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Electrical conduction is the movement of electrically charged particles through a transmission medium (electrical conductor). The movement of charge constitutes an electric current. The charge transport may be as a result of potential difference to an electric field, or as a result of a concentration gradient in carrier density, that is, by diffusion. The physical parameters governing this transport depend upon the material.

Conduction in metals and resistors is well described by Ohm's Law, which states that the current is proportional to the applied electric field. The ease with which current density (current per unit area) J appears in a material is measured by the conductivity σ, defined as:

J = σ E

or its reciprocal resistivity ρ:

J = E / ρ

Conduction in semiconductor devices may occur by a combination of electric field (drift) and diffusion. The current density is then:

J = σ E + D qn

with q the elementary charge and n the electron density. The carriers move in the direction of decreasing concentration, so for electrons a positive current results for a positive density gradient. If the carriers are holes, replace electron density n by the negative of the hole density p.

In linear anisotropic materials, σ, ρ and D are tensors.



Electric currents in electrolytes are flows of electrically charged atoms (ions). For example, if an electric field is placed across a solution of Na+ and Cl, the sodium ions will move constantly towards the negative electrode (cathode), while the chloride ions will move towards the positive electrode (anode). If the conditions are right, reactions will take place at the electrode surfaces, releasing electrons from the chloride, and allow electrons to be absorbed into the sodium.

Water-ice and certain solid electrolytes called proton conductors contain positive hydrogen ions which are free to move. In these materials, currents of electricity are composed of moving protons (as opposed to the moving electrons found in metals).

In certain electrolyte mixtures, populations of brightly-colored ions form the moving electric charges. The slow migration of these ions during an electric current is one example of a situation where a current is directly visible to human eyes.

Gases and plasmas

In air, and other ordinary gases below the breakdown field, the dominant source of electrical conduction is via a relatively small number of mobile ions produced by radioactive gases, ultraviolet light, or cosmic rays. Since the electrical conductivity is extremely low, gases are dielectrics or insulators. However, once the applied electric field approaches the breakdown value, free electrons become sufficiently accelerated by the electric field to create additional free electrons by colliding, and ionizing, neutral gas atoms or molecules in a process called avalanche breakdown. The breakdown process forms a plasma that contains a significant number of mobile electrons and positive ions, causing it to behave as an electrical conductor. In the process, it forms a light emitting conductive path, such as a spark, arc or lightning.

Plasma is the state of matter where some of the electrons in a gas are stripped or "ionized" from their molecules or atoms. A plasma can be formed by high temperature, or by application of a high electric or alternating magnetic field as noted above. Due to their lower mass, the electrons in a plasma accelerate more quickly in response to an electric field than the heavier positive ions, and hence carry the bulk of the current.


Since a "perfect vacuum" contains no charged particles, vacuums normally behave as perfect insulators (they would be the greatest insulators known). However, metal electrode surfaces can cause a region of the vacuum to become conductive by injecting free electrons or ions through either field electron emission or thermionic emission. Thermionic emission occurs when the thermal energy exceeds the metal's work function, while field electron emission occurs when the electric field at the surface of the metal is high enough to cause tunneling, which results in the ejection of free electrons from the metal into the vacuum. Externally heated electrodes are often used to generate an electron cloud as in the filament or indirectly heated cathode of vacuum tubes. Cold electrodes can also spontaneously produce electron clouds via thermionic emission when small incandescent regions (called cathode spots or anode spots) are formed. These are incandescent regions of the electrode surface that are created by a localized high current flow. These regions may be initiated by field electron emission, but are then sustained by localized thermionic emission once a vacuum arc forms. These small electron-emitting regions can form quite rapidly, even explosively, on a metal surface subjected to a high electrical field. Vacuum tubes and sprytrons are some of the electronic switching and amplifying devices based on vacuum conductivity.




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