Explaining current flow in conductors (part two)

Do we delve deeply enough into the actual physical mechanism of current flow through electrical conductors using the concepts of charge carriers and electric fields in our treatments for GCSE and A-level Physics? I must reluctantly admit that I am increasingly of the opinion that the answer is no.

In part one we discussed two common misconceptions about the physical mechanism of current flow, namely:

  1. The all-the-electrons-in-a-conductor-repel-each-other misconception; and
  2. The electric-field-of-the-battery-makes-all-the-charge-carriers-in-the-circuit-move misconception.

What, then, does produce the internal electric field that drives charge carriers through a conductor?

Let’s begin by looking at the properties that such a field should have.

Current and electric field in an ohmic conductor

(You can see a more rigorous derivation of this result in Duffin 1980: 161.)

We can see that if we consider an ohmic conductor then for a current flow of uniform current density J we need a uniform electric field E acting in the same direction as J.

What produces the electric field inside a current-carrying conductor?

The electric field that drives charge carriers through a conductor is produced by a gradient of surface charge on the outside of the conductor.

Rings of equal charge density (and the same sign) contribute zero electric field at a location midway between the two rings, whereas rings of unequal charge density (or different sign) contribute a non-zero field at that location.

Sherwood and Chabay (1999): 9

These rings of surface charge produce not only an internal field Enet as shown, but also external fields than can, under the right circumstances, be detected.

Relationship between surface charge densities and the internal electric field

Picture a large capacity parallel plate capacitor discharging through a length of high resistance wire of uniform cross section so that the capacitor takes a long time to discharge. We will consider a significant period of time (a small fraction of RC) when the circuit is in a quasi-steady state with a current density of constant magnitude J. Since E = J / σ then the internal electric field Enet produced by the rings of surface charge must be as shown below.

Schematic diagram showing the relationship between the surface charge density and the internal electric field

In essence, the electric field of the battery polarises the conducting material of the circuit producing a non-uniform arrangement of surface charges. The pattern of surface charges produces an electric field of constant magnitude Enet which drives a current density of constant magnitude J through the circuit.

As Duffin (1980: 167) puts it:

Granted that the currents flowing in wires containing no electromotances [EMFs] are produced by electric fields due to charges, how is it that such a field can follow the tortuous meanderings of typical networks? […] Figure 6.19 shows diagrammatically (1) how a charge density which decreases slowly along the surface of a wire produces an internal E-field along the wire and (2) how a slight excess charge on one side can bend the field into the new direction. Rosser (1970) has shown that no more than an odd electron is needed to bend E around a ninety degree corner in a typical wire.

Rosser suggests that for a current of one amp flowing in a copper wire of cross sectional area of one square millimetre the required charge distribution for a 90 degree turn is 6 x 10-3 positive ions per cm3 which they call a “minute charge distribution”.

Observing the internal and external electric fields of a current carrying conductor

Jefimenko (1962) commented that at the time

no generally known methods for demonstrating the structure of the electric field of the current-carrying conductors appear to exist, and the diagrams of these fields can usually be found only in the highly specialized literature. This […] frequently causes the student to remain virtually ignorant of the structure and properties of the electric field inside and, especially, outside the current-carrying conductors of even the simplest geometry.

Jefimenko developed a technique involving transparent conductive ink on glass plates and grass seeds (similar to the classic linear Nuffield A-level Physics electrostatic practical!) to show the internal and external electric field lines associated with current-carrying conductors. Dry grass seeds “line up” with electric field lines in a manner analogous to iron filings and magnetic field lines.

Photograph from Jefimenko (1962: 20). Annotations added

Coming soon . . .

In part 3, we will analyse the transient processes by which these surface charge distributions are set up.


Duffin, W. J. (1980). Electricity and magnetism (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill Book Co.

Jefimenko, O. (1962). Demonstration of the electric fields of current-carrying conductorsAmerican Journal of Physics30(1), 19-21.

Rosser, W. G. V. (1970). Magnitudes of surface charge distributions associated with electric current flow. American Journal of Physics38(2), 265-266.

Sherwood, B. A., & Chabay, R. W. (1999). A unified treatment of electrostatics and circuits. URL http://cil. andrew. cmu. edu/emi. (Note: this article is dated as 2009 on Google Scholar but the text is internally dated as 1999)

Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Rotation…?

Is there a better way of presenting circuit diagrams to our students that will aid their understanding of potential difference?

I think that, possibly, there may be.

(Note: circuit diagrams produced using the excellent — and free! — web editor at https://www.circuit-diagram.org/.)

Old ways are the best ways…? (Spoiler: not always)

This is a very typical, conventional way of showing a simple circuit.

A simple circuit as usually presented

Now let’s measure the potential difference across the cell…

Measuring the potential difference across the cell

…and across the resistor.

Measuring the potential difference across the resistor

Using a standard school laboratory digital voltmeter and assuming a cell of emf 1.5 V and negligible internal resistance we would get a value of +1.5 volts for both positions.

Let me demonstrate this using the excellent — and free! — pHET circuit simulation website.

Indeed, one might argue with some very sound justification that both measurements are actually of the same potential difference and that there is no real difference between what we chose to call ‘the potential difference across the cell’ and ‘the potential difference across the resistor’.

Try another way…

But let’s consider drawing the circuit a different (but operationally identical) way:

The same circuit drawn ‘all-in-a-row’

What would happen if we measured the potential difference across the cell and the resistor as before…

This time, we get a reading (same assumptions as before) of [positive] +1.5 volts of potential difference for the potential difference across the cell and [negative] -1.5 volts for the potential difference across the resistor.

This, at least to me, is a far more conceptually helpful result for student understanding. It implies that the charge carriers are gaining energy as they pass through the cell, but losing energy as they pass through the resistor.

Using the Coulomb Train Model of circuit behaviour, this could be shown like this:

+1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model
-1.5 V of potential difference represented using the Coulomb Train Model. (Note: for a single resistor circuit, the emerging coulomb would have zero energy.)

We can, of course, obtain a similar result for the conventional layout, but only at the cost of ‘crossing the leads’ — a sin as heinous as ‘crossing the beams’ for some students (assuming they have seen the original Ghostbusters movie).

Crossing the leads on a voltmeter

A Hidden Rotation?

The argument I am making is that the conventional way of drawing simple circuits involves an implicit and hidden rotation of 180 degrees in terms of which end of the resistor is at a more positive potential.

A hidden rotation…?

Of course, experienced physics learners and instructors take this ‘hidden rotation’ in their stride. It is an example of the ‘curse of knowledge’: because we feel that it is not confusing we fail to anticipate that novice learners could find it confusing. Wherever possible, we should seek to make whatever is implicit as explicit as we can.


A translation is, of course, a sliding transformation, rather than a circumrotation. Hence, I had to dispense with this post’s original title of ‘Circuit Diagrams: Lost in Translation’.

However, I do genuinely feel that some students understanding of circuits could be inadvertently ‘lost in rotation’ as argued above.

I hope my fellow physics teachers try introducing potential difference using the ‘all-in-row’ orientation shown.

The all-in=a-row orientation for circuit diagrams to help student understanding of potential difference

I would be fascinated to know if they feel its a helpful contribition to their teaching repetoire!