Skip to content

Electric current

Dynamic electricity, or electric current, is the uniform motion of electrons through a conductor. Static electricity is an unmoving, accumulated charge formed by either an excess or deficiency of electrons in an object.

Although it is electrons which are the mobile charge carriers which are responsible for electric current in conductors, it has long been the convention to take the direction of electric current as if it were the positive charges which are moving. In typical applications such as determining the direction of force on a current carrying wire, treating current as positive charge motion or negative charge motion gives identical results. Besides the advantage of agreeing in direction with most texts, the conventional current direction is the direction from high voltage to low voltage, high energy to low energy, and thus has some appeal in its parallel to the flow of water from high pressure to low (see water analogy).

Unit of electric current (ampere)

Electric units, called “international units,” for current and resistance, were introduced by the International Electrical Congress held in Chicago in 1893, and definitions of the “international ampere” and “international ohm” were confirmed by the International Conference in London in 1908.

Although it was already obvious on the occasion of the 8th CGPM (1933) that there was a unanimous desire to replace those “international units” by so-called “absolute units,” the official decision to abolish them was only taken by the 9th CGPM (1948), which adopted the ampere for the unit of electric current, following a definition proposed by the CIPM (1946):

The ampere (A) is that constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-section, and placed 1 meter apart in vacuum, would produce between these conductors a force equal to \(2\cdot 10^{−7}\) newton per meter of length.

It follows that the magnetic constant \(\mu_0\), also known as the permeability of vacuum, is exactly \(4\pi \cdot 10^{−7}\) henries per meter, \(\mu_0 = 4\pi \cdot 10^{−7}\) H/m.

The expression “MKS unit of force” which occurs in the original text of 1946 has been replaced here by “newton,” a name adopted for this unit by the 9th CGPM (1948).

Physiological effects of electricity

As electric current is conducted through a material, any opposition to that flow of electrons (resistance) results in a dissipation of energy, usually in the form of heat. This is the most basic and easy-to-understand effect of electricity on living tissue: current makes it heat up. If the amount of heat generated is sufficient, the tissue may be burnt. The effect is physiologically the same as damage caused by an open flame or another high-temperature source of heat, except that electricity has the ability to burn tissue well beneath the skin of a victim, even burning internal organs.

Another effect of electric current on the body, perhaps the most significant in terms of hazard, regards the nervous system. By ”nervous system” I mean the network of special cells in the body called ”nerve cells” or ”neurons” which process and conduct the multitude of signals responsible for regulation of many body functions. The brain, spinal cord, and sensory/motor organs in the body function together to allow it to sense, move, respond, think, and remember.

Nerve cells communicate to each other by acting as ”transducers:” creating electrical signals (very small voltages and currents) in response to the input of certain chemical compounds called neurotransmitters, and releasing neurotransmitters when stimulated by electrical signals. If an electric current of sufficient magnitude is conducted through a living creature (human or otherwise), its effect will be to override the tiny electrical impulses normally generated by the neurons, overloading the nervous system and preventing both reflex and volitional signals from being able to actuate muscles. Muscles triggered by an external (shock) current will involuntarily contract, and there’s nothing the victim can do about it.

This problem is especially dangerous if the victim contacts an energized conductor with his or her hands. The forearm muscles responsible for bending fingers tend to be better developed than those muscles responsible for extending fingers, and so if both sets of muscles try to contract because of an electric current conducted through the person’s arm, the ”bending” muscles will win, clenching the fingers into a fist. If the conductor delivering current to the victim faces the palm of his or her hand, this clenching action will force the hand to grasp the wire firmly, thus worsening the situation by securing excellent contact with the wire. The victim will be completely unable to let go of the wire.

Medically, this condition of involuntary muscle contraction is called tetanus. Electricians familiar with this effect of electric shock often refer to an immobilized victim of electric shock as being ”froze on the circuit.” Shock-induced tetanus can only be interrupted by stopping the current through the victim.

Even when the current is stopped, the victim may not regain voluntary control over their muscles for a while, as the neurotransmitter chemistry has been thrown into disarray. This principle has been applied in ”stun gun” devices such as Tasers, which on the principle of momentarily shocking a victim with a high-voltage pulse delivered between two electrodes. A well-placed shock has the effect of temporarily (a few minutes) immobilizing the victim.

Electric current is able to affect more than just skeletal muscles in a shock victim, however. The diaphragm muscle controlling the lungs, and the heart – which is a muscle in itself – can also be ”frozen” in a state of tetanus by electric current. Even currents too low to induce tetanus are often able to scramble nerve cell signals enough that the heart cannot beat properly, sending the heart into a condition known as fibrillation. A fibrillating heart flutters rather than beats and is ineffective at pumping blood to vital organs in the body. In any case, death from asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest will surely result from a strong enough electric current through the body. Ironically, medical personnel uses a strong jolt of electric current applied across the chest of a victim to ”jump start” a fibrillating heart into a normal beating pattern.

That last detail leads us into another hazard of electric shock, this one peculiar to public power systems. Though our initial study of electric circuits will focus almost exclusively on DC (Direct Current, or electricity that moves in a continuous direction in a circuit), modern power systems utilize alternating current or AC.

Direct current (DC), because it moves with continuous motion through a conductor, has the tendency to induce muscular tetanus quite readily. Alternating current (AC), because it alternately reverses the direction of motion, provides brief moments of opportunity for an afflicted muscle to relax between alternations. Thus, from the concern of becoming ”froze on the circuit,” DC is more dangerous than AC.

However, AC’s alternating nature has a greater tendency to throw the heart’s pacemaker neurons into a condition of fibrillation, whereas DC tends to just make the heart stand still. Once the shock current is halted, a ”frozen” heart has a better chance of regaining a normal beat pattern than a fibrillating heart. This is why ”defibrillating” equipment used by emergency medics works: the jolt of current supplied by the defibrillator unit is DC, which halts fibrillation and gives the heart a chance to recover.

In either case, electric currents high enough to cause involuntary muscle action are dangerous and are to be avoided at all costs.


See also

  • Ampacity
  • Direct current (DC)

References

  1. Lessons in Electric Circuits, Volume I – DC. By Tony R. Kuphaldt
  2. Wikipedia. Ampacity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampacity