Microscopic View of Ohm's Law

When electric current in a material is proportional to the voltage across it, the material is said to be "ohmic", or to obey Ohm's law. A microscopic view suggests that this proportionality comes from the fact that an applied electric field superimposes a small drift velocity on the free electrons in a metal. For ordinary currents, this drift velocity is on the order of millimeters per second in constrast to the speeds of the electrons themselves which are on the order of a million meters per second. Even the electron speeds are themselves small compared to the speed of transmission of an electrical signal down a wire, which is on the order of the speed of light, 300 million meters per second.

The current density (electric current per unit area, J=I/A) can be expressed as

The number of free electrons, assuming one per atom, is

From the standard form of Ohm's law and resistance in terms of resistivity:

The next step is to relate the drift velocity to the electron speed, which can be approximated by the Fermi speed:

The drift speed can be expressed in terms of the accelerating electric field E, the electron mass, and the characteristic time between collisions.

The conductivity of the material can be expressed in terms of the Fermi speed and the mean free path of an electron in the metal.

Numerical example for copper.Table of resistivities
Table of free electron densities
  HyperPhysics***** Electricity and Magnetism                                     Prof Allehyani S.H Go Back

Microscopic View of Copper Wire

As an example of the microscopic view of Ohm's law, the parameters for copper will be examined. With one free electron per atom in its metallic state, the electron density of copper can be calculated from its bulk density and its atomic mass.

The Fermi energy for copper is about 7 eV, so the Fermi speed is

The measured resistivity of copper at 20 C is

The mean free path of an electron in copper under these conditions can be calculated from

The drift speed depends upon the electric field applied. For example, a copper wire of diameter 1mm and length 1 meter which has one volt applied to it yields the following results.

For 1 volt applied this gives a current of 46.3 amperes and a current density

This corresponds to a drift speed of only millimeters per second, in contrast to the high Fermi speed of the electrons.

  HyperPhysics***** Electricity and Magnetism                     Prof Allehyani S.H Go Back