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Conductors and insulators

Module by: Free High School Science Texts Project. E-mail the author

Conductors and insulators

All atoms are electrically neutral i.e. they have the same amounts of negative and positive charge inside them. By convention, the electrons carry negative charge and the protons carry positive charge. The basic unit of charge, called the elementary charge, e, is the amount of charge carried by one electron.

All the matter and materials on earth are made up of atoms. Some materials allow electrons to move relatively freely through them (e.g. most metals, the human body). These materials are called conductors.

Other materials do not allow the charge carriers, the electrons, to move through them (e.g. plastic, glass). The electrons are bound to the atoms in the material. These materials are called non-conductors or insulators.

If an excess of charge is placed on an insulator, it will stay where it is put and there will be a concentration of charge in that area of the object. However, if an excess of charge is placed on a conductor, the like charges will repel each other and spread out over the outside surface of the object. When two conductors are made to touch, the total charge on them is shared between the two. If the two conductors are identical, then each conductor will be left with half of the total charge.

Aside: Charge and electrons:

The basic unit of charge, namely the elementary charge is carried by the electron (equal to 1.602×10-19×10-19 C!). In a conducting material (e.g. copper), when the atoms bond to form the material, some of the outermost, loosely bound electrons become detached from the individual atoms and so become free to move around. The charge carried by these electrons can move around in the material. In insulators, there are very few, if any, free electrons and so the charge cannot move around in the material.

Note: Interesting fact:

In 1909 Robert Millikan and Harvey Fletcher measured the charge on an electron. This experiment is now known as Millikan's oil drop experiment. Millikan and Fletcher sprayed oil droplets into the space between two charged plates and used what they knew about forces and in particular the electric force to determine the charge on an electron.

Exercise 1: Conducting spheres and movement of charge

I have 2 charged metal conducting spheres which are identical except for having different charge. Sphere A has a charge of -5 nC and sphere B has a charge of -3 nC. I then bring the spheres together so that they touch each other. Afterwards I move the two spheres apart so that they are no longer touching.

  1. What happens to the charge on the two spheres?
  2. What is the final charge on each sphere?

Solution

  1. Step 1. Identify what is known and what question/s we need to answer: :

    We have two identical negatively charged conducting spheres which are brought together to touch each other and then taken apart again. We need to explain what happens to the charge on each sphere and what the final charge on each sphere is after they are moved apart.

  2. Step 2. What concept is being used? :

    We know that the charge carriers in conductors are free to move around and that charge on a conductor spreads itself out on the surface of the conductor.

  3. Step 3. Use the concept to find the answer :
    1. When the two conducting spheres are brought together to touch, it is as though they become one single big conductor and the total charge of the two spheres spreads out across the whole surface of the touching spheres. When the spheres are moved apart again, each one is left with half of the total original charge.
    2. Before the spheres touch, the total charge is: -5 nC + (-3) nC = -8 nC. When they touch they share out the -8 nC across their whole surface. When they are removed from each other, each is left with half of the original charge:
      -8 nC /2=-4 nC -8 nC /2=-4 nC
      (1)
      on each sphere.

The electroscope

The electroscope is a very sensitive instrument which can be used to detect electric charge. A diagram of a gold leaf electroscope is shown the figure below. The electroscope consists of a glass container with a metal rod inside which has 2 thin pieces of gold foil attached. The other end of the metal rod has a metal plate attached to it outside the glass container.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (PG10C9_009.png)

The electroscope detects charge in the following way: A charged object, like the positively charged rod in the picture, is brought close to (but not touching) the neutral metal plate of the electroscope. This causes negative charge in the gold foil, metal rod, and metal plate, to be attracted to the positive rod. Because the metal (gold is a metal too!) is a conductor, the charge can move freely from the foil up the metal rod and onto the metal plate. There is now more negative charge on the plate and more positive charge on the gold foil leaves. This is called inducing a charge on the metal plate. It is important to remember that the electroscope is still neutral (the total positive and negative charges are the same), the charges have just been induced to move to different parts of the instrument! The induced positive charge on the gold leaves forces them apart since like charges repel! This is how we can tell that the rod is charged. If the rod is now moved away from the metal plate, the charge in the electroscope will spread itself out evenly again and the leaves will fall down because there will no longer be an induced charge on them.

