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Difference between Conductors and Insulators

Not every atom is created equal. The atomic structure varies from atom to atom. Some atoms are incapable of holding their outer electrons together. They are called free electrons because they can roam freely from atom to atom. These electrons pass electrical energy from one particle to another thereby transferring energy in the form of electricity. A conductor is a substance which anticipates free flow of electrical charge. On the contrary, an insulator resists electricity, which means it has exactly the opposite effect on the flow of electrons. The electrons bind together tightly within atoms, thereby restricting free flow of electrical charge. Let’s study the difference between the two in detail.

What are Conductors?Difference between Conductors and Insulators

Conductors are substances that allow free electrons to flow through them easily, thereby transferring energy in the form of electricity as electrons move freely from atom to atom. In simple terms, conductors permit electrons to roam freely from particle to particle in one or more directions. If you send an electrically charged electron into a conductor, it hits a free electron, eventually knocking it off until it knocks off other free electrons. This triggers sort of a chain reaction creating electrical charge through the material. These substances can easily pass electricity through them as their atomic structure allows the free electrons to move freely from one particle to another with ease.

Most metals such as copper, aluminum, iron, gold, and silver are good conductors of electricity as the electrons are free to move from one atom to another. For example, copper is a good conductor because it anticipates the free flow of electrons quite easily. Aluminum, on the other hand, is also a fair conductor but it’s not as good as copper. It is very lightweight so mostly used in power distribution cables. Let’s take an example of a bulb. When you switch on the light, the electrical charge passes through the wire which causes the bulb to emit light. It’s nothing but flow of electrons between atoms.

Metals are the most common conductors of electricity. Other conductors include semiconductors, electrolytes, plasmas, plus non-metallic conductors such as conductive polymers and graphite. Silver is a better conductor than copper but is not practical to use in most cases because of its higher cost. However, it is used for specialized and sensitive equipment such as satellites. Even water mixed with impurities such as salt can be considered as a conductor.


What are Insulators?

Insulators, on the other hand, are substances that have exactly the opposite effect on the flow of electrons. These substances impede the free flow of electrons, thereby inhibiting the flow of electrical current. Insulators contain atoms that hold on to their electrons tightly which restrict the flow of electrons from one atom to another. Because of the tightly bound electrons, they are not able to roam around freely. In simple terms, substances that prevent the flow of current are insulators. The materials have such low conductivity that the flow of current is almost negligible, thus they are commonly used to protect us from dangerous effects of electricity.

Some common examples of insulators are glass, plastic, ceramics, paper, rubber, etc. The flow of current in electronic circuits is not static and voltage can be quite high at times, which makes it a little vulnerable. Sometimes the voltage is high enough to cause electric current to flow through materials that are not even considered as good conductors of electricity. This can cause electric shock because human body is also a good conductor of electricity. Therefore, electric wires are coated with rubber which acts as an insulator which in turn protects us from the conductor inside. Take any cord for that matter and you can see the insulator and in case you see the conductor, it’s time to replace it.

Difference between Conductors and Insulators

  1. Conductors anticipate free flow of electric current because electrons roam freely from one atom to another with ease. Insulators, on the other hand, oppose electric current because they won’t permit free flow of electrons from one particle to another.
  2. Conductors can easily transfer energy in the form of electricity or heat, for that matter. However, insulators cannot transfer electrical energy so easily so they resist electricity.
  3. Conductors can easily pass electricity through them because of the free electrons present in their atomic structure, but insulators, on the other hand, cannot pass electricity through them.
  4. Conductors are substances whose atoms do not have tightly bound electrons thus they are free to roam around in one or many directions. However, electrons are tightly bound within atoms in case of insulators thereby restricting any movement of electrons within the nominal range of applied voltage.
  5. Conductors usually have a low resistance, but not zero resistance unless they are super conductors. Insulators have a high resistance to electricity.
  6. Conductors conduct electricity while insulators insulate electricity. For example, the metallic wire in an electric cord is a conductor, while the sheath or the protective cover is the insulator.
  7. Touching a live conductor might kill you. On the other hand, if you touch a live insulator, it won’t even hurt a bit because it resists electric current.

Conductors vs. Insulators: Comparison Chart

Conductors Insulators
Conductors are materials that allow free flow of electrons from one atom to another. Insulators won’t allow free of electrons from one atom to another.
Conductors conduct electricity because of the free electrons present in them. Insulators insulate electricity because of the tightly bound electrons present within atoms.
These materials can pass electricity through them. Insulating materials cannot pass electric current through them.
Atoms are not able to hold onto their electrons tightly. Atoms have tightly bound electrons thereby unable to transfer electrical energy well.
Materials that are good conductors generally have high conductivity. Good insulating materials usually have low conductivity.
Mostly metals are good conductors such as copper, aluminum, silver, iron, etc. Common insulators include rubber, glass, ceramic, plastic, asphalt, pure water, etc.

Summary on Conductors vs. Insulators

Both conductors and insulators are practically opposite in terms of property and functionality. The most common difference between the two is that while conductors allow free flow of electrons from one atom to another, insulators restrict free flow of electrons. Conductors allow electrical energy to pass through them, whereas insulators do not allow electrical energy to pass through them. Conductors have high conductivity whereas insulators have low conductivity.

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References :

[0]Royston, Angela. Conductors and Insulators. Portsmouth: Heinemann Publishing, 2003. Print

[1]Miller, Reagan. What Are Insulators and Conductors? New York: Crabtree Publishing, 2012. Print

[2]Shea, C.O. Conductors and Insulators. NYC: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2012. Print

[3]"Image Credit: http://txominagirreikastola.wikispaces.com/ELECTRICITY+LH+6"

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