How Electricity Moves in a Circuit
Materials such as copper metal that conduct electricity (allow it to flow freely) are called conductors. Materials that don’t allow electricity to pass through them so readily, such as rubber and plastic, are called insulators. What makes copper a conductor and rubber an insulator?
A current of electricity is a steady flow of electrons. When electrons move from one place to another, round a circuit, they carry electrical energy from place to place like marching ants carrying leaves. Instead of carrying leaves, electrons carry a tiny amount of electric charge.
Electricity can travel through something when its structure allows electrons to move through it easily. Metals like copper have “free” electrons that are not bound tightly to their parent atoms. These electrons flow freely throughout the structure of copper and this is what enables an electric current to flow. In rubber, the electrons are more tightly bound. There are no “free” electrons and, as a result, electricity does not really flow through rubber at all. Conductors that let electricity flow freely are said to have a high conductance and a low resistance; insulators that do not allow electricity to flow are the opposite: they have a low conductance and a high resistance.
For electricity to flow, there has to be something to push the electrons along. This is called an electromotive force (EMF). A battery or power outlet creates the electromotive force that makes a current of electrons flow. An electromotive force is better known as a voltage.
Direct current and alternating current
Electricity can move around a circuit in two different ways. In the big picture up above, you can see electrons racing around a loop like race cars on a track, always going in the same direction. This type of electricity is called direct current (DC) and most toys and small gadgets have circuits that work this way.