Electrical Conductivity of Metals

Copper wire
••• Photo &copy Adam Crowley

Electrical conductivity in metals is a result of the movement of electrically charged particles. The atoms of metal elements are characterized by the presence of valence electrons, which are electrons in the outer shell of an atom that are free to move about. It is these 'free electrons' that allow metals to conduct an electric current.

Because valence electrons are free to move they can travel through the lattice that forms the physical structure of a metal. Under an electric field, free electrons move through the metal much like billiard balls knocking against each other, passing an electric charge as they move.

Transfer of Energy

The transfer of energy is strongest when there is little resistance. On a billiard table, this occurs when a ball strikes against another single ball, passing most of its energy onto the next ball. If a single ball strikes multiple other balls, each of those will carry only a fraction of the energy.

By the same token, the most effective conductors of electricity are metals that have a single valence electron that is free to move and causes a strong repelling reaction in other electrons. This is the case in the most conductive metals, such as silver, gold, and copper, who each have a single valence electron that moves with little resistance and causes a strong repelling reaction.

Semiconductor metals (or metalloids) have a higher number of valence electrons (usually four or more) so, although they can conduct electricity, they are inefficient at the task. However, when heated or doped with other elements semiconductors like silicon and germanium can become extremely efficient conductors of electricity.

Metal Conductivity 

Conduction in metals must follow Ohm's law, which states that the current is directly proportional to the electric field applied to the metal. The law, named after German physicist Georg Ohm, appeared in 1827 in a published paper laying out how current and voltage are measured via electrical ​circuits. The key variable in applying Ohm's law is a metal's resistivity.

Resistivity is the opposite of electrical conductivity, evaluating how strongly a metal opposes the flow of electric current. This is commonly measured across the opposite faces of a one-meter cube of material and described as an ohm meter (Ω⋅m). Resistivity is often represented by the Greek letter rho (ρ).

Electrical conductivity, on the other hand, is commonly measured by siemens per meter (S⋅m−1) and represented by the Greek letter sigma (σ). One siemens is equal to the reciprocal of one ohm.

Conductivity, Resistivity of Metals


p(Ω•m) at 20°C

σ(S/m) at 20°C

Silver 1.59x10-8 6.30x107
Copper 1.68x10-8 5.98x107
Annealed Copper 1.72x10-8 5.80x107
Gold 2.44x10-8 4.52x107
Aluminum 2.82x10-8 3.5x107
Calcium 3.36x10-8 2.82x107
Beryllium 4.00x10-8 2.500x107
Rhodium 4.49x10-8 2.23x107
Magnesium 4.66x10-8 2.15x107
Molybdenum 5.225x10-8 1.914x107
Iridium 5.289x10-8 1.891x107
Tungsten 5.49x10-8 1.82x107
Zinc 5.945x10-8 1.682x107
Cobalt 6.25x10-8 1.60x107
Cadmium 6.84x10-8 1.467
Nickel (electrolytic) 6.84x10-8 1.46x107
Ruthenium 7.595x10-8 1.31x107
Lithium 8.54x10-8 1.17x107
Iron 9.58x10-8 1.04x107
Platinum 1.06x10-7 9.44x106
Palladium 1.08x10-7 9.28x106
Tin 1.15x10-7 8.7x106
Selenium 1.197x10-7 8.35x106
Tantalum 1.24x10-7 8.06x106
Niobium 1.31x10-7 7.66x106
Steel (Cast) 1.61x10-7 6.21x106
Chromium 1.96x10-7 5.10x106
Lead 2.05x10-7 4.87x106
Vanadium 2.61x10-7 3.83x106
Uranium 2.87x10-7 3.48x106
Antimony* 3.92x10-7 2.55x106
Zirconium 4.105x10-7 2.44x106
Titanium 5.56x10-7 1.798x106
Mercury 9.58x10-7 1.044x106
Germanium* 4.6x10-1 2.17
Silicon* 6.40x102 1.56x10-3

*Note: The resistivity of semiconductors (metalloids) is heavily dependent on the presence of impurities in the material.