Current density

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Current density
Common symbols
In SI base units A m−2
Dimension IL−2

In electromagnetism, current density is the electric current per unit area of cross section. The current density vector is defined as a vector whose magnitude is the electric current per cross-sectional area at a given point in space, its direction being that of the motion of the charges at this point. In SI units, the electric current density is measured in amperes per square metre. [1]

Electromagnetism branch of science concerned with the phenomena of electricity and magnetism

Electromagnetism is a branch of physics involving the study of the electromagnetic force, a type of physical interaction that occurs between electrically charged particles. The electromagnetic force usually exhibits electromagnetic fields such as electric fields, magnetic fields, and light, and is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three fundamental interactions are the strong interaction, the weak interaction, and gravitation. At high energy the weak force and electromagnetic force are unified as a single electroweak force.

Electric current flow of electric charge

An electric current is a flow of electric charge. In electric circuits this charge is often carried by electrons moving through a wire. It can also be carried by ions in an electrolyte, or by both ions and electrons such as in an ionized gas (plasma).

Ampere SI base unit of electric current

The ampere, often shortened to "amp", is the base unit of electric current in the International System of Units (SI). It is named after André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836), French mathematician and physicist, considered the father of electrodynamics.



Assume that A (SI unit: m 2) is a small surface centred at a given point M and orthogonal to the motion of the charges at M. If IA (SI unit: A) is the electric current flowing through A, then electric current densityJ at M is given by the limit: [2]

The metre or meter is the base unit of length in the International System of Units (SI). The SI unit symbol is m. The metre is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 second.

In mathematics, the limit of a function is a fundamental concept in calculus and analysis concerning the behavior of that function near a particular input.

with surface A remaining centred at M and orthogonal to the motion of the charges during the limit process.

The current density vectorJ is the vector whose magnitude is the electric current density, and whose direction is the same as the motion of the charges at M.

At a given time t, if v is the speed of the charges at M, and dA is an infinitesimal surface centred at M and orthogonal to v, then during an amount of time dt, only the charge contained in the volume formed by dA and l = vdt will flow through dA. This charge is equal to ρ ||v|| dt dA, where ρ is the charge density at M, and the electric current at M is I = ρ ||v|| dA. It follows that the current density vector can be expressed as:

The surface integral of J over a surface S, followed by an integral over the time duration t1 to t2, gives the total amount of charge flowing through the surface in that time (t2t1):

Surface integral generalization of a multiple integral to (possibly)-curved surfaces

In mathematics, a surface integral is a generalization of multiple integrals to integration over surfaces. It can be thought of as the double integral analogue of the line integral. Given a surface, one may integrate over its scalar fields, and vector fields.

Surface (mathematics) generalization of a plane which needs not be flat, that is, the curvature is not necessarily zero

In mathematics, a surface is a generalization of a plane which needs not be flat – that is, the curvature is not necessarily zero. This is analogous to a curve generalizing a straight line. There are several more precise definitions, depending on the context and the mathematical tools that are used for the study.

More concisely, this is the integral of the flux of J across S between t1 and t2.

Flux measure of the flow of something through a surface, in some cases per surface area

Flux describes any effect that appears to pass or travel through a surface or substance. A flux is either a concept based in physics or used with applied mathematics. Both concepts have mathematical rigor, enabling comparison of the underlying mathematics when the terminology is unclear. For transport phenomena, flux is a vector quantity, describing the magnitude and direction of the flow of a substance or property. In electromagnetism, flux is a scalar quantity, defined as the surface integral of the component of a vector field perpendicular to the surface at each point.

The area required to calculate the flux is real or imaginary, flat or curved, either as a cross-sectional area or a surface. For example, for charge carriers passing through an electrical conductor, the area is the cross-section of the conductor, at the section considered.

