Basic Electrical Components
Resistors are components that have a predetermined resistance. Resistance determines how much current will flow through a component. Resistors are used to control voltages and currents. A very high resistance allows very little current to flow. Air has very high resistance. Current almost never flows through air. (Sparks and lightning are brief displays of current flow through air. The light is created as the current burns parts of the air.) A low resistance allows a large amount of current to flow. Metals have very low resistance. That is why wires are made of metal. They allow current to flow from one point to another point without any resistance. Wires are usually covered with rubber or plastic. This keeps the wires from coming in contact with other wires and creating short circuits. High voltage power lines are covered with thick layers of plastic to make them safe, but they become very dangerous when the line breaks and the wire is exposed and is no longer separated from other things by insulation.
Resistance is given in units of ohms. (Ohms are named after Mho Ohms who played with electricity as a young boy in Germany.) Common resistor values are from 100 ohms to 100,000 ohms. Each resistor is marked with colored stripes to indicate it’s resistance. To learn how to calculate the value of a resistor by looking at the stripes on the resistor, go to Resistor Values which includes more information about resistors.
Variable resistors are also common components. They have a dial or a knob that allows you to change the resistance. This is very useful for many situations. Volume controls are variable resistors. When you change the volume you are changing the resistance which changes the current. Making the resistance higher will let less current flow so the volume goes down. Making the resistance lower will let more current flow so the volume goes up. The value of a variable resistor is given as it’s highest resistance value. For example, a 500 ohm variable resistor can have a resistance of anywhere between 0 ohms and 500 ohms. A variable resistor may also be called a potentiometer (pot for short).
Diodes are components that allow current to flow in only one direction. They have a positive side (leg) and a negative side. When the voltage on the positive leg is higher than on the negative leg then current flows through the diode (the resistance is very low). When the voltage is lower on the positive leg than on the negative leg then the current does not flow (the resistance is very high). The negative leg of a diode is the one with the line closest to it. It is called the cathode. The postive end is called the anode.
Usually when current is flowing through a diode, the voltage on the positive leg is 0.65 volts higher than on the negative leg.
Light Emitting Diodes are great for projects because they provide visual entertainment. LEDs use a special material which emits light when current flows through it. Unlike light bulbs, LEDs never burn out unless their current limit is passed. A current of 0.02 Amps (20 mA) to 0.04 Amps (40 mA) is a good range for LEDs. They have a positive leg and a negative leg just like regular diodes. To find the positive side of an LED, look for a line in the metal inside the LED. It may be difficult to see the line. This line is closest to the positive side of the LED. Another way of finding the positive side is to find a flat spot on the edge of the LED. This flat spot is on the negative side.
When current is flowing through an LED the voltage on the positive leg is about 1.4 volts higher than the voltage on the negative side. Remember that there is no resistance to limit the current so a resistor must be used in series with the LED to avoid destroying it.
To learn about LEDs through an interactive kit, look at LED and Transistor Kit
Switches are devices that create a short circuit or an open circuit depending on the position of the switch. For a light switch, ON means short circuit (current flows through the switch, lights light up and people dance.) When the switch is OFF, that means there is an open circuit (no current flows, lights go out and people settle down. This effect on people is used by some teachers to gain control of loud classes.)
When the switch is ON it looks and acts like a wire. When the switch is OFF there is no connection.