Because the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance in any circuit is so regular, we can reliably control any variable in a circuit simply by controlling the other two. Perhaps the easiest variable in any circuit to control is its resistance. This can be done by changing the material, size, and shape of its conductive components (remember how the thin metal filament of a lamp created more electrical resistance than a thick wire?).
Special components called resistors are made for the express purpose of creating a precise quantity of resistance for insertion into a circuit. They are typically constructed of metal wire or carbon, and engineered to maintain a stable resistance value over a wide range of environmental conditions. Unlike lamps, they do not produce light, but they do produce heat as electric power is dissipated by them in a working circuit. Typically, though, the purpose of a resistor is not to produce usable heat, but simply to provide a precise quantity of electrical resistance.
The most common schematic symbol for a resistor is a zig-zag line:
Resistor values in ohms are usually shown as an adjacent number, and if several resistors are present in a circuit, they will be labeled with a unique identifier number such as R1, R2, R3, etc. As you can see, resistor symbols can be shown either horizontally or vertically:
Real resistors look nothing like the zig-zag symbol. Instead, they look like small tubes or cylinders with two wires protruding for connection to a circuit. Here is a sampling of different sizes of resistors based on power dissipation rating:
In keeping more with their physical appearance, an alternative schematic symbol for a resistor looks like a small, rectangular box:
Resistors can also be shown to have varying rather than fixed resistances. This might be for the purpose of describing an actual physical device designed for the purpose of providing an adjustable resistance, or it could be to show some component that just happens to have an unstable resistance:
In fact, any time you see a component symbol drawn with a diagonal arrow through it, that component has a variable rather than a fixed value. This symbol “modifier” (the diagonal arrow) is standard electronic symbol convention.
Variable resistors must have some physical means of adjustment, either a rotating shaft or lever that can be moved to vary the amount of electrical resistance. Here is a photograph showing some devices called potentiometers, which can be used as variable resistors:
Because resistors dissipate heat energy as the electric currents through them overcome the “friction” of their resistance, resistors are also rated in terms of how much heat energy they can dissipate without overheating and sustaining damage. Naturally, this power rating is specified in the physical unit of “watts.” Most resistors found in small electronic devices such as portable radios are rated at 1/4 (0.25) watt or less. The power rating of any resistor is roughly proportional to its physical size. Note in the first resistor photograph how the power ratings relate with size: the bigger the resistor, the higher its power dissipation rating. Also note how resistances (in ohms) have nothing to do with size!
Although it may seem pointless now to have a device doing nothing but resisting electric current, resistors are extremely useful devices in circuits. Because they are simple and so commonly used throughout the world of electricity and electronics, we’ll spend a considerable amount of time analyzing circuits composed of nothing but resistors and batteries.
For a practical illustration of resistors’ usefulness, examine the photograph below. It is a picture of a printed circuit board, or PCB: an assembly made of sandwiched layers of insulating phenolic fiber-board and conductive copper strips, into which components may be inserted and secured by a low-temperature welding process called “soldering.” The various components on this circuit board are identified by printed labels. Resistors are denoted by any label beginning with the letter “R”.
This particular circuit board is a radio transceiver. There are at least a dozen resistors (all rated at 1/4 watt power dissipation) that can be seen on this modem’s board. Every one of the black rectangles (called “integrated circuits” or “chips”) contain their own array of resistors for their internal functions, as well.
Another circuit board example shows resistors packaged in even smaller units, called “surface mount devices.” This particular circuit board is the popular Raspberry Pi, and once again the resistors soldered onto it are designated with labels beginning with the letter “R”:
These two photographs should convince anyone that resistors—devices that “merely” oppose the flow of electrons—are very important components in the realm of electronics!
In schematic diagrams, resistor symbols are sometimes used to illustrate any general type of device in a circuit doing something useful with electrical energy. Any non-specific electrical device is generally called a load, so if you see a schematic diagram showing a resistor symbol labeled “load,” especially in a tutorial circuit diagram explaining some concept unrelated to the actual use of electrical power, that symbol may just be a kind of shorthand representation of something else more practical than a resistor.
This section is more or less like an introduction to resistors as regard to Ohm’s Law. Further explanation about resistors such as practical resistor uses and applications, reading resistor values through color codes are available here.
