Electricity in Air vs Water
Name: Steve R.
How is the movement of electricity through air
different from its movement through a copper wire?
For electricity "to move" electrons must be transported in some manner or
other. The electrons in a metal, the so called conduction electrons (which
are the same outer electrons that chemists talk about when they refer to
"valence electrons") -- these electrons in a metal are not bound by any
single nucleus and are more or less free to move in response to an applied
voltage. In air (or any other "non-conductor") the electrons are bound to
various atoms and/or molecules and are not "free" to move in response to an
applied voltage. Not "free", that is, until the voltage is so high that
atoms and/or molecules are ionized. Then the electrons and ions are "free"
to move. There are many things that can affect this -- moisture, dust,
radioactive particles, ... the list is long. It does not take very many
so-called "charge carriers" to reduce this "breakdown voltage"
drastically, and if the current is high enough to form a plasma, which is
essentially a conductive gas. The electrical resistance of liquids and
non-metallic substances fall in between. Here the movement of electrons
can be very complicated. I do not recall the exact numbers, but I do
remember that the resistivity of pure water decreases by a factor of 10
between 0 C. and 40 C. just because water is ionized ( H2O -----> H(+1) +
OH(-1) ) at the higher temperature.
It is not actually electricity that moves through wire and air, it is
electrons. Electrically charged particles move through
material. Electrons are the most common moving charges.
Every copper atom has one very loose electrons. This is true of all
metals. This is what makes them metals. In a copper wire, the energy due
to room temperature is enough to break many of these electrons free. They
float around inside the metal. When connected to a battery (or outlet),
the power source pushes the electrons. They move through the wire like a
continuous loop of charge. The atoms themselves stay put.
Air does not have loose electrons. Air molecules tend to move as units.
Since the air molecules have a net charge of zero, The battery pulls the
electrons one way and the protons the other. Unless there is enough
energy to pull the atoms apart, like lightning, there is not much movement
of charge at all.
Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
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Update: June 2012