Electron theory states all matter is comprised of molecules, which in turn are comprised of atoms, which are again comprised of protons, neutrons and electrons. A molecule is the smallest part of matter which can exist by itself and contains one or more atoms.




Atoms and electrons

Everybody knows about atoms and electrons don't they? Well we could skip this part but of course we won't because you will likely learn something new.

Electron theory states all matter is comprised of molecules, which in turn are comprised of atoms, which are again comprised of protons, neutrons and electrons. A molecule is the smallest part of matter which can exist by itself and contains one or more atoms.

If you turn on a light switch for example you will see the light bulb (globe) glow and emit light into the room. So what caused this to happen? How does energy travel through copper wires to light the bulb? How does energy travel through space? What makes a motor turn, a radio play?

To understand these processes requires an understanding of the basic principles. For the light to glow requires energy to find a path through the light switch, through the copper wire and this movement is called electron flow. It is also called current flow in electronics. This is the first important principle to understand.

The word matter includes almost everything. It includes copper, wood, water, air....virtually everything. If we were able to take a piece of matter such as a drop of water, divided it by two and kept dividing by two until it couldn't be divided any further whileit was still water we would eventually have a molecule of water.

A molecule, the smallest particle which can exist, of water comprises two atoms of Hydrogen and one atom of Oxygen - H2O.

An atom is also divisible - into protons and electrons. Both are electrical particles and neither is divisible. Electrons are the smallest and lightest and are said to be negatively charged. Protons on the other hand are about 1800 times the mass of electrons and are positively charged. Each are thought to have lines of forces (electric fields) surrounding them. In theory, negative lines of force will not join other negative lines of force. In fact they tend to repel each other. Similarly positive lines of force act in the same way.

The fact that electrons repel electrons and protons repel protons, but electrons and protons attract one another follows the basic law of physics:

Like forces repel and unlike forces attract.

Sounds a bit like a teenage romance - opposites attract.

When an electron and proton are brought in close proximity to one another it is the electron which moves because the proton is 1800 times heavier. It is the electron which moves in electricity. Even though the electron is much smaller, its field is quite strong negatively and is equal to the positive field of the proton.

If the field strength around an electron at a distance of 1,000,000th of a centimetre was a certain amount, then the field strength around an electron at a distance of 2,000,000th of a centimetre will be 1/4 as much. This is because the field decreases inversely with the distance squared. If an increase in one thing causes an increase in something else, these two things are said to vary directly. 2,000,000 electrons on an object produce twice the negative charge than 1,000,000 electrons would.

Since the electric-field strength of an electron varies inversely with the distance squared, the field strength a centimetre away would be quite weak. The fields surrounding protons and electrons are known as electrostatic fields. "Static" means stationary or not moving.

When electrons are made to move, the result is dynamic electricity. "Dynamic" means movement. To produce a movement of an electron it is necessary to either have a negatively charged field "push it", a positively charged field "pull it", or, as normally occurs in an electric circuit, a negative and positive charge (a pushing and pulling of forces).

There are more than one hundred different atoms or elements. The simplest and lightest is Hydrogen. An atom of Hydrogen consists of one electron whirling around one proton much like the moon revolving around the earth. The next atom in terms of weight is Helium (He) consisting two protons and two electrons. The third atom is Lithium (Li) with three protons and three electrons and so it goes on.

Some of the elements and their atomic weights are:

Hydrogen (1); Helium (2); Lithium (3); Carbon (6); Oxygen (8); Aluminium (13); Silicon (14); Iron (26); Nickel (28); Copper (29); Germanium (32); Gold (79); Lead (82).

Most atoms have a nucleus consisting of all the protons of the atom and also one or more neutrons. The remainder of the electrons (always equal in number to the nuclear protons) are whirling around the nucleus in different layers. The first layer of electrons outside the nucleus can only accomodate two electrons. If the atom has three electrons then two will be in the first layer and the third will be in the next layer. The second layer is completely filled when eight electrons are whirling around it. The third is filled when eighteen electrons are whirling around.

Don't think these electrons whirl around in some haphazard manner, they don't. The electrons in an element of a large atomic number are grouped into rings having a definite number of electrons. The only atoms in which these rings are completely filled are those of inert gaseous elements such as Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon.

All the other elements have one or more uncompleted rings of electrons.

Some of the electrons in the outer orbit of atoms such as copper or silver can be easily dislodged. These electrons travel out into the wide open spaces between the atoms and molecules and may be termed free electrons. It is the ability of these electrons to drift from atom to atom which makes electric current possible. Other electrons will resist dislodgement and are called bound electrons.

Electron Theory and Metals

It would be impossible for electronics to exist without metals and they are crucial to modern technology. Here are some of the properties of a few metals commonly used in electronics.

This image is copyright © by Ian C. Purdie VK2TIP - properties of selected metals

Figure 1. - properties of selected metals

Note:  Iron is the only metal significantly affected by a magnet.

1.  Density at 20° C is Kg per M3

2.  Ohms -1

3.  These properties can be altered dramatically by the presence of relatively small amounts of impurities.

Another property of metals is malleability. This is because rows of positive ions can easiy slide over one another and still maintain a regular pattern. This is the reason why metals can be stretched without breaking.


Most metals in use today are in fact alloys. Common examples are stainless steel, high speed steel from which our drill bits are made and in common use in electronics - Solder (60% Sn, 40% Pb - that's tin and lead) and; Nichrome for resistance wire and electrical heating elements (80% Ni, 20% Cr - that's nickel and chrome).






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Updated 2nd January, 2001