How fast do the electrons in copper flow when that copper is carrying electricity? — LH, North Hollywood
It turns out that the electrons in copper travel quite slowly even though “electricity” travels at almost the speed of light. That’s because there are so many mobile electrons in copper (and other conductors) that even if those electrons move only an inch per second, they comprise a large electric current. Picture the electrons as water flowing through a pipe or river and now consider the Mississippi River. Even if the Mississippi is flowing only inches per second, it sure carries lots of water past St. Louis each second.
The fact that electricity itself travels at almost the speed of light just means that when you start the electrons moving at one end of a long wire, the electrons at the other end of the wire also begin moving almost immediately. But that doesn’t mean that an electron from your end of the wire actually reaches the far end any time soon. Instead, the electrons behave somewhat like water in a long hose. When you start the water moving at one end, it pushes on water in front of it, which pushes on water in front of it, and so on so that water at the far end of the hose begins to leave the hose almost immediately. In the case of water, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of sound. In a wire, the motion proceeds forward at the speed of light in the wire (actually the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate along the wire), which is only slightly less than the speed of light in vacuum.
Note for the experts: as one of my readers (KT) points out, the water-in-a-hose analogy for current-in-a-wire is far from perfect. Current in a wire flows throughout the wire, including at its surface, and the wire’s resistance to steady current flow scales as the cross-sectional area of the wire. In contrast, water in a hose only flows through the open channel inside the hose and the hose’s resistance to flow scales approximately as the fourth power of that channel’s diameter.