Resistance, Resistivity & Ohm’s Law


Resistance is a fundamental property of materials that quantifies their ability to impede the flow of electric current. When a potential difference (voltage) is applied across the ends of a conductor, it drives an electric current through the conductor. However, the extent to which the current flow increases depends on the conductor’s inherent ability to conduct electricity. Different materials exhibit varying levels of resistance to current flow.

The resistance (R) of a conductor is defined mathematically as the ratio of the potential difference (V), applied across the conductor, to the current (I) flowing through it. This relationship is represented by the equation:

$$V = IR$$

where V is the voltage across the conductor (in volts), I is the current through the conductor (in amperes), and R is the resistance of the conductor (in ohms, symbolized as $\Omega$). The SI unit of resistance is the ohm ($\Omega$). A higher resistance value indicates a greater opposition to current flow, while a lower resistance suggests a better conducting ability.


While resistance measures how much a specific conductor opposes current flow, resistivity ($\rho$) is a property inherent to the material itself, indicating how strongly the material resists the flow of electric current. Resistivity is influenced by the material’s composition and its temperature. Experimental observations have revealed that the resistance of a conductor also depends on its physical dimensions—specifically, its length (L) and cross-sectional area (A).

The relationship between resistance and these factors is given by the formula:

$$R = \rho \frac{L}{A}$$


R is the resistance in ohms ($\Omega$),

$\rho$ is the resistivity of the material in ohm-metres ($\Omega \cdot m$),

L is the length of the conductor in meters (m), and

A is the cross-sectional area of the conductor in square meters ($m(^2)$).

This equation shows that resistance is directly proportional to the length of the conductor and inversely proportional to its cross-sectional area. The resistivity ($\rho$) is a constant for a given material under steady physical conditions, indicating that it is an intrinsic property of the material, unaffected by the shape or size of the sample.

Resistivity highlights important practical considerations: for wires of the same material and length, thinner wires will have higher resistance than thicker ones due to their smaller cross-sectional area. Similarly, for wires of the same material and thickness, longer wires will exhibit higher resistance than shorter ones. This principle is crucial in the design of electrical and electronic systems, influencing decisions on wire specifications for various applications.

[A Level] Ohm’s Law

Ohm’s Law is a cornerstone of electrical engineering that provides a simple but powerful equation relating voltage, current, and resistance in electrical circuits. It states that the current flowing through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage across the two points, provided the physical conditions of the conductor, such as temperature and material, remain constant. This law is expressed mathematically as:

$$R = \frac{V}{I}$$

This formula indicates that the resistance (R) of a conductor is a constant value for given physical conditions. Conductors that adhere to this proportional relationship between voltage (V) and current (I) are known as ohmic conductors. Ohm’s Law is instrumental in predicting how current will flow in circuits under various voltage conditions and in designing electrical and electronic devices.

A practical implication of Ohm’s Law is in the specification of resistors, electrical components designed to introduce a specific resistance into a circuit. A resistor is said to have a resistance of one ohm ($1 \Omega$) if it allows the flow of one ampere of current through it when a potential difference of one volt is applied across it.

Ohmic Conductors

Ohmic conductors are materials that adhere to Ohm’s Law across a wide range of applied voltages and currents. In ohmic conductors, the resistance remains constant regardless of the potential difference applied across them. This means the ratio of voltage (V) to current (I) in an ohmic conductor does not change, implying a linear relationship between these two quantities. Graphically, when the current through an ohmic conductor is plotted against the voltage across it, the result is a straight line passing through the origin. The slope of this line represents the resistance of the conductor, which is constant.

The constancy of resistance in ohmic conductors is due to the uniform distribution of free electrons and the absence of significant barriers to their flow within the material. Metals such as copper, aluminum, and silver are classic examples of ohmic conductors. These materials are characterized by their ability to maintain a steady resistance over a range of operating conditions, making them ideal for use in various electrical and electronic applications where predictable behavior is required.

Non-Ohmic Conductors

Non-ohmic conductors, in contrast, do not follow Ohm’s Law across all ranges of applied voltage and current. The resistance of non-ohmic conductors changes with the applied voltage or current. This means that the relationship between voltage and current is nonlinear, and the ratio of V to I varies. In a graphical representation of current versus voltage for non-ohmic conductors, the curve is not a straight line, indicating that the resistance varies with the applied voltage.

