Electrical Conductors and Insulators

What is Conductors and Insulators?

In a conductor, electric current can flow freely, in an insulator it cannot. Metals such as copper typify conductors, while most non-metallic solids are said to be good insulators, having extremely high resistance to the flow of charge through them.

The behavior of an object that has been charged is dependent upon whether the object is made of a conductive or a nonconductive material. Conductors are materials that permit electrons to flow freely from particle to particle. An object made of a conducting material will permit charge to be transferred across the entire surface of the object. If charge is transferred to the object at a given location, that charge is quickly distributed across the entire surface of the object. The distribution of charge is the result of electron movement. Since conductors allow for electrons to be transported from particle to particle, a charged object will always distribute its charge until the overall repulsive forces between excess electrons is minimized. If a charged conductor is touched to another object, the conductor can even transfer its charge to that object. The transfer of charge between objects occurs more readily if the second object is made of a conducting material. Conductors allow for charge transfer through the free movement of electrons.

In contrast to conductors, insulators are materials that impede the free flow of electrons from atom to atom and molecule to molecule. If charge is transferred to an insulator at a given location, the excess charge will remain at the initial location of charging. The particles of the insulator do not permit the free flow of electrons; subsequently charge is seldom distributed evenly across the surface of an insulator.

While insulators are not useful for transferring charge, they do serve a critical role in electrostatic experiments and demonstrations. Conductive objects are often mounted upon insulating objects. This arrangement of a conductor on top of an insulator prevents charge from being transferred from the conductive object to its surroundings. This arrangement also allows for a student (or teacher) to manipulate a conducting object without touching it. The insulator serves as a handle for moving the conductor around on top of a lab table. If charging experiments are performed with aluminum pop cans, then the cans should be mounted on top of Styrofoam cups. The cups serve as insulators, preventing the pop cans from discharging their charge. The cups also serve as handles when it becomes necessary to move the cans around on the table.

Examples of Conductors and Insulators
Examples of conductors include metals, aqueous solutions of salts (i.e., ionic compounds dissolved in water), graphite, and the human body. Examples of insulators include plastics, Styrofoam, paper, rubber, glass and dry air. The division of materials into the categories of conductors and insulators is a somewhat artificial division. It is more appropriate to think of materials as being placed somewhere along a continuum. Those materials that are super conductive (known as superconductors) would be placed at on end and the least conductive materials (best insulators) would be placed at the other end. Metals would be placed near the most conductive end and glass would be placed on the opposite end of the continuum. The conductivity of a metal might be as much as a million trillion times greater than that of glass.

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