LESSON 1 - THE BASICS
Electronics gets its name from the electron, a tiny particle which forms part of all atoms, which, as everybody knows, make up everything in the world. Atoms contain other types of particles - protons and neutrons - but it is the electrons which will be interesting us here.
Electrons and protons have the electrical property of charge. Protons have positive charge and electrons have negative charge and they normally balance each other out. We don't really need to know what charge is. It's just a property like weight or colour, but it is this property which makes the whole of electronics happen. But keep in mind the fact that opposite charges attract and similar charges repel.
When electrons move together in a unified way we say there is a current flowing. Electrons are actually moving all the time in materials like metals but moving in a random disordered way. A current is when they all move together in one particular direction.
When you touch a lift button having walked across a synthetic carpet and you feel a shock, that is electrons flowing through you to the ground. That's all a current is, simply the movement of electrons in a particular direction.
Electrons can't flow through every material. Materials that allow a current to flow easily are called conductors. Materials that don't allow a current to flow are called non-conductors or insulators. Metals are the most common conductors, plastics are typical insulators.
conductors non-conductors gold plastic copper wood carbon air
Copper is a good conductor. Copper tracks are used on the MadLab printed circuit boards to connect the components together. Solder is another good conductor. The solder makes the actual join between the leg of the component and the track.
The plastic that a printed circuit board is made of is an insulator. Currents can only flow up and down the copper tracks and not jump from one to another. For the same reason wires are surrounded by plastic coatings to stop them conducting where they shouldn't.
There are certain materials that are between the two extremes of conductor and non-conductor, we will come to them later.
A battery supplies the 'force' that makes the electrons move. This force is called the voltage. The bigger the voltage the more force. Mains electricity which is 240 volts is more powerful than an ordinary 9 volt battery.
Currents are measured in amps, and voltages are measured in volts (after the scientists Ampère and Volta). Voltages are sometimes called potential differences, or electromotive forces, but we won't use these terms here.
There is a big confusion for many people as to the difference between voltage and current. They talk about so many volts going through something when they really mean amps. So let's think about things in a different way.
Imagine water flowing through a pipe filling up a pond. The water represents the electrons and the pipe represents the wire. A pump provides the pressure to force the water through the pipe. The pump is the battery. How much water flows out the end of the pipe each second is the current. How hard the water is being pumped is the voltage.
A narrow pipe will take a long time to fill the pond, whereas a broad pipe will do it much faster using the same pump. Clearly the rate of flow depends on the thickness of the pipe. So we have the situation where the same voltage (pump pressure) can give rise to different currents (flow rate) depending on the pipe. Try to guess what the thickness of the pipe represents in this model of things (answer later).
An electric current requires a complete path - a circuit - before it can flow. In a circuit with a battery, the battery is both the starting flag and the finishing line for the electrons. A chemical reaction in the battery releases electrons which flow around the circuit and then back into the battery. The battery keeps the current flowing, feeding electrons in at one end and collecting them at the other. It takes energy to do this and so after a while the battery wears out.
Current flows into a component and the same amount of current always flows out of the component. It is not 'used up' in any way. As the current passes through components things happen (an LED lights up for instance).
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