Area quantity that expresses the extent of a two-dimensional surface or shape, or planar lamina, in the plane

Area is the quantity that expresses the extent of a two-dimensional figure or shape, or planar lamina, in the plane. Surface area is its analog on the two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional object. Area can be understood as the amount of material with a given thickness that would be necessary to fashion a model of the shape, or the amount of paint necessary to cover the surface with a single coat. It is the two-dimensional analog of the length of a curve or the volume of a solid.

Electrical conductor object or material which permits the flow of electricity

In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is an object or type of material that allows the flow of an electrical current in one or more directions. Materials made of metal are common electrical conductors. Electrical current is generated by the flow of negatively charged electrons, positively charged holes, and positive or negative ions in some cases.

The vector area is a combination of the magnitude of the area through which the charge carriers pass, A, and a unit vector normal to the area, . The relation is .

In 3-dimensional geometry, for a finite planar surface of scalar area S and unit normal , the vector area S is defined as the unit normal scaled by the area:

Unit vector vector of length one

In mathematics, a unit vector in a normed vector space is a vector of length 1. A unit vector is often denoted by a lowercase letter with a circumflex, or "hat": . The term direction vector is used to describe a unit vector being used to represent spatial direction, and such quantities are commonly denoted as d. Two 2D direction vectors, d1 and d2 are illustrated. 2D spatial directions represented this way are numerically equivalent to points on the unit circle.

If the current density J passes through the area at an angle θ to the area normal , then

where is the dot product of the unit vectors. That is, the component of current density passing through the surface (i.e. normal to it) is J cos θ, while the component of current density passing tangential to the area is J sin θ, but there is no current density actually passing through the area in the tangential direction. The only component of current density passing normal to the area is the cosine component.


Current density is important to the design of electrical and electronic systems.

Circuit performance depends strongly upon the designed current level, and the current density then is determined by the dimensions of the conducting elements. For example, as integrated circuits are reduced in size, despite the lower current demanded by smaller devices, there is a trend toward higher current densities to achieve higher device numbers in ever smaller chip areas. See Moore's law.

At high frequencies, the conducting region in a wire becomes confined near its surface which increases the current density in this region. This is known as the skin effect.

High current densities have undesirable consequences. Most electrical conductors have a finite, positive resistance, making them dissipate power in the form of heat. The current density must be kept sufficiently low to prevent the conductor from melting or burning up, the insulating material failing, or the desired electrical properties changing. At high current densities the material forming the interconnections actually moves, a phenomenon called electromigration . In superconductors excessive current density may generate a strong enough magnetic field to cause spontaneous loss of the superconductive property.

The analysis and observation of current density also is used to probe the physics underlying the nature of solids, including not only metals, but also semiconductors and insulators. An elaborate theoretical formalism has developed to explain many fundamental observations. [3] [4]

The current density is an important parameter in Ampère's circuital law (one of Maxwell's equations), which relates current density to magnetic field.

In special relativity theory, charge and current are combined into a 4-vector.

Calculation of current densities in matter

Free currents

Charge carriers which are free to move constitute a free current density, which are given by expressions such as those in this section.

Electric current is a coarse, average quantity that tells what is happening in an entire wire. At position r at time t, the distribution of charge flowing is described by the current density: [5]

where J(r,t) is the current density vector, vd(r,t) is the particles' average drift velocity (SI unit: ms −1), and

is the charge density (SI unit: coulombs per cubic metre), in which n(r,t) is the number of particles per unit volume ("number density") (SI unit: m3), q is the charge of the individual particles with density n (SI unit: coulombs).

A common approximation to the current density assumes the current simply is proportional to the electric field, as expressed by:

where E is the electric field and σ is the electrical conductivity.

Conductivity σ is the reciprocal (inverse) of electrical resistivity and has the SI units of siemens per metre (S⋅m1), and E has the SI units of newtons per coulomb (N⋅C1) or, equivalently, volts per metre (V⋅m1).

A more fundamental approach to calculation of current density is based upon:

indicating the lag in response by the time dependence of σ, and the non-local nature of response to the field by the spatial dependence of σ, both calculated in principle from an underlying microscopic analysis, for example, in the case of small enough fields, the linear response function for the conductive behaviour in the material. See, for example, Giuliani or Rammer. [6] [7] The integral extends over the entire past history up to the present time.

