Electrical conductor

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Overhead conductors carry electric power from generating stations to customers. Electrical wires near Putim.jpg
Overhead conductors carry electric power from generating stations to customers.

In physics and electrical engineering, a conductor is an object or type of material that allows the flow of charge (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.


In order for current to flow within a closed electrical circuit, it is not necessary for one charged particle to travel from the component producing the current (the current source) to those consuming it (the loads). Instead, the charged particle simply needs to nudge its neighbor a finite amount, who will nudge its neighbor, and on and on until a particle is nudged into the consumer, thus powering it. Essentially what is occurring is a long chain of momentum transfer between mobile charge carriers; the Drude model of conduction describes this process more rigorously. This momentum transfer model makes metal an ideal choice for a conductor; metals, characteristically, possess a delocalized sea of electrons which gives the electrons enough mobility to collide and thus affect a momentum transfer.

As discussed above, electrons are the primary mover in metals; however, other devices such as the cationic electrolyte(s) of a battery, or the mobile protons of the proton conductor of a fuel cell rely on positive charge carriers. Insulators are non-conducting materials with few mobile charges that support only insignificant electric currents.

Resistance and conductance

A piece of resistive material with electrical contacts on both ends. Resistivity geometry.png
A piece of resistive material with electrical contacts on both ends.

The resistance of a given conductor depends on the material it is made of, and on its dimensions. For a given material, the resistance is inversely proportional to the cross-sectional area. [1] For example, a thick copper wire has lower resistance than an otherwise-identical thin copper wire. Also, for a given material, the resistance is proportional to the length; for example, a long copper wire has higher resistance than an otherwise-identical short copper wire. The resistance R and conductance G of a conductor of uniform cross section, therefore, can be computed as [1]

where is the length of the conductor, measured in metres [m], A is the cross-section area of the conductor measured in square metres [m2], σ (sigma) is the electrical conductivity measured in siemens per meter (S·m−1), and ρ (rho) is the electrical resistivity (also called specific electrical resistance) of the material, measured in ohm-metres (Ω·m). The resistivity and conductivity are proportionality constants, and therefore depend only on the material the wire is made of, not the geometry of the wire. Resistivity and conductivity are reciprocals: . Resistivity is a measure of the material's ability to oppose electric current.

This formula is not exact: It assumes the current density is totally uniform in the conductor, which is not always true in practical situation. However, this formula still provides a good approximation for long thin conductors such as wires.

Another situation this formula is not exact for is with alternating current (AC), because the skin effect inhibits current flow near the center of the conductor. Then, the geometrical cross-section is different from the effective cross-section in which current actually flows, so the resistance is higher than expected. Similarly, if two conductors are near each other carrying AC current, their resistances increase due to the proximity effect. At commercial power frequency, these effects are significant for large conductors carrying large currents, such as busbars in an electrical substation, [2] or large power cables carrying more than a few hundred amperes.

Aside from the geometry of the wire, temperature also has a significant effect on the efficacy of conductors. Temperature affects conductors in two main ways, the first is that materials may expand under the application of heat. The amount that the material will expand is governed by the thermal expansion coefficient specific to the material. Such an expansion (or contraction) will change the geometry of the conductor and therefore its characteristic resistance. However, this effect is generally small, on the order of 10−6. An increase in temperature will also increase the number of phonons generated within the material. A phonon is essentially a lattice vibration, or rather a small, harmonic kinetic movement of the atoms of the material. Much like the shaking of a pinball machine, phonons serve to disrupt the path of electrons, causing them to scatter. This electron scattering will decrease the number of electron collisions and therefore will decrease the total amount of current transferred.

Conductor materials

Materialρ [Ω·m] at 20°Cσ [S/m] at 20°C
Silver, Ag1.59 × 10−86.30 × 107
Copper, Cu1.68 × 10−85.96 × 107
Aluminum, Al2.82 × 10−83.50 × 107

Conduction materials include metals, electrolytes, superconductors, semiconductors, plasmas and some nonmetallic conductors such as graphite and conductive polymers.

Copper has a high conductivity. Annealed copper is the international standard to which all other electrical conductors are compared; the International Annealed Copper Standard conductivity is 58 MS/m, although ultra-pure copper can slightly exceed 101% IACS. The main grade of copper used for electrical applications, such as building wire, motor windings, cables and busbars, is electrolytic-tough pitch (ETP) copper (CW004A or ASTM designation C100140). If high conductivity copper must be welded or brazed or used in a reducing atmosphere, then oxygen-free high conductivity copper (CW008A or ASTM designation C10100) may be used. [3] Because of its ease of connection by soldering or clamping, copper is still the most common choice for most light-gauge wires.

Silver is 6% more conductive than copper, but due to cost it is not practical in most cases. However, it is used in specialized equipment, such as satellites, and as a thin plating to mitigate skin effect losses at high frequencies. Famously, 14,700 short tons (13,300 t) of silver on loan from the United States Treasury were used in the making of the calutron magnets during World War II due to wartime shortages of copper.

