Electric current is defined to be the rate at which charge flows. A large current, such as that used to start a truck engine, moves a large amount of charge in a small time, whereas a small current, such as that used to operate a hand-held calculator, moves a small amount of charge over a long period of time. In equation form, electric current I is defined to be

I=ΔQ/Δt,

where ΔQ is the amount of charge passing through a given area in time Δt. (As in previous chapters, initial time is often taken to be zero, in which case Δt=t.) The SI unit for current is the ampere (A), named for the French physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836). Since I=ΔQ/Δt, we see that an ampere is one coulomb per second:

1 A=1 C/s

Charges are shown as small spheres moving through a section of a conducting wire. The direction of movement of charge is indicated by arrows along the length of the conductor toward the right. The cross-sectional area of the wire is labeled as A. The current is equal to the flow of charge.
The rate of flow of charge is current. An ampere is the flow of one coulomb through an area in one second.

Figure 2 shows a simple circuit and the standard schematic representation of a battery, conducting path, and load (a resistor). Schematics are very useful in visualizing the main features of a circuit. A single schematic can represent a wide variety of situations. The schematic in Figure 2  (b), for example, can represent anything from a truck battery connected to a headlight lighting the street in front of the truck to a small battery connected to a penlight lighting a keyhole in a door. Such schematics are useful because the analysis is the same for a wide variety of situations. We need to understand a few schematics to apply the concepts and analysis to many more situations.

Part a shows a bulb glowing when its terminals are connected to a battery through a wire. The voltage of the battery is labeled as V. The current through the bulb is represented as I, and the current direction is shown using arrows emerging from the positive terminal of the battery, passing through the bulb, and entering the negative terminal of the battery. Part b shows an electric circuit diagram with a resistance connected across the terminals of a battery of voltage V. The current is shown using arrows as emerging from the positive terminal of the battery, passing through the resistance, and entering the negative terminal of the battery.
Figure 2 (a) A simple electric circuit. A closed path for current to flow through is supplied by conducting wires connecting a load to the terminals of a battery. (b) In this schematic, the battery is represented by the two parallel red lines, conducting wires are shown as straight lines, and the zigzag represents the load. The schematic represents a wide variety of similar circuits.

Note that the direction of current flow in Figure 2 is from positive to negative. 

The direction of conventional current is the direction that positive charge would flow. Depending on the situation, positive charges, negative charges, or both may move. In metal wires, for example, current is carried by electrons—that is, negative charges move. In ionic solutions, such as salt water, both positive and negative charges move. This is also true in nerve cells. A Van de Graaff generator used for nuclear research can produce a current of pure positive charges, such as protons. Figure 3 illustrates the movement of charged particles that compose a current. The fact that conventional current is taken to be in the direction that positive charge would flow can be traced back to American politician and scientist Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s. He named the type of charge associated with electrons negative, long before they were known to carry current in so many situations. Franklin, in fact, was totally unaware of the small-scale structure of electricity.

It is important to realize that there is an electric field in conductors responsible for producing the current, as illustrated in Figure 3. Unlike static electricity, where a conductor in equilibrium cannot have an electric field in it, conductors carrying a current have an electric field and are not in static equilibrium. An electric field is needed to supply energy to move the charges.

In part a, positive charges move toward the right through a conducting wire. The direction of movement of charge is indicated by arrows along the length of the wire. The area of a cross section of the wire is labeled as A. The direction of the electric field E is toward the right, in the same direction as movement of positive charge. The current direction is also toward the right, shown by an arrow. In part b, negative charges move toward the left through a conducting wire. The direction of movement of charge is indicated by arrows along the length of the wire. The area of a cross section of the wire is labeled as A. The direction of the electric field E is toward the right, opposite the direction of movement of negative charge. The current direction is also toward the right, shown by an arrow.
Figure 3 Current I is the rate at which charge moves through an area A, such as the cross-section of a wire. Conventional current is defined to move in the direction of the electric field. (a) Positive charges move in the direction of the electric field and the same direction as conventional current. (b) Negative charges move in the direction opposite to the electric field. Conventional current is in the direction opposite to the movement of negative charge. The flow of electrons is sometimes referred to as electronic flow.

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