I know this sounds like a stupid question, but do electrons truly flow in a circuit? It doesn't seem logical for electrons to just break away from their atoms to go move through a circuit. If they did, they would probably go through a bunch of reactions and behave oddly (right?). Do the atoms lose/gain electrons to become ions and flow through the circuit? If so, wouldn't they too big to be able to flow easily through a conductor?

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    $\begingroup$ There is no such thing as "their" atoms in the first place. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 4:27
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is not a chemistry question and more like a physics related question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ Solid state physics in particular, where electrons are in wave functions of the solid, not one atom. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


The key here is the concept of metallic bonding. or, the sharing of electrons between metal atoms like those in a copper wire (a typical conductor). In this type of atomic bond, electrons no longer belong to one atom or another; they're shared equally amongst all atoms. As such, one electron truly does go bouncing around between the atoms in the direction of the electric current.

One atom is close enough to another in metallic-bonded substances that an electron is attracted just as much to one nucleus as the next one over, so it's not so "illogical" to think that an electron might "break free" of its original nucleus.

Chemical reactions occur between atoms, not electrons, and atoms in a metal are already metallic-bonded together, so a few stray electrons wouldn't do anything to create new reactions. However, the electrons do behave oddly! That's the beauty of metal conductors: their electrons are free to flow wherever an electric or magnetic field dictates, meaning that they can do some pretty cool things!

The nuclei of a conductor don't become ions because every time one electron leaves, another takes its place. Think of people at a gas station on a busy day: every time one car fills up and leaves, another pulls in almost immediately. Thus, the metal atoms never have time to become ions, because there's plenty of electrons to keep them company.

As (nearly) always, Wikipedia has a bunch of information on the subject.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much! This is a great answer and it answers all of my questions! I haven't heard that anywhere on line, but it makes total sense. Sorry that I may have posted this in the wrong stack exchange, but I think it does have a lot to do with chemistry and atomic bonds. $\endgroup$
    – Indigo2003
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 5:39

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