Electron - Characteristics - Conductivity

Conductivity

If a body has more or fewer electrons than are required to balance the positive charge of the nuclei, then that object has a net electric charge. When there is an excess of electrons, the object is said to be negatively charged. When there are fewer electrons than the number of protons in nuclei, the object is said to be positively charged. When the number of electrons and the number of protons are equal, their charges cancel each other and the object is said to be electrically neutral. A macroscopic body can develop an electric charge through rubbing, by the triboelectric effect.

Independent electrons moving in vacuum are termed free electrons. Electrons in metals also behave as if they were free. In reality the particles that are commonly termed electrons in metals and other solids are quasi-electrons—quasiparticles, which have the same electrical charge, spin and magnetic moment as real electrons but may have a different mass. When free electrons—both in vacuum and metals—move, they produce a net flow of charge called an electric current, which generates a magnetic field. Likewise a current can be created by a changing magnetic field. These interactions are described mathematically by Maxwell's equations.

At a given temperature, each material has an electrical conductivity that determines the value of electric current when an electric potential is applied. Examples of good conductors include metals such as copper and gold, whereas glass and Teflon are poor conductors. In any dielectric material, the electrons remain bound to their respective atoms and the material behaves as an insulator. Most semiconductors have a variable level of conductivity that lies between the extremes of conduction and insulation. On the other hand, metals have an electronic band structure containing partially filled electronic bands. The presence of such bands allows electrons in metals to behave as if they were free or delocalized electrons. These electrons are not associated with specific atoms, so when an electric field is applied, they are free to move like a gas (called Fermi gas) through the material much like free electrons.

Because of collisions between electrons and atoms, the drift velocity of electrons in a conductor is on the order of millimeters per second. However, the speed at which a change of current at one point in the material causes changes in currents in other parts of the material, the velocity of propagation, is typically about 75% of light speed. This occurs because electrical signals propagate as a wave, with the velocity dependent on the dielectric constant of the material.

Metals make relatively good conductors of heat, primarily because the delocalized electrons are free to transport thermal energy between atoms. However, unlike electrical conductivity, the thermal conductivity of a metal is nearly independent of temperature. This is expressed mathematically by the Wiedemann–Franz law, which states that the ratio of thermal conductivity to the electrical conductivity is proportional to the temperature. The thermal disorder in the metallic lattice increases the electrical resistivity of the material, producing a temperature dependence for electrical current.

When cooled below a point called the critical temperature, materials can undergo a phase transition in which they lose all resistivity to electrical current, in a process known as superconductivity. In BCS theory, this behavior is modeled by pairs of electrons entering a quantum state known as a Bose–Einstein condensate. These Cooper pairs have their motion coupled to nearby matter via lattice vibrations called phonons, thereby avoiding the collisions with atoms that normally create electrical resistance. (Cooper pairs have a radius of roughly 100 nm, so they can overlap each other.) However, the mechanism by which higher temperature superconductors operate remains uncertain.

Electrons inside conducting solids, which are quasi-particles themselves, when tightly confined at temperatures close to absolute zero, behave as though they had split into two other quasiparticles: spinons and holons. The former carries spin and magnetic moment, while the latter electrical charge.

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