Electrons, Flow, and Conductors
Recently I took a tour of a hydroelectric plant (a dam)
on a river in Montana. The question I had was where did the electrons
come from in the wires to provide electrical power to the grid. More
specifically, why did they not have to occasionally replace the wires in
the generators because they would eventually run out of electrons? They
indicated that they hardly ever replaced the wires (usually if the
insulation were to break down - which was very seldom). I was later told
that the electrons really did not flow in the conductors. They stayed in
the outer orbits of their respective atoms and only "bumped" the
electrons in the neighboring atoms which caused the perception of
"current flow". This is why the electrons in the generator never depleted
This answer seems to contradict everything I have to date learned about
electron "flow" in a conductor, but seems to answer the question of a net
loss of electrons in a conductor (exhausting its electrons). What is the
correct concept to understanding electron flow in a conductor in the
example above and will electrons eventually exhaust?
The electrons do flow through the wires, but they never leave the wires.
This is why you need something called a complete circuit. The power plant
pushes electrons through the wire. Electrons do not like to be near
electrons because they have the same electric charge. The electrons that
were moved forward in the wires then cause more electrons to move. This
continues around the circuit. Also, electrons from behind tend to be
attracted by the metal atoms that are now missing an electron. They fall in
behind to replace the first electrons.
After a very short time, the electrons throughout the circuit fall into a
regular pattern. Energy goes from the power plant to the moving electrons.
Energy goes from the moving electrons to the devices, such as the light
bulbs and televisions of the area. More energy is given to the electrons.
More energy is transferred to the lights and TVs. All the loose electrons
move at the same time, almost like water flowing around in a circular tube.
The power plant tries to speed up the electrons. Electric devices try to
slow them down. They quickly reach a balance. You never need to replace
electrons because they always come back.
This is why you need two prongs on a plug for it to work. Electrons go in
one and out the other. Passing through the device is what allows energy to
Dr. Ken Mellendorf
Illinois Central College
I think you are right, George, it does contradict.
Electrons do move down a wire when current flows.
They just do in a very hair-brained, randomly zig-zagging fashion.
The zig-zagging due to thermal motions is so much faster than the net
that if you watched one electron you would not be able to see the slow
progress in all the frenetic bumping around.
But it is the same with water molecules in stream, or gas molecules in a
If you can see the molecules collectively, as a fluid, then you can see
Unfortunately we have no way to tag an electron or drop a leaf in its stream.
So we cannot see the electric fluid move; we can only measure the effects
of the motion:
the magnetic field around the wire, and the energy transferred downstream
or the charged-up voltage on a capacitor.
The electrons do not "come from" anywhere. They were always there, part
of the metal.
The metal is always neutral, with just as many electrons as metal-ions.
Having a 1% mismatch in a solid costs more energy than vaporizing the
Electrons can leave at one end of some metal _only_ if they can come in
just as fast at the other end.
And vice-versa too: electrons can only enter if and as others leave.
This is pretty much why electricity only flows in closed loop circuits.
A loop is the only way all parts can be happy with the motion. There are
no wire-ends getting robbed or crowded.
Out of almost 10^24 atoms and electrons per cubic cm, it only takes an
imbalance of ~10^4 electrons/cm3 to charge the wire up another volt.
(Look up capacitance of a wire, charge/voltage in a capacitor, and
electrons in a coulomb.)
So in 120 volts AC, the wire stays neutral to something like 1 part in
10^18. That is an extremely small mismatch.
A million volts might be 1 part in 10^14 imbalanced. Still a really
Another thing that might prompt a power-station engineer to tell this
story is A.C.: Alternating Current.
Since there are roughly 10^24 electrons/cm3 in the metal, and only about
10^19 electrons in an amp-second,
It takes about 1 amp x 1 day to move all the electrons through 1 cm3 of metal.
In AC current this flow, though very real and quite stiff,
turns itself around backwards 60 times per second (or should I call it 120?).
You could have 100,000 amps in a 1cm2 wire, and at 60Hz
the full oscillation distance of the "electron fluid" in the metal would
be less than 1mm.
In this case it is very much like oscillating water pressure in a pipe:
the pressure and some work would go downstream fast, but the water never
It might be interesting to try to visualize a machine that uses
energy from alternating water pressure to do some intense work.
So he is right: AC is just a game of very fast, really hard-shoving
But it is also true that at every moment power flows only when electrons
are drifting left or right.
I would not say they stay in their respective atoms, though.
That implies they never get to move even 10^-8 cm.
That is hardly moving at all, and it is just not true.
They are moving past many atoms very frequently,
even when there is no net current but only random thermal motion.
Another caveat: In a metal, stationary atoms share a sea of mobile
electrons. That is what defines a metal.
The mobile electrons in a metal have diffused locations:
each electron can be considered spread-out over thousands of atoms at a
and the sum of partial presences of many electrons is what keeps a given
A spread-out electron generally cannot get stuck to any one atom.
In an insulator it is different:
each electron is concentrated in, and stuck to, one place in one molecule
most of the time.
Sheesh. Sorry if that is too many perspectives at once.
wow, I see several points I can help you with there...
1) the electrons DO flow. Their actual velocity depends on the amount of
current, but it's typically about 2 cm/second. However, they are also
displacing the electrons from the atoms they are moving to, which causes a
wave like effect. This moves at or near the speed of light.
2) A generator or alternator is relying on magnetism to push electrons
around. It is not so much pumping the electrons out of the wire though, as
simply forcing them all to move along it. So the electrons being pushed out
one side of a piece of wire are coming back in the other side.
In the case of an alternator, the current is repeatedly changing direction.
So there the electrons move briefly one direction, then right back where
they came from. Since they 'bump' each other all the way down any length of
wire, electrons very far away can be manipulated even though the specific
electrons in the power plant never go that far.
The electrons do indeed flow. When the circuit is closed, an electric field
is set up in the entire wire from the generating plant to the user and back
again on another wire -- a closed circuit is required! A wire is a
conductor precisely because some of the electrons are free to move when
pushed by an electric field.
The closed circuit is required so the electrons can flow in a closed
circuit; no electrons are lost!
An analogy may be helpful. Consider a water pump driving water through a
closed loop of piping. The pump never runs out of water (any more than an
electrical generator runs out of electrons) since the water pumped out by
the pump pushes on the water already in the pipe all the way around the
closed loop and so drives water back into the pump.
Best, Dick Plano, Professor of Physics emeritus, Rutgers University
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Update: June 2012