The above conductivity and its associated current density reflect the fundamental mechanisms underlying charge transport in the medium, both in time and over distance.

A Fourier transform in space and time then results in:

where σ(k,ω) is now a complex function.

In many materials, for example, in crystalline materials, the conductivity is a tensor, and the current is not necessarily in the same direction as the applied field. Aside from the material properties themselves, the application of magnetic fields can alter conductive behaviour.

Polarization and magnetization currents

Currents arise in materials when there is a non-uniform distribution of charge. [8]

In dielectric materials, there is a current density corresponding to the net movement of electric dipole moments per unit volume, i.e. the polarization P:

Similarly with magnetic materials, circulations of the magnetic dipole moments per unit volume, i.e. the magnetization M, lead to magnetization currents: [9]

Together, these terms add up to form the bound current density in the material (resultant current due to movements of electric and magnetic dipole moments per unit volume):

Total current in materials

The total current is simply the sum of the free and bound currents:

Displacement current

There is also a displacement current corresponding to the time-varying electric displacement field D: [10] [11]

which is an important term in Ampere's circuital law, one of Maxwell's equations, since absence of this term would not predict electromagnetic waves to propagate, or the time evolution of electric fields in general.

Continuity equation

Since charge is conserved, current density must satisfy a continuity equation. Here is a derivation from first principles. [8]

The net flow out of some volume V (which can have an arbitrary shape but fixed for the calculation) must equal the net change in charge held inside the volume:

where ρ is the charge density, and dA is a surface element of the surface S enclosing the volume V. The surface integral on the left expresses the current outflow from the volume, and the negatively signed volume integral on the right expresses the decrease in the total charge inside the volume. From the divergence theorem:


This relation is valid for any volume, independent of size or location, which implies that:

and this relation is called the continuity equation. [12] [13]

In practice

In electrical wiring, the maximum current density can vary from 4 A⋅mm−2 for a wire with no air circulation around it, to 6 A⋅mm−2 for a wire in free air. Regulations for building wiring list the maximum allowed current of each size of cable in differing conditions. For compact designs, such as windings of SMPS transformers, the value might be as low as 2 A⋅mm−2. [14] If the wire is carrying high frequency currents, the skin effect may affect the distribution of the current across the section by concentrating the current on the surface of the conductor. In transformers designed for high frequencies, loss is reduced if Litz wire is used for the windings. This is made of multiple isolated wires in parallel with a diameter twice the skin depth. The isolated strands are twisted together to increase the total skin area and to reduce the resistance due to skin effects.

For the top and bottom layers of printed circuit boards, the maximum current density can be as high as 35 A⋅mm−2 with a copper thickness of 35 μm. Inner layers cannot dissipate as much heat as outer layers; designers of circuit boards avoid putting high-current traces on inner layers.

In the semiconductors field, the maximum current densities for different elements are given by the manufacturer. Exceeding those limits raises the following problems:

The following table gives an idea of the maximum current density for various materials.

MaterialTemperatureMaximum current density
Copper interconnections (180 nm technology)25 °C1000 μA⋅μm−2 (1000 A⋅mm−2)
50 °C700 μA⋅μm−2 (700 A⋅mm−2)
85 °C400 μA⋅μm−2 (400 A⋅mm−2)
125 °C100 μA⋅μm−2 (100 A⋅mm−2)
Graphene nanoribbons [15] 25 °C0.1–10 × 108 A⋅cm−2 (0.1–10 × 106 A⋅mm−2)

Even if manufacturers add some margin to their numbers, it is recommended to, at least, double the calculated section to improve the reliability, especially for high quality electronics. One can also notice the importance to keep electronic devices cool to avoid them to be exposed to electromigration and slow diffusion.

