Electrical conductors are materials that conduct electricity. The defining characteristic that makes a material a conductor is the ease of which electrons can move through it. In this article, we will look closely at how conductors work and some popular types of electrical conductors.
How Electrical Conductors Work
When electricity flows from one point to another, it is called conductivity. The conductor is anything that allows electricity to flow through it. Metals make the best conductors because the outer electrons of their atoms are loosely attached and drift easily through the metal when voltage is applied.
It is also worth noting that the shape and size of the conductor can affect conductivity. For example, a thick piece of a material will conduct better than a thin piece. Similarly, a shorter price will conduct better than a longer piece since its conductivity is more concentrated. Temperature can also affect conductivity as atoms and electrons gain energy when temperature increases.
Examples of Electrical Conductors
There are many metals as well as some nonmetals that work as conductors, some better than others. Here are some examples of these:
Copper: This is the most commonly used electrical conductor. With a conductivity of 100%, it is highly conductive and has been used since the days of the telegraph. Some common uses for copper in electrical applications include:
- Pins in a 13A Plug: Useful in this application because it has low reactivity and it is strong
- Saucepan base: Used because it is a good thermal conductor, has low reactivity and is strong
- Water pipes: Used because it is ductile as well as tough and strong. Also because it is an anti-bacterial and has low reactivity.
- Electric Cable: Used because it is a good electrical conductor and is ductile and strong. It is used in wiring for electronics like television equipment and accessories.
- Microprocessors: Like electrical cables, these are used because they are good electrical conductors and they are ductile.
Silver: Although copper is the most commonly used electrical conductor, it is not the most conductive metal. That designation would go to the metallic element silver which has a conductivity of 105% and is the best electric conductor under ordinary temperature and pressure conditions. However, it’s not always an ideal choice because it’s expensive and it tarnishes. The tarnish serves to make the metal less conductive as will rust, verdigris and other oxide layers.
Gold: Gold is a good electric conductor and does not tarnish when exposed to air for a prolonged period of time. However, it is expensive and is only used in certain applications like circuit board components or small electrical connectors.
Aluminum: Aluminum is another commonly used conductor. In fact, when compared by unit weight, it is actually more conductive than copper and costs less. However, it is not a common choice for household applications due to the fact that it has a tendency to overheat. Because of this, it is often used for high voltage transmission lines which can be encased in steel for additional protection.
Steel: Steel is an alloy of iron and also a conductor. However, it is inflexible and highly corrosive when exposed to air. It is not often used in small products or machines, but it used to encase other conductors or for larger structures.
Brass: Although brass contains copper, it is not nearly as strong of a conductor. In fact, it has a conductivity of 28% as compared to copper’s 100%. However, it still has benefits that allow it to be used in a number of applications. It is an alloy and a tensile metal which makes it easy to bend and mold into different parts for smaller machines. It is also less corrosive than metals like steel as well as being more conductive, cheaper to purchase and still retains its value after use.
Mercury: Mercury is another metal that can conduct electricity. Its conductivity is not as high as some other metals and it is relatively expensive. However, it is still used in a number of practical devices including a mercury switch which turns lights on and off.
Salt Water: Although we are all aware that water can carry an electric shock, pure water is not an electric conductor. However, when there is salt in the water, the salt provides dissolved and dissociated ions. These sodium and chloride ions have a conductivity of around 5 S/m.
Concrete: Some may be surprised to find concrete on this list, but concrete is, in fact, a conductor, albeit maybe not a very good one. However, it can carry electricity through iconic conduction or the movement of ions through the solid when driven by an applied electrical field.
There are a number of other electrical conductors as well, including metals and nonmetals, all with varying degrees of conductivity. It is a good idea to be able to identify conductors if you are working in the electrical field. This way you will be able to determine which materials will work best in your applications.