Aluminum wire is the most common metal in electric power transmission and distribution. Although only 61% of the conductivity of copper by cross-sectional area, its lower density makes it twice as conductive by mass. As aluminum is roughly one-third the cost of copper by weight, the economic advantages are considerable when large conductors are required.

The disadvantages of aluminum wiring lie in its mechanical and chemical properties. It readily forms an insulating oxide, making connections heat up. Its larger coefficient of thermal expansion than the brass materials used for connectors causes connections to loosen. Aluminum can also "creep", slowly deforming under load, which also loosens connections. These effects can be mitigated with suitably designed connectors and extra care in installation, but they have made aluminum building wiring unpopular past the service drop.

Organic compounds such as octane, which has 8 carbon atoms and 18 hydrogen atoms, cannot conduct electricity. Oils are hydrocarbons, since carbon has the property of tetracovalency and forms covalent bonds with other elements such as hydrogen, since it does not lose or gain electrons, thus does not form ions. Covalent bonds are simply the sharing of electrons. Hence, there is no separation of ions when electricity is passed through it. So the liquid (oil or any organic compound) cannot conduct electricity.

While pure water is not an electrical conductor, even a small portion of ionic impurities, such as salt, can rapidly transform it into a conductor.

Wire size

Wires are measured by their cross sectional area. In many countries, the size is expressed in square millimetres. In North America, conductors are measured by American wire gauge for smaller ones, and circular mils for larger ones.

Conductor ampacity

The ampacity of a conductor, that is, the amount of current it can carry, is related to its electrical resistance: a lower-resistance conductor can carry a larger value of current. The resistance, in turn, is determined by the material the conductor is made from (as described above) and the conductor's size. For a given material, conductors with a larger cross-sectional area have less resistance than conductors with a smaller cross-sectional area.

For bare conductors, the ultimate limit is the point at which power lost to resistance causes the conductor to melt. Aside from fuses, most conductors in the real world are operated far below this limit, however. For example, household wiring is usually insulated with PVC insulation that is only rated to operate to about 60 °C, therefore, the current in such wires must be limited so that it never heats the copper conductor above 60 °C, causing a risk of fire. Other, more expensive insulation such as Teflon or fiberglass may allow operation at much higher temperatures.


If an electric field is applied to a material, and the resulting induced electric current is in the same direction, the material is said to be an isotropic electrical conductor. If the resulting electric current is in a different direction from the applied electric field, the material is said to be an anisotropic electrical conductor.

See also

Classification of materials based on permittivity
εr / εr Current conduction Field propagation
0 perfect dielectric
lossless medium
≪ 1low-conductivity material
poor conductor
low-loss medium
good dielectric
≈ 1lossy conducting materiallossy propagation medium
≫ 1high-conductivity material
good conductor
high-loss medium
poor dielectric
perfect conductor

Related Research Articles

Electric current Flow of electric charge

An electric current is a stream of charged particles, such as electrons or ions, moving through an electrical conductor or space. It is measured as the net rate of flow of electric charge through a surface or into a control volume. The moving particles are called charge carriers, which may be one of several types of particles, depending on the conductor. In electric circuits the charge carriers are often electrons moving through a wire. In semiconductors they can be electrons or holes. In a electrolyte the charge carriers are ions, while in plasma, an ionized gas, they are ions and electrons.

Insulator (electricity) Material that does not conduct an electric current

An electrical insulator is a material in which electric current does not flow freely. The atoms of the insulator have tightly bound electrons which cannot readily move. Other materials, semiconductors and conductors conduct electric current more easily. The property that distinguishes an insulator is its resistivity; insulators have higher resistivity than semiconductors or conductors. The most common examples are non-metals.

Ohms law Law according to which the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage across the two points

Ohm's law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage across the two points. Introducing the constant of proportionality, the resistance, one arrives at the usual mathematical equation that describes this relationship:

Electroplating Creation of protective or decorative metallic coating on other metal with electric current

Electroplating is a general name for processes that produce a metal coating on a solid substrate through the reduction of cations of that metal by means of a direct electric current. The part to be coated acts as the cathode of an electrolytic cell; the electrolyte is a solution of a salt of the metal to be coated; and the anode is usually either a block of that metal, or of some inert conductive material. The current is provided by an external power supply.

The thermal conductivity of a material is a measure of its ability to conduct heat. It is commonly denoted by , , or .

Electrical resistance and conductance Opposition to the passage of an electric current

The electrical resistance of an object is a measure of its opposition to the flow of electric current. Its reciprocal quantity is electrical conductance, measuring the ease with which an electric current passes. Electrical resistance shares some conceptual parallels with mechanical friction. The SI unit of electrical resistance is the ohm, while electrical conductance is measured in siemens (S).

Electrical resistivity is a fundamental property of a material that measures how strongly it resists electric current. Its inverse, called electrical conductivity, quantifies how well a material conducts electricity. A low resistivity indicates a material that readily allows electric current. Resistivity is commonly represented by the Greek letter ρ (rho). The SI unit of electrical resistivity is the ohm-meter (Ω⋅m). For example, if a 1 m solid cube of material has sheet contacts on two opposite faces, and the resistance between these contacts is 1 Ω, then the resistivity of the material is 1 Ω⋅m.

