When beginning to explore the world of electricity and electronics, it is vital to start by understanding the basics of voltage, current, and resistance. These are the three basic building blocks required to manipulate and utilize electricity. At first, these concepts can be difficult to understand because we cannot "see" them. One cannot see with the naked eye the energy flowing through a wire or the voltage of a battery sitting on a table. Even the lightning in the sky, while visible, is not truly the energy exchange happening from the clouds to the earth, but a reaction in the air to the energy passing through it. In order to detect this energy transfer, we must use measurement tools such as Multimeters, spectrum analyzers, and oscilloscopes to visualize what is happening with the charge in a system. Fear not, however, this tutorial will give you the basic understanding of voltage, current, and resistance and how the three relate to each other.
Covered in this Tutorial
- How electrical charge relates to voltage, current, and resistance.
- What voltage, current, and resistance are.
- What Ohm's Law is and how to use it to understand electricity.
- A simple experiment to demonstrate these concepts.
Electrical ChargeElectricity is the movement of electrons. Electrons create charge, which we can harness to do work. Your lightbulb, your stereo, your phone, etc., are all harnessing the movement of the electrons in order to do work. They all operate using the same basic power source: the movement of electrons.
The three basic principles for this tutorial can be explained using electrons, or more specifically, the charge they create:
- Voltage is the difference in charge between two points.
- Current is the rate at which charge is flowing.
- Resistance is a material's tendency to resist the flow of charge (current).
Georg Ohm was a Bavarian scientist who studied electricity. Ohm starts by describing a unit of resistance that is defined by current and voltage. So, let's start with voltage and go from there.
We define voltage as the amount of potential energy between two points on a circuit. One point has more charge than another. This difference in charge between the two points is called voltage. It is measured in volts, which, technically, is the potential energy difference between two points that will impart one joule of energy per coulomb of charge that passes through it (don't panic if this makes no sense, all will be explained). The unit "volt" is named after the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta who invented what is considered the first chemical battery. Voltage is represented in equations and schematics by the letter "V".
When describing voltage, current, and resistance, a common analogy is a water tank. In this analogy, charge is represented by the water amount, voltage is represented by the water pressure, and current is represented by the water flow. So for this analogy, remember:
- Water = Charge
- Pressure = Voltage
- Flow = Current
The pressure at the end of the hose can represent voltage. The water in the tank represents charge. The more water in the tank, the higher the charge, the more pressure is measured at the end of the hose.
We can think of this tank as a battery, a place where we store a certain amount of energy and then release it. If we drain our tank a certain amount, the pressure created at the end of the hose goes down. We can think of this as decreasing voltage, like when a flashlight gets dimmer as the batteries run down. There is also a decrease in the amount of water that will flow through the hose. Less pressure means less water is flowing, which brings us to current.
We can think of the amount of water flowing through the hose from the tank as current. The higher the pressure, the higher the flow, and vice-versa. With water, we would measure the volume of the water flowing through the hose over a certain period of time. With electricity, we measure the amount of charge flowing through the circuit over a period of time. Current is measured in Amperes (usually just referred to as "Amps"). An ampere is defined as 6.241*10^18 electrons (1 Coulomb) per second passing through a point in a circuit. Amps are represented in equations by the letter "I".
Let's say now that we have two tanks, each with a hose coming from the bottom. Each tank has the exact same amount of water, but the hose on one tank is narrower than the hose on the other.
We measure the same amount of pressure at the end of either hose, but when the water begins to flow, the flow rate of the water in the tank with the narrower hose will be less than the flow rate of the water in the tank with the wider hose. In electrical terms, the current through the narrower hose is less than the current through the wider hose. If we want the flow to be the same through both hoses, we have to increase the amount of water (charge) in the tank with the narrower hose.
This increases the pressure (voltage) at the end of the narrower hose, pushing more water through the tank. This is analogous to an increase in voltage that causes an increase in current.
Now we're starting to see the relationship between voltage and current. But there is a third factor to be considered here: the width of the hose. In this analogy, the width of the hose is the resistance. This means we need to add another term to our model:
- Water = Charge (measured in Coulombs)
- Pressure = Voltage (measured in Volts)
- Flow = Current (measured in Amperes, or "Amps" for short)
- Hose Width = Resistance
ResistanceConsider again our two water tanks, one with a narrow pipe and one with a wide pipe.