In biological organisms, ion channels regulate the flow of ions (for example, sodium, calcium, potassium) across the membrane in all cells. Current density is measured in pA⋅pF−1 (pico amperes per pico farad), that is, current divided by capacitance, a de facto measure of membrane area.[ clarification needed ]

In gas discharge lamps, such as flashlamps, current density plays an important role in the output spectrum produced. Low current densities produce spectral line emission and tend to favour longer wavelengths. High current densities produce continuum emission and tend to favour shorter wavelengths. [16] Low current densities for flash lamps are generally around 10 A⋅mm−2. High current densities can be more than 40 A⋅mm−2.

See also

Related Research Articles

Continuum mechanics is a branch of mechanics that deals with the mechanical behavior of materials modeled as a continuous mass rather than as discrete particles. The French mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy was the first to formulate such models in the 19th century.

Lorentz force mutual force exerted by two punctual charges in relative motion

In physics the Lorentz force is the combination of electric and magnetic force on a point charge due to electromagnetic fields. A particle of charge q moving with a velocity v in an electric field E and a magnetic field B experiences a force of

Maxwells equations set of partial differential equations that describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents

Maxwell's equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields. One important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. He also first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.

Electric field spatial distribution of vectors representing the force applied to a charged test particle

An electric field is a vector field surrounding an electric charge that exerts force on other charges, attracting or repelling them. Mathematically the electric field is a vector field that associates to each point in space the force, called the Coulomb force, that would be experienced per unit of charge by an infinitesimal test charge at that point. The units of the electric field in the SI system are newtons per coulomb (N/C), or volts per meter (V/m). Electric fields are created by electric charges, or by time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields are important in many areas of physics, and are exploited practically in electrical technology. On an atomic scale, the electric field is responsible for the attractive force between the atomic nucleus and electrons that holds atoms together, and the forces between atoms that cause chemical bonding. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

In mathematics, Poisson's equation is a partial differential equation of elliptic type with broad utility in mechanical engineering and theoretical physics. It arises, for instance, to describe the potential field caused by a given charge or mass density distribution; with the potential field known, one can then calculate gravitational or electrostatic field. It is a generalization of Laplace's equation, which is also frequently seen in physics. The equation is named after the French mathematician, geometer, and physicist Siméon Denis Poisson.

A continuity equation in physics is an equation that describes the transport of some quantity. It is particularly simple and powerful when applied to a conserved quantity, but it can be generalized to apply to any extensive quantity. Since mass, energy, momentum, electric charge and other natural quantities are conserved under their respective appropriate conditions, a variety of physical phenomena may be described using continuity equations.

Magnetic moment extensive physical property

The magnetic moment is a quantity that represents the magnetic strength and orientation of a magnet or other object that produces a magnetic field. Examples of objects that have magnetic moments include: loops of electric current, permanent magnets, elementary particles, various molecules, and many astronomical objects.

Polarization density physical quantity

In classical electromagnetism, polarization density is the vector field that expresses the density of permanent or induced electric dipole moments in a dielectric material. When a dielectric is placed in an external electric field, its molecules gain electric dipole moment and the dielectric is said to be polarized. The electric dipole moment induced per unit volume of the dielectric material is called the electric polarization of the dielectric.

Electromagnetic four-potential

An electromagnetic four-potential is a relativistic vector function from which the electromagnetic field can be derived. It combines both an electric scalar potential and a magnetic vector potential into a single four-vector.

In electrodynamics, Poynting's theorem is a statement of conservation of energy for the electromagnetic field, in the form of a partial differential equation, due to the British physicist John Henry Poynting. Poynting's theorem is analogous to the work-energy theorem in classical mechanics, and mathematically similar to the continuity equation, because it relates the energy stored in the electromagnetic field to the work done on a charge distribution, through energy flux.

Magnetic potential

The term magnetic potential can be used for either of two quantities in classical electromagnetism: the magnetic vector potential, or simply vector potential, A; and the magnetic scalar potentialψ. Both quantities can be used in certain circumstances to calculate the magnetic field B.