The non-linear behavior of non-ohmic conductors can be attributed to various factors, including changes in the material’s structure, the activation of additional charge carriers at higher energy levels, or the presence of a threshold voltage necessary to initiate current flow. Examples of non-ohmic conductors include semiconductor devices like diodes and transistors, which have highly controlled resistance characteristics that are exploited in electronic circuits for rectification, amplification, and switching purposes. Additionally, materials like filament lamps exhibit non-ohmic behavior due to the temperature dependency of their resistance; as the filament heats up with increased current, its resistance rises.

Understanding the distinction between ohmic and non-ohmic conductors is crucial for the design and analysis of electrical circuits. It aids in selecting the appropriate materials for specific functions within circuits, ensuring devices operate efficiently and predictably under various conditions.

[A Level] Superconductors

Superconductors are materials that exhibit zero electrical resistance and expel magnetic fields when cooled below a critical temperature, allowing them to conduct electricity indefinitely without energy loss. This phenomenon, discovered in 1911 by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes in mercury, has since been observed in various metals, alloys, and ceramic compounds. Superconductors are notable not just for their lack of resistance but also for the Meissner effect, where they completely repel magnetic fields, enabling applications such as magnetic levitation.

There are two main types of superconductors: Type I, which are pure metals showing superconductivity at very low temperatures and low magnetic fields, and Type II, usually complex materials like alloys and ceramics that work at higher temperatures and magnetic fields. The discovery of high-temperature superconductors in 1986, capable of operating at temperatures achievable with liquid nitrogen, marked a significant breakthrough, offering the promise of more accessible applications.

Superconductors have a wide range of applications, from MRI machines, which use superconducting magnets for high-resolution imaging, to particle accelerators and the potential for lossless power transmission. They also play a crucial role in the development of quantum computers, where superconducting circuits are used to create qubits for quantum information processing.

Despite their revolutionary potential, the practical use of superconductors is hampered by challenges such as the need for extremely low operating temperatures and the complexity of material production and handling. Ongoing research aims to discover new superconducting materials that can operate at higher temperatures and under less stringent conditions, potentially unlocking more widespread and economical applications.

[Optional] Understanding Resistor Color Codes

Resistors are ubiquitous in electronic circuits, serving as crucial components that regulate the flow of electric current. One of the fundamental skills for anyone involved in electronics, from students to professionals, is the ability to decipher the value of a resistor based on its color bands. This section explains the resistor color code system, which is not merely a convention but a practical tool for identifying resistor values and tolerances.

The Basics of Color Coding

A resistor’s color code consists of several colored bands that denote its resistance value in ohms, as well as its tolerance (the degree of accuracy of the resistance value). Most resistors use a four-band color code system, but five-band and six-band systems are also common for precision resistors.

Four-Band Color Code

In the four-band color code system, the first two bands represent the first two significant digits of the resistance value. The third band is the multiplier, indicating the power of ten by which to multiply the first two digits. The fourth band specifies the tolerance of the resistor.

For example, a resistor with bands of yellow, violet, red, and gold signifies a resistance of $47 \times 10^2 \, \Omega$ (or 4.7 kΩ) with a tolerance of ±5%.

Five-Band Color Code

The five-band color code is similar to the four-band system but offers a higher level of precision. The first three bands represent the significant digits, the fourth band is the multiplier, and the fifth band indicates the tolerance. This system allows for more specific resistance values, essential in high-precision applications.

Six-Band Color Code

The six-band system adds a sixth band, typically used to indicate the temperature coefficient, which describes how the resistance value changes with temperature. This feature is vital for applications sensitive to thermal variations.

Decoding the Colors

Each color corresponds to a specific number or value, as outlined in the following table:

  • Black (0), Brown (1), Red (2), Orange (3), Yellow (4), Green (5), Blue (6), Violet (7), Gray (8), White (9) for the first two or three bands (significant figures).
  • Multiplier values are similar, with Gold representing ×0.1, Silver ×0.01, and No Color ×1.
  • Tolerance is indicated by Gold (±5%), Silver (±10%), and Red (±2%), among others.