Ohm’s Law is a simple and powerful mathematical tool for helping us analyze electric circuits, but it has limitations, and we must understand these limitations in order to properly apply it to real circuits. For most conductors, resistance is a rather stable property, largely unaffected by voltage or current. For this reason we can regard the resistance of many circuit components as a constant, with voltage and current being directly related to each other.
For instance, in part 1, our circuit example with the 3 Ω lamp, we calculated current through the circuit by dividing voltage by resistance (I=V/R). With an 18 volt battery, our circuit current was 6 amps. Doubling the battery voltage to 36 volts resulted in a doubled current of 12 amps. All of this makes sense, of course, so long as the lamp continues to provide exactly the same amount of friction (resistance) to the flow of electrons through it: 3 Ω.
However, reality is not always this simple. One of the phenomena explored in a later chapter is that of conductor resistance changing with temperature. In an incandescent lamp (the kind employing the principle of electric current heating a thin filament of wire to the point that it glows white-hot), the resistance of the filament wire will increase dramatically as it warms from room temperature to operating temperature. If we were to increase the supply voltage in a real lamp circuit, the resulting increase in current would cause the filament to increase temperature, which would in turn increase its resistance, thus preventing further increases in current without further increases in battery voltage. Consequently, voltage and current do not follow the simple equation “I=E/R” (with R assumed to be equal to 3 Ω) because an incandescent lamp’s filament resistance does not remain stable for different currents.
The phenomenon of resistance changing with variations in temperature is one shared by almost all metals, of which most wires are made. For most applications, these changes in resistance are small enough to be ignored. In the application of metal lamp filaments, the change happens to be quite large.
This is just one example of “non-linearity” in electric circuits. It is by no means the only example. A “linear” function in mathematics is one that tracks a straight line when plotted on a graph. The simplified version of the lamp circuit with a constant filament resistance of 3 Ω generates a plot like this:
The straight-line plot of current over voltage indicates that resistance is a stable, unchanging value for a wide range of circuit voltages and currents. In an “ideal” situation, this is the case. Resistors, which are manufactured to provide a definite, stable value of resistance, behave very much like the plot of values seen above. A mathematician would call their behavior “linear.”
A more realistic analysis of a lamp circuit, however, over several different values of battery voltage would generate a plot of this shape:
The plot is no longer a straight line. It rises sharply on the left, as voltage increases from zero to a low level. As it progresses to the right we see the line flattening out, the circuit requiring greater and greater increases in voltage to achieve equal increases in current.
If we try to apply Ohm’s Law to find the resistance of this lamp circuit with the voltage and current values plotted above, we arrive at several different values. We could say that the resistance here is non-linear, increasing with increasing current and voltage. The non-linearity is caused by the effects of high temperature on the metal wire of the lamp filament.
Another example of non-linear current conduction is through gases such as air. At standard temperatures and pressures, air is an effective insulator. However, if the voltage between two conductors separated by an air gap is increased greatly enough, the air molecules between the gap will become “ionized,” having their electrons stripped off by the force of the high voltage between the wires. Once ionized, air (and other gases) become good conductors of electricity, allowing electron flow where none could exist prior to ionization. If we were to plot current over voltage on a graph as we did with the lamp circuit, the effect of ionization would be clearly seen as non-linear:
The graph shown is approximate for a small air gap (less than one inch). A larger air gap would yield a higher ionization potential, but the shape of the I/V curve would be very similar: practically no current until the ionization potential was reached, then substantial conduction after that.
Incidentally, this is the reason lightning bolts exist as momentary surges rather than continuous flows of electrons. The voltage built up between the earth and clouds (or between different sets of clouds) must increase to the point where it overcomes the ionization potential of the air gap before the air ionizes enough to support a substantial flow of electrons. Once it does, the current will continue to conduct through the ionized air until the static charge between the two points depletes. Once the charge depletes enough so that the voltage falls below another threshold point, the air De-ionizes and returns to its normal state of extremely high resistance.
Many solid insulating materials exhibit similar resistance properties: extremely high resistance to electron flow below some critical threshold voltage, then a much lower resistance at voltages beyond that threshold. Once a solid insulating material has been compromised by high-voltage breakdown, as it is called, it often does not return to its former insulating state, unlike most gases. It may insulate once again at low voltages, but its breakdown threshold voltage will have been decreased to some lower level, which may allow breakdown to occur more easily in the future. This is a common mode of failure in high-voltage wiring: insulation damage due to breakdown. Such failures may be detected through the use of special resistance meters employing high voltage (1000 volts or more).
