3 V (2 C-size cells in series) and the lamp current is 300 mA, 0.3 A, what is the resistance of the filament?

This is calculated from:

where R is resistance, V is the voltage across the lamp, and I is current. (Although it may not appear logical, the symbol I is always used for current. C is used for capacitance.)

In this case, 10 W is the resistance of the lamp filament once it has heated up. Its resistance is less when cold and there will be a surge of current, more than 300 mA, when the torch is first switched on.

Resistance values in electronic circuits vary from a few ohms, W, to values in kilohms, kW, (thousands of ohms) and megohms, MW, (millions of ohms). Electronic components designed to have particular resistance values are called resistors.

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Ohm's equations

The relationship between current, voltage and resistance was discovered by Georg Ohm. He made his own wires and was able to show that the size of an electric current depended upon their length and thickness. The current was reduced by increasing the length of the wire, or by making it thinner. Current was increased if a shorter thicker wire was used. In addition, larger currents were observed when the voltage across the wire was increased.

From experiments like these, Ohm found that, at constant temperature, the ratio voltage/current was constant for any particular wire, that is:

Ohm's Law states that, at constant temperature, the electric current flowing in a conducting material is directly proportional to the applied voltage, and inversely proportional to the resistance.

Rearranging the formula gives two additional equations:

These simple equations are fundamental to electronics and, once you have learned to use them effectively, you will find that they are the key to a whole range of circuit problems. You are going to need these equations, so learn them now.

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Ohm's equation calculator

This is a computer program which allows you to apply Ohm's equations quickly and easily.

The program works with Windows95 and looks like this:

click to find out more

To find out more, or to download the program (~210K) click on its image

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Click on the icon to transfer to the WWW pages:

Georg Simon Ohm: brief biography.

Life, the Universe, and the Electron: an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the discovery of the electron.

Thomas Edison: the inventor of the light bulb?

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