Practical Tips for Reading Color Codes Of Resistors

  • Hold the resistor with the tolerance band (often gold or silver) to the right.
  • Use a color code chart or mnemonic devices to remember the color sequence and corresponding numbers.
  • Practice with a variety of resistors to become fluent in quickly identifying their values.

Worked Examples

Example 1: The Mystery Material

You have a material that doubles its resistance when the length is doubled and halves its resistance when the cross-sectional area is doubled. Is this material behaving according to the principles of resistivity? Explain.

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Yes, this material is behaving according to the principles of resistivity. The resistance of a conductor is directly proportional to its length ($R \propto L$) and inversely proportional to its cross-sectional area ($R \propto \frac{1}{A}$). Doubling the length doubles the resistance, and doubling the cross-sectional area halves the resistance, consistent with the formula $R = \rho(\frac{L}{A}$), where $\rho$ is the material’s resistivity.

Example 2: A Tale of Two Wires

You have two wires made of the same material and with the same length. Wire A has twice the diameter of Wire B. Without performing any calculations, compare their resistances.

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Wire A, having twice the diameter of Wire B, will have a cross-sectional area four times greater than that of Wire B (since area is proportional to the square of the diameter). According to the principle that resistance is inversely proportional to the cross-sectional area ($R \propto \frac{1}{A}$), Wire A will have one-fourth the resistance of Wire B. This demonstrates how the physical dimensions of a conductor affect its electrical resistance.

Example 3: Identifying Conductors

You are given three different materials: copper wire, silicon, and a carbon filament. Without conducting any experiments, categorize each material as either an ohmic or non-ohmic conductor. Provide your reasoning based on the properties and typical applications of these materials.

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  • Copper Wire: Copper is a metal known for its excellent electrical conductivity. It follows Ohm’s Law across a wide range of voltages and currents, making it an ohmic conductor. Its resistance remains constant for a given temperature.
  • Silicon: Silicon is a semiconductor material. Its conductivity and resistance can be significantly altered by impurities (doping) and changes in voltage, making it a non-ohmic conductor. Its behavior is not linear with respect to applied voltage.
  • Carbon Filament: Carbon filaments, like those used in incandescent light bulbs, exhibit increasing resistance as temperature increases due to the filament heating up. This temperature-dependent resistance change makes the carbon filament a non-ohmic conductor.

Example 4: The Ohmic Challenge

Imagine an ohmic conductor and a non-ohmic conductor are both subjected to increasing voltage in separate experiments. Describe qualitatively how the current through each conductor changes.

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  • Ohmic Conductor: As the voltage across the ohmic conductor increases, the current through it increases linearly. The resistance remains constant, so the relationship between voltage and current is directly proportional.
  • Non-Ohmic Conductor: In the non-ohmic conductor, the relationship between the applied voltage and the resulting current is not linear. The current may increase at a non-constant rate, possibly more slowly or rapidly, depending on the specific characteristics of the conductor (e.g., a diode or a filament lamp).

Example 5: Theoretical Application

A scientist claims to have discovered a material that exhibits zero resistance at room temperature. How would you classify this material, and what potential applications might it have?

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The material described would be classified as a “room temperature superconductor.” Superconductors are materials that exhibit zero electrical resistance and expel magnetic fields when cooled below a critical temperature. A room temperature superconductor would revolutionize technology, with potential applications including lossless power transmission, magnetic levitation for transportation, and highly efficient electrical systems and devices.

Example 6: Creative Circuitry

If you were to design a circuit that includes both ohmic and non-ohmic elements, what considerations would you need to keep in mind to ensure the circuit functions as intended?

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When designing a circuit with both ohmic and non-ohmic elements:

  • Understand the Behavior: Recognize that ohmic elements have a predictable, linear response to changes in voltage, whereas non-ohmic elements do not. This impacts how the circuit responds to voltage and current changes.
  • Purposeful Placement: Use ohmic elements (like resistors) for predictable current control and non-ohmic elements (like diodes) for specific functions like rectification or signal processing.
  • Temperature Effects: Be mindful of temperature effects, especially with non-ohmic elements, as their resistance can vary significantly with temperature.
  • Voltage and Current Ratings: Ensure that the applied voltages and expected currents are within the safe operating limits of both ohmic and non-ohmic elements to prevent damage.

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