There are circuit components specifically engineered to provide nonlinear resistance curves, one of them being the varistor. Commonly manufactured from compounds such as zinc oxide or silicon carbide, these devices maintain high resistance across their terminals until a certain “firing” or “breakdown” voltage (equivalent to the “ionization potential” of an air gap) is reached, at which point their resistance decreases dramatically. Unlike the breakdown of an insulator, varistor breakdown is repeatable: that is, it is designed to withstand repeated breakdowns without failure. A picture of a varistor is shown here:
There are also special gas-filled tubes designed to do much the same thing, exploiting the very same principle at work in the ionization of air by a lightning bolt.
Other electrical components exhibit even stranger current/voltage curves than this. Some devices actually experience a decrease in current as the applied voltage increases. Because the slope of the current/voltage for this phenomenon is negative (angling down instead of up as it progresses from left to right), it is known as negative resistance.
Most notably, high-vacuum electron tubes known as tetrodes and semiconductor diodes known as Esaki or tunnel diodes exhibit negative resistance for certain ranges of applied voltage.
Ohm’s Law is not very useful for analyzing the behavior of components like these where resistance varies with voltage and current. Some have even suggested that “Ohm’s Law” should be demoted from the status of a “Law” because it is not universal. It might be more accurate to call the equation (R=V/I) a definition of resistance, befitting of a certain class of materials under a narrow range of conditions.
For the benefit of the student, however, we will assume that resistances specified in example circuits are stable over a wide range of conditions unless otherwise specified. I just wanted to expose you to a little bit of the complexity of the real world, lest I give you the false impression that the whole of electrical phenomena could be summarized in a few simple equations.
So far, we’ve been analyzing single-battery, single-resistor circuits with no regard for the connecting wires between the components, so long as a complete circuit is formed. Does the wire length or circuit “shape” matter to our calculations? Let’s look at a couple of circuit configurations and find out:
When we draw wires connecting points in a circuit, we usually assume those wires have negligible resistance. As such, they contribute no appreciable effect to the overall resistance of the circuit, and so the only resistance we have to contend with is the resistance in the components. In the above circuits, the only resistance comes from the 5 Ω resistors, so that is all we will consider in our calculations. In real life, metal wires actually do have resistance (and so do power sources!), but those resistances are generally so much smaller than the resistance present in the other circuit components that they can be safely ignored. Exceptions to this rule exist in power system wiring, where even very small amounts of conductor resistance can create significant voltage drops given normal (high) levels of current.
If connecting wire resistance is very little or none, we can regard the connected points in a circuit as being electrically common. That is, points 1 and 2 in the above circuits may be physically joined close together or far apart, and it doesn’t matter for any voltage or resistance measurements relative to those points. The same goes for points 3 and 4. It is as if the ends of the resistor were attached directly across the terminals of the battery, so far as our Ohm’s Law calculations and voltage measurements are concerned. This is useful to know, because it means you can re-draw a circuit diagram or re-wire a circuit, shortening or lengthening the wires as desired without appreciably impacting the circuit’s function. All that matters is that the components attach to each other in the same sequence.
It also means that voltage measurements between sets of “electrically common” points will be the same. That is, the voltage between points 1 and 4 (directly across the battery) will be the same as the voltage between points 2 and 3 (directly across the resistor). Take a close look at the following circuit, and try to determine which points are common to each other:
Here, we only have 2 components excluding the wires: the battery and the resistor. Though the connecting wires take a convoluted path in forming a complete circuit, there are several electrically common points in the electrons’ path. Points 1, 2, and 3 are all common to each other, because they’re directly connected together by wire. The same goes for points 4, 5, and 6.
