Electrons and electricity
I am currently teaching electricity to my fifth grade class. After
explaining that electricity is a flow of electrons one of my students asked me
how the electrons flowed. After directing many questions to him I narrowed
his question to the following. We discussed electrons and the shell
configurations, but how do those electrons get into a flow that we call
electricity? What makes the electrons "jump"? I could also use some info
on the process by which electrons move from atom to atom.
Actually, the picture of electrons "bound" to atoms is really
not correct for most solids, and particularly for metals. Why
should not electrons be able to move wherever they please? It is
a free country! And in metals, electrons really are "free" in the
sense they basically spread throughout a very large area containing
a very large number of atoms (the wavefunctions are "de-localized").
The problem with the "shell configurations" is that once atoms
get close together, the electron "orbits" of neighboring atoms
start to overlap, and instead of atomic shells what you get are
"bands" of electron states, many of which are de-localized. When
you apply an electric field, the electrons acquire some momentum
and their occupation of these "bands" sloshes in the direction
of the electric field. Think of individual electrons in the metal
as spread out over a quite large area, and then starting to move
in response to the electric field. There is your electricity.
The "jumping" concept (while still possible - through quantum tunneling)
applies only under special circumstances - most of the
time we are interested, the electrons can just move continuously
without any jumping.
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Update: June 2012