When a metal wire is connected across the two terminals of a DC voltage source such as a battery, the source places an electric field across the conductor. The moment contact is made, the free electrons of the conductor are forced to drift toward the positive terminal under the influence of this field. The free electrons are therefore the current carrier in a typical solid conductor. For an electric current of 1 ampere, 1 coulomb of electric charge (which consists of about 6.242 × 1018 electrons) drifts every second through any plane through which the conductor passes.
The current I in amperes can be calculated with the following equation:
It follows that:
More generally, electric current can be represented as the time rate of change of charge, or
Any accelerating electric charge, and therefore any changing electric current, gives rise to an electromagnetic wave that propagates at very high speed outside the surface of the conductor. This speed is usually a significant fraction of the speed of light, as can be deduced from Maxwell's Equations, and is therefore many times faster than the drift velocity of the electrons. For example, in AC power lines, the waves of electromagnetic energy propagate through the space between the wires, moving from a source to a distant load, even though the electrons in the wires only move back and forth over a tiny distance.
The ratio of the speed of the electromagnetic wave to the speed of light in free space is called the velocity factor, and depends on the electromagnetic properties of the conductor and the insulating materials surrounding it, and on their shape and size.
The nature of these three velocities can be illustrated by an analogy with the three similar velocities associated with gases. The low drift velocity of charge carriers is analogous to air motion; in other words, winds. The high speed of electromagnetic waves is roughly analogous to the speed of sound in a gas; while the random motion of charges is analogous to heat - the thermal velocity of randomly vibrating gas particles.
A flow of positive charge gives the same electric current as an opposite flow of negative charge. Thus, opposite flows of opposite charges contribute to a single electric current. For this reason, the polarity of the flowing charges can usually be ignored during measurements. All the flowing charges are assumed to have positive polarity, and this flow is called Conventional current.
In solid metals such as wires, the positive charge carriers are immobile, and only the negatively charged electrons flow. Because the electron carries negative charge, the electron motion in a metal is in the direction opposite to that of conventional (or electric) current.
In many other conductive materials, the electric current is due to the flow of both positively and negatively charged particles at the same time. In still others, the current is entirely due to positive charge flow. For example, the electric currents in electrolytes are flows of electrically charged atoms (ions), which exist in both positive and negative varieties. In a common lead-acid electrochemical cell, electric currents are composed of positive hydrogen ions (protons) flowing in one direction, and negative sulfate ions flowing in the other. Electric currents in sparks or plasma are flows of electrons as well as positive and negative ions. In ice and in certain solid electrolytes, the electric current is entirely composed of flowing protons. For conceptual simplicity, Conventional current is used to conceal these issues by summing the various currents together into a single value.
There are also materials where the electric current is due to the flow of electrons, and yet it is conceptually easier to think of the current as due to the flow of positive "holes" (the spots that should have an electron to make the conductor neutral). This is the case in a p-type semiconductor.
Electric current can be directly measured with a galvanometer, but this method involves breaking the circuit, which is sometimes inconvenient. Current can also be measured without breaking the circuit by detecting the magnetic field associated with the current. Devices used for this include Hall effect sensors, current clamps, current transformers, and Rogowski coils.
Due to this and the fact that passing current cannot be easily predicted in most practical circumstances, any supply of over 50 volts should be considered a possible source of dangerous electric shock. In particular, note that 110 volts (a minimum voltage at which AC mains power is distributed in much of the Americas, and 4 other countries, mostly in Asia) can certainly cause a lethal amount of current to pass through the body.
Electric arcs, which can occur with supplies of any voltage (for example, a typical arc welding machine has a voltage between the electrodes of just a few tens of volts), are very hot and emit ultra-violet (UV) and infra-red radiation (IR). Proximity to an electric arc can therefore cause severe thermal burns, and UV is damaging to unprotected eyes and skin.
Accidental electric heating can also be dangerous. An overloaded power cable is a frequent cause of fire. A battery as small as an AA cell placed in a pocket with metal coins can lead to a short circuit heating the battery and the coins which may inflict burns. NiCad, NiMh cells, and lithium batteries are particularly risky because they can deliver a very high current due to their low internal resistance.