The voltage between points 1 and 6 is 10 volts, coming straight from the battery. However, since points 5 and 4 are common to 6, and points 2 and 3 common to 1, that same 10 volts also exists between these other pairs of points:
Between points 1 and 4 = 10 volts
Between points 2 and 4 = 10 volts
Between points 3 and 4 = 10 volts (directly across the resistor)
Between points 1 and 5 = 10 volts
Between points 2 and 5 = 10 volts
Between points 3 and 5 = 10 volts
Between points 1 and 6 = 10 volts (directly across the battery)
Between points 2 and 6 = 10 volts
Between points 3 and 6 = 10 volts
Since electrically common points are connected together by (zero resistance) wire, there is no significant voltage drop between them regardless of the amount of current conducted from one to the next through that connecting wire. Thus, if we were to read voltages between common points, we should show (practically) zero:
Between points 1 and 2 = 0 volts Points 1, 2, and 3 are
Between points 2 and 3 = 0 volts electrically common
Between points 1 and 3 = 0 volts
Between points 4 and 5 = 0 volts Points 4, 5, and 6 are
Between points 5 and 6 = 0 volts electrically common
Between points 4 and 6 = 0 volts
This makes sense mathematically, too. With a 10 volt battery and a 5 Ω resistor, the circuit current will be 2 amps. With wire resistance being zero, the voltage drop across any continuous stretch of wire can be determined through Ohm’s Law as such:
It should be obvious that the calculated voltage drop across any uninterrupted length of wire in a circuit where wire is assumed to have zero resistance will always be zero, no matter what the magnitude of current, since zero multiplied by anything equals zero.
Because common points in a circuit will exhibit the same relative voltage and resistance measurements, wires connecting common points are often labeled with the same designation. This is not to say that the terminal connection points are labeled the same, just the connecting wires. Take this circuit as an example:
Points 1, 2, and 3 are all common to each other, so the wire connecting point 1 to 2 is labeled the same (wire 2) as the wire connecting point 2 to 3 (wire 2). In a real circuit, the wire stretching from point 1 to 2 may not even be the same color or size as the wire connecting point 2 to 3, but they should bear the exact same label. The same goes for the wires connecting points 6, 5, and 4.
Knowing that electrically common points have zero voltage drop between them is a valuable troubleshooting principle. If I measure for voltage between points in a circuit that are supposed to be common to each other, I should read zero. If, however, I read substantial voltage between those two points, then I know with certainty that they cannot be directly connected together. If those points are supposed to be electrically common but they register otherwise, then I know that there is an “open failure” between those points.
One final note: for most practical purposes, wire conductors can be assumed to possess zero resistance from end to end. In reality, however, there will always be some small amount of resistance encountered along the length of a wire, unless its a superconducting wire. Knowing this, we need to bear in mind that the principles learned here about electrically common points are all valid to a large degree, but not to an absolute degree. That is, the rule that electrically common points are guaranteed to have zero voltage between them is more accurately stated as such: electrically common points will have very little voltage dropped between them. That small, virtually unavoidable trace of resistance found in any piece of connecting wire is bound to create a small voltage across the length of it as current is conducted through. So long as you understand that these rules are based upon ideal conditions, you won’t be perplexed when you come across some condition appearing to be an exception to the rule.
POLARITY OF VOLTAGE DROPS
We can trace the direction that electrons will flow in the same circuit by starting at the positive(+) terminal and following through to the negative(-) terminal of the battery (conventional current flow), the only source of voltage in the circuit. From this we can see that the electrons are moving counter-clockwise, from point 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 to 6 and back to 1 again.
As the current encounters the 5 Ω resistance, voltage is dropped across the resistor’s ends. The polarity of this voltage drop is positive(+) at point 3 with respect to negative(-) at point 4. We can mark the polarity of the resistor’s voltage drop with these negative and positive symbols, in accordance with the direction of current (whichever end of the resistor the current is entering is positive with respect to the end of the resistor it is exiting:
We could make our table of voltages a little more complete by marking the polarity of the voltage for each pair of points in this circuit:
Between points 1 (+) and 4 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 2 (+) and 4 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 3 (+) and 4 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 1 (+) and 5 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 2 (+) and 5 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 3 (+) and 5 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 1 (+) and 6 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 2 (+) and 6 (-) = 10 volts
Between points 3 (+) and 6 (-) = 10 volts
While it might seem a little silly to document polarity of voltage drop in this circuit, it is an important concept to master. It will be critically important in the analysis of more complex circuits involving multiple resistors and/or batteries.
It should be understood that polarity has nothing to do with Ohm’s Law: there will never be negative voltages, currents, or resistance entered into any Ohm’s Law equations! There are other mathematical principles of electricity that do take polarity into account through the use of signs (+ or -), but not Ohm’s Law.