Valence Electrons

Valence is the number of chemical bonds an atom can form. Valence electrons are electrons that can participate in chemical bonds with other atoms. The number of electrons in the outermost shell of the atom is the determining factor in its valence. Therefore, the electrons contained in this shell are called valence electrons.


Ionization is the process by which an atom loses or gains electrons. Dislodging an electron from an atom will cause the atom to become positively charged. This net positively charged atom is called a positive ion or a cation. An atom that has gained an extra number of electrons is negatively charged and is called a negative ion or an anion. When atoms are neutral, the positively charged proton and the negatively charged electron are equal.

Free Electrons

Valence electrons are found drifting midway between two nuclei. Some electrons are more tightly bound to the nucleus of their atom than others and are positioned in a shell or sphere closer to the nucleus, while others are more loosely bound and orbit at a greater distance from the nucleus. These outermost electrons are called “free" electrons because they can be easily dislodged from the positive attraction of the protons in the nucleus. Once freed from the atom, the electron can then travel from atom to atom, becoming the flow of electrons commonly called current in a practical electrical circuit.

Electron Movement

The valence of an atom determines its ability to gain or lose an electron, which ultimately determines the chemical and electrical properties of the atom. These properties can be categorized as being a conductor, semiconductor or insulator, depending on the ability of the material to produce free electrons. When a material has a large number of free electrons available, a greater current can be conducted in the material.


Elements such as gold, copper and silver possess many free electrons and make good conductors. The atoms in these materials have a few loosely bound electrons in their outer orbits. Energy in the form of heat can cause these electrons in the outer orbit to break loose and drift throughout the material. Copper and silver have one electron in their outer orbits. At room temperature, a piece of silver wire will have billions of free electrons.


These are materials that do not conduct electrical current very well or not at all. Good examples of these are: glass, ceramic, and plastic. Under normal conditions, atoms in these materials do not produce free electrons. The absence of the free electrons means that electrical current cannot be conducted through the material. Only when the material is in an extremely strong electrical field will the outer electrons be dislodged. This action is called breakdown and usually causes physical damage to the insulator.


This material falls in between the characteristics of conductors and insulators, in that they are not good at conducting or insulating. Silicon and germanium are the most widely used semiconductor materials. For a more detailed explanation on this topic refer to Page 10-101 in this chapter.

Metric Based Prefixes Used for Electrical Calculations

In any system of measurements, a single set of units is usually not sufficient for all the computations involved in electrical repair and maintenance. Small distances, for example, can usually be measured in inches, but larger distances are more meaningfully expressed in feet, yards, or miles. Since electrical values often vary from numbers that are a millionth part of a basic unit of measurement to very large values, it is often necessary to use a wide range of numbers to represent the values of such units as volts, amperes, or ohms. A series of prefixes which appear with the name of the unit have been devised for the various multiples or submultiples of the basic units. There are 12 of these prefixes, which are also known as conversion factors. Four of the most commonly used prefixes used in electrical work with a short definition of each are as follows:

Mega (M) means one million (1,000,000).
Kilo (k) means one thousand (1,000).
Milli (m) means one-thousandth (1/1,000).
Micro (µ) means one-millionth (1/1,000,000).

One of the most extensively used conversion factors, kilo, can be used to explain the use of prefixes with basic units of measurement. Kilo means 1,000, and when used with volts, is expressed as kilovolt, meaning 1,000 volts. The symbol for kilo is the letter “k". Thus, 1,000 volts is one kilovolt or 1kV. Conversely, one volt would equal one-thousandth of a kV, or 1/1,000 kV. This could also be written 0.001 kV.

Similarly, the word “milli" means one-thousandth, and thus, 1 millivolt equals one-thousandth (1/1000) of a volt.

Figure 10-4 contains a complete list of the multiples used to express electrical quantities, together with the prefixes and symbols used to represent each number.

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