Grounding

If you were to bring the charged rod close to the uncharged electroscope, and then you touched the metal plate with your finger at the same time, this would cause charge to flow up from the ground (the earth), through your body onto the metal plate. Connecting to the earth so charge flows is called grounding. The charge flowing onto the plate is opposite to the charge on the rod, since it is attracted to the charge on the rod. Therefore, for our picture, the charge flowing onto the plate would be negative. Now that charge has been added to the electroscope, it is no longer neutral, but has an excess of negative charge. Now if we move the rod away, the leaves will remain apart because they have an excess of negative charge and they repel each other. If we ground the electroscope again (this time without the charged rod nearby), the excess charge will flow back into the earth, leaving it neutral.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (PG10C9_010.png)

Attraction between charged and uncharged objects

Polarisation of Insulators

Unlike conductors, the electrons in insulators (non-conductors) are bound to the atoms of the insulator and cannot move around freely through the material. However, a charged object can still exert a force on a neutral insulator due to a phenomenon called polarisation.

If a positively charged rod is brought close to a neutral insulator such as polystyrene, it can attract the bound electrons to move round to the side of the atoms which is closest to the rod and cause the positive nuclei to move slightly to the opposite side of the atoms. This process is called polarisation. Although it is a very small (microscopic) effect, if there are many atoms and the polarised object is light (e.g. a small polystyrene ball), it can add up to enough force to cause the object to be attracted onto the charged rod. Remember, that the polystyrene is only polarised, not charged. The polystyrene ball is still neutral since no charge was added or removed from it. The picture shows a not-to-scale view of the polarised atoms in the polystyrene ball:

Figure 3
Figure 3 (PG10C9_011.png)

Some materials are made up of molecules which are already polarised. These are molecules which have a more positive and a more negative side but are still neutral overall. Just as a polarised polystyrene ball can be attracted to a charged rod, these materials are also affected if brought close to a charged object.

Water is an example of a substance which is made of polarised molecules. If a positively charged rod is brought close to a stream of water, the molecules can rotate so that the negative sides all line up towards the rod. The stream of water will then be attracted to the rod since opposite charges attract.

Summary

  1. Objects can be positively charged, negatively charged or neutral.
  2. Objects that are neutral have equal numbers of positive and negative charge.
  3. Unlike charges are attracted to each other and like charges are repelled from each other.
  4. Charge is neither created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred.
  5. Charge is measured in coulombs (C).
  6. Conductors allow charge to move through them easily.
  7. Insulators do not allow charge to move through them easily.

The following presentation is a summary of the work covered in this chapter. Note that the last two slides are not needed for exam purposes, but are included for general interest.

Figure 4

End of chapter exercise

  1. What are the two types of charge called?
    Click here for the solution.
  2. Provide evidence for the existence of two types of charge.
    Click here for the solution.
  3. Fill in the blanks: The electrostatic force between like charges is
              
    while the electrostatic force between opposite charges is
              
    .
    Click here for the solution.
  4. I have two positively charged metal balls placed 2 m apart.
    1. Is the electrostatic force between the balls attractive or repulsive?
    2. If I now move the balls so that they are 1 m apart, what happens to the strength of the electrostatic force between them?

    Click here for the solution.
  5. I have 2 charged spheres each hanging from string as shown in the picture below.
    Figure 5
    Figure 5 (PG10C9_012.png)
    Choose the correct answer from the options below: The spheres will
    1. swing towards each other due to the attractive electrostatic force between them.
    2. swing away from each other due to the attractive electrostatic force between them.
    3. swing towards each other due to the repulsive electrostatic force between them.
    4. swing away from each other due to the repulsive electrostatic force between them.

    Click here for the solution.
  6. Describe how objects (insulators) can be charged by contact or rubbing.
    Click here for the solution.
  7. You are given a perspex ruler and a piece of cloth.
    1. How would you charge the perspex ruler?
    2. Explain how the ruler becomes charged in terms of charge.
    3. How does the charged ruler attract small pieces of paper?

    Click here for the solution.
  8. [IEB 2005/11 HG] An uncharged hollow metal sphere is placed on an insulating stand. A positively charged rod is brought up to touch the hollow metal sphere at P as shown in the diagram below. It is then moved away from the sphere.
    Figure 6
    Figure 6 (PG10C9_013.png)
    Where is the excess charge distributed on the sphere after the rod has been removed?
    1. It is still located at point P where the rod touched the sphere.
    2. It is evenly distributed over the outer surface of the hollow sphere.
    3. It is evenly distributed over the outer and inner surfaces of the hollow sphere.
    4. No charge remains on the hollow sphere.

    Click here for the solution.
  9. What is the process called where molecules in an uncharged object are caused to align in a particular direction due to an external charge?
    Click here for the solution.
  10. Explain how an uncharged object can be attracted to a charged object. You should use diagrams to illustrate your answer.
    Click here for the solution.
  11. Explain how a stream of water can be attracted to a charged rod.
    Click here for the solution.

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