In physics, the electric displacement field, denoted by D, is a vector field that appears in Maxwell's equations. It accounts for the effects of free and bound charge within materials. "D" stands for "displacement", as in the related concept of displacement current in dielectrics. In free space, the electric displacement field is equivalent to flux density, a concept that lends understanding to Gauss's law. In SI, it is expressed in units of coulomb per metre squared (C⋅m−2).

Magnetization physical quantity

In classical electromagnetism, magnetization or magnetic polarization is the vector field that expresses the density of permanent or induced magnetic dipole moments in a magnetic material. The origin of the magnetic moments responsible for magnetization can be either microscopic electric currents resulting from the motion of electrons in atoms, or the spin of the electrons or the nuclei. Net magnetization results from the response of a material to an external magnetic field, together with any unbalanced magnetic dipole moments that may be inherent in the material itself; for example, in ferromagnets. Magnetization is not always uniform within a body, but rather varies between different points. Magnetization also describes how a material responds to an applied magnetic field as well as the way the material changes the magnetic field, and can be used to calculate the forces that result from those interactions. It can be compared to electric polarization, which is the measure of the corresponding response of a material to an electric field in electrostatics. Physicists and engineers usually define magnetization as the quantity of magnetic moment per unit volume. It is represented by a pseudovector M.

Charge density

In electromagnetism, charge density is the amount of electric charge per unit length, surface area, or volume. Volume charge density is the quantity of charge per unit volume, measured in the SI system in coulombs per cubic meter (C•m−3), at any point in a volume. Surface charge density (σ) is the quantity of charge per unit area, measured in coulombs per square meter (C•m−2), at any point on a surface charge distribution on a two dimensional surface. Linear charge density (λ) is the quantity of charge per unit length, measured in coulombs per meter (C•m−1), at any point on a line charge distribution. Charge density can be either positive or negative, since electric charge can be either positive or negative.

The method of image charges is a basic problem-solving tool in electrostatics. The name originates from the replacement of certain elements in the original layout with imaginary charges, which replicates the boundary conditions of the problem.

Inhomogeneous electromagnetic wave equation

In electromagnetism and applications, an inhomogeneous electromagnetic wave equation, or nonhomogeneous electromagnetic wave equation, is one of a set of wave equations describing the propagation of electromagnetic waves generated by nonzero source charges and currents. The source terms in the wave equations makes the partial differential equations inhomogeneous, if the source terms are zero the equations reduce to the homogeneous electromagnetic wave equations. The equations follow from Maxwell's equations.

Ewald summation, named after Paul Peter Ewald, is a method for computing long-range interactions in periodic systems. It was first developed as the method for calculating electrostatic energies of ionic crystals, and is now commonly used for calculating long-range interactions in computational chemistry. Ewald summation is a special case of the Poisson summation formula, replacing the summation of interaction energies in real space with an equivalent summation in Fourier space. In this method, the long-range interaction is divided into two parts: a short-range contribution, and a long-range contribution which does not have a singularity. The short-range contribution is calculated in real space, whereas the long-range contribution is calculated using a Fourier transform. The advantage of this method is the rapid convergence of the energy compared with that of a direct summation. This means that the method has high accuracy and reasonable speed when computing long-range interactions, and it is thus the de facto standard method for calculating long-range interactions in periodic systems. The method requires charge neutrality of the molecular system in order to calculate accurately the total Coulombic interaction. A study of the truncation errors introduced in the energy and force calculations of disordered point-charge systems is provided by Kolafa and Perram.

The Cauchy momentum equation is a vector partial differential equation put forth by Cauchy that describes the non-relativistic momentum transport in any continuum. In convective form it is written:

Lagrangian field theory is a formalism in classical field theory. It is the field-theoretic analogue of Lagrangian mechanics. Lagrangian mechanics is used for discrete particles each with a finite number of degrees of freedom. Lagrangian field theory applies to continua and fields, which have an infinite number of degrees of freedom.


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  16. Xenon lamp photocathodes