Thermal conduction is the transfer of internal energy by microscopic collisions of particles and movement of electrons within a body. The colliding particles, which include molecules, atoms and electrons, transfer disorganized microscopic kinetic and potential energy, jointly known as internal energy. Conduction takes place in all phases: solid, liquid, and gas.

Skin effect Phenomenon of electrical conduction

Skin effect is the tendency of an alternating electric current (AC) to become distributed within a conductor such that the current density is largest near the surface of the conductor and decreases exponentially with greater depths in the conductor. The electric current flows mainly at the "skin" of the conductor, between the outer surface and a level called the skin depth. Skin depth depends on the frequency of the alternating current; as frequency increases, current flow moves to the surface, resulting in less skin depth. Skin effect reduces the effective cross-section of the conductor and thus increases its effective resistance. Skin effect is caused by opposing eddy currents induced by the changing magnetic field resulting from the alternating current. At 60 Hz in copper, the skin depth is about 8.5 mm. At high frequencies the skin depth becomes much smaller.

American Wire Gauge (AWG), also known as the Brown & Sharpe wire gauge, is a logarithmic stepped standardized wire gauge system used since 1857, predominantly in North America, for the diameters of round, solid, nonferrous, electrically conducting wire. Dimensions of the wires are given in ASTM standard B 258. The cross-sectional area of each gauge is an important factor for determining its current-carrying ampacity.

Eddy current The Loops of electrical current induced within conductors by a changing magnetic field

Eddy currents are loops of electrical current induced within conductors by a changing magnetic field in the conductor according to Faraday's law of induction. Eddy currents flow in closed loops within conductors, in planes perpendicular to the magnetic field. They can be induced within nearby stationary conductors by a time-varying magnetic field created by an AC electromagnet or transformer, for example, or by relative motion between a magnet and a nearby conductor. The magnitude of the current in a given loop is proportional to the strength of the magnetic field, the area of the loop, and the rate of change of flux, and inversely proportional to the resistivity of the material. When graphed, these circular currents within a piece of metal look vaguely like eddies or whirlpools in a liquid.

Electrical wiring Electrical installation of cabling

Electrical wiring is an electrical installation of cabling and associated devices such as switches, distribution boards, sockets, and light fittings in a structure.

Breakdown voltage

The breakdown voltage of an insulator is the minimum voltage that causes a portion of an insulator to become electrically conductive.

Power cable

A power cable is an electrical cable, an assembly of one or more electrical conductors, usually held together with an overall sheath. The assembly is used for transmission of electrical power. Power cables may be installed as permanent wiring within buildings, buried in the ground, run overhead, or exposed. Power cables that are bundled inside thermoplastic sheathing and that are intended to be run inside a building are known as NM-B.

Aluminum building wiring is a type of electrical wiring for residential construction or houses that uses aluminum electrical conductors. Aluminum provides a better conductivity to weight ratio than copper, and therefore is also used for wiring power grids, including overhead power transmission lines and local power distribution lines, as well as for power wiring of some airplanes. Utility companies have used aluminum wire for electrical transmission in power grids since around the late 1800s to the early 1900s. It has cost and weight advantages over copper wires. Aluminum wire in power transmission and distribution applications is still the preferred material today.

Speaker wire

Speaker wire is used to make the electrical connection between loudspeakers and audio amplifiers. Modern speaker wire consists of two or more electrical conductors individually insulated by plastic or, less commonly, rubber. The two wires are electrically identical, but are marked to identify the correct audio signal polarity. Most commonly, speaker wire comes in the form of zip cord.

Current density Electric current per area of cross section

In electromagnetism, current density is the amount of charge per unit time that flows through a unit area of a chosen 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 positive charges at this point. In SI base units, the electric current density is measured in amperes per square metre.

Magnet wire

Magnet wire or enameled wire is a copper or aluminium wire coated with a very thin layer of insulation. It is used in the construction of transformers, inductors, motors, generators, speakers, hard disk head actuators, electromagnets, electric guitar pickups and other applications that require tight coils of insulated wire.

Resistivity logging is a method of well logging that works by characterizing the rock or sediment in a borehole by measuring its electrical resistivity. Resistivity is a fundamental material property which represents how strongly a material opposes the flow of electric current. In these logs, resistivity is measured using four electrical probes to eliminate the resistance of the contact leads. The log must run in holes containing electrically conductive mud or water, i.e., with enough ions present in the drilling fluid.

Copper conductor Electrical wire or other conductor made of copper

Copper has been used in electrical wiring since the invention of the electromagnet and the telegraph in the 1820s. The invention of the telephone in 1876 created further demand for copper wire as an electrical conductor.


  1. 1 2 "Wire Sizes and Resistance" (PDF). Retrieved 2018-01-14.
  2. Fink and Beaty, Standard Handbook for Electrical Engineers 11th Edition, pages 17–19
  3. "High conductivity coppers (electrical)". Copper Development Association (U.K.). Archived from the original on 2013-07-20. Retrieved 2013-06-01.

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