Electricity is "flow of electrons". My child asked me if this is so, then ultimately the copper wire should disappear/vanish/finish because the matter is moving from one place to the other. I am not electrical engineer, what should I tell him?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Possibly relevant: amasci.com/miscon/elect.html \$\endgroup\$ – ntoskrnl Sep 5 '14 at 9:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Does a river disappear because water is flowing from one place to another? \$\endgroup\$ – user52643 Sep 5 '14 at 12:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think a bit short and a bit abstract for a child and then you get more confusion because rivers do 'disappear' - they end up in the sea, evaporate into the air and fall as rain somewhere. A poor analogy for flow of charge. \$\endgroup\$ – JIm Dearden Sep 5 '14 at 12:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't see that as a bad analogy - the water cycle is similar to the closed circuit. Electrons come from a battery, go through the wire, and back into the battery. \$\endgroup\$ – MSalters Sep 5 '14 at 13:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ Musical chairs. The people (electrons) and the chairs (copper atoms) don't ever disappear, they just move seat to seat. If no one is in the chairs, the wire is discharged, and if people are sitting in other peoples laps the wire is charged (negatively). But the wire never disappears. The electron movement only involves a few of the copper atoms many electrons. It's the movement that can be used as work. The atoms themselves stay in place. \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Davis Sep 5 '14 at 16:08

In a metal like copper some of the electrons are not bound to individual atoms. If a voltage is applied across a copper wire these free electrons flow from one atom to the next. This flow of electrons is an electric current but the copper atoms themselves do not move so the copper wire does not vanish. Of course, the voltage source must supply additional electrons for the flow to continue.

As an analogy, think of a waterfall -- the electric current is like the water molecules falling, and the water molecules are falling due to gravity (which is analogous to voltage). The waterfall must be supplied with more water molecules for the waterfall to continue to exist, but the riverbed over which the water molecules flow (analogous to the copper atoms) do not move or vanish.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 ; actually, this is the correct answer - you're not going into unnecessary details, thus making little room for additional complications in explanation, while hitting the nail with the hammer ; I especially like the waterfall analogy, since the waterfall water actually returns to the source (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_cycle), making this analogy quite complete and brilliant. \$\endgroup\$ – user20088 Sep 5 '14 at 13:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ To get a little deeper, electrons themselves do not move at the speed of light through the material. Their position is probabilistic, but overall they move at the electron drift velocity of the material, which is actually pretty slow. Electrical signals through a wire are the electrical field moving through the material. \$\endgroup\$ – Rosa Richter Sep 19 '14 at 17:09

To add another 2 cents, and a rather more simplistic understanding, I often find it easier to visualise current flow through a wire as tube of marbles (small glass balls if that doesn't translate well).

The wire has electrons in it already, so our tube is full of marbles. By applying a voltage (an electromotive force), you can push a new marble in. When you do this, a marble pops out. Take the one that popped out, and push it in the other end. In a real circuit, it doesn't have ends to push electrons in and out, but it flows all the way around (so our tube would be joined together at both ends).

In electronics, we don't create or destroy, add or remove electrons* - they are already there. All we do is push them along. It's also important to understand that it isn't one electron be pushed around, it's the flow. You push one end, and the other end moves. Pushing electrons at one end doesn't mean the same electron pushes at the other end, just like pushing marbles a different one comes out the end.

As you delve further and further down, you can begin to appreciate holes and carriers and electrons jumping up and down energy levels; but it simplistic terms, just imagine pushing marbles in a tube.

* Yes there are probably exceptions, but they aren't relevant.


The simplest answer you can give, is that for every electron that comes out of one end of the wire, another electron is "pushed" in at the other end of the wire. Therefore, even though there is a "flow" of electrons, the wire does not loose any electrons (no net loss)!


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