L3, Basic Definitions


The basic outputs for electronic devices are voltage, current, and resistance. Inexpensive and sensitive devices, called multimeters, can measure each of these. If you can devise a way for the output of your experiment to be in the form of voltage, for example, you can use a multimeter to get precise numerical data.


Capacitors store electric charge. They are used with resistors in timing circuits because it takes time for a capacitor to fill with charge. They are used to smooth varying DC supplies by acting as a reservoir of charge. They are also used in filter circuits because capacitors easily pass AC (changing) signals but they block DC (constant) signals.


This is a measure of a capacitor's ability to store charge. A large capacitance means that more charge can be stored. Capacitance is measured in farads, symbol F. How-ever 1F is very large, so prefixes are used to show the smaller values.

Three prefixes (multipliers) are used, µ (micro), n (nano) and p (pico):

µ means 10-6 (millionth), so 1000000µF = 1F

n means 10-9 (thousand-millionth), so 1000nF = 1µF

p means 10-12 (million-millionth), so 1000pF = 1nF

Capacitor values can be very difficult to find because there are many types of capacitor with different labelling systems!


Diodes allow electricity to flow in only one direction. The arrow of the circuit symbol shows the direction in which the current can flow. Diodes are the electrical version of a valve and early diodes were actually called valves.


A resistor is an electrical component that limits or regulates the flow of electrical current in an electronic circuit High-power resistors, that can dissipate many watts of electrical power as heat, may be used as part of motor controls, in power distribution systems, or as test loads for generators. Fixed resistors have resistances that only change slightly with temperature, time or operating voltage. Variable resistors can be used to adjust circuit elements (such as a volume control or a lamp dimmer), or as sensing devices for heat, light, humidity, force, or chemical activity.

Variable Resistors-

Variable resistors consist of a resistance track with connections at both ends and a wiper which moves along the track as you turn the spindle. The track may be made from carbon, cermet (ceramic and metal mixture) or a coil of wire (for low resistances). The track is usually rotary but straight track versions, usually called sliders, are also available.

Variable resistors may be used as a rheostat with two connections (the wiper and just one end of the track) or as a potentiometer with all three connections in use. Miniature versions called presets are made for setting up circuits which will not require further adjustment.

Variable resistors are often called potentiometers in books and catalogues. They are specified by their maximum resistance, linear or logarithmic track, and their physical size. The standard spindle diameter is 6mm.

Integrated circuits (ICs)-

Integrated Circuits are usually called ICs or chips. They are complex circuits which have been etched onto tiny chips of semiconductor (silicon). The chip is packaged in a plastic holder with pins spaced on a 0.1" (2.54mm) grid which will fit the holes on stripboard and breadboards. Very fine wires inside the package link the chip to the pins.


A relay is an electrically operated switch. Current flowing through the coil of the relay creates a magnetic field which attracts a lever and changes the switch contacts. The coil current can be on or off so relays have two switch positions and they are double throw (changeover) switches.


Transistors amplify current, for example they can be used to amplify the small output current from a logic chip so that it can operate a lamp, relay or others high current device. In many circuits a resistor is used to convert the changing current to a changing voltage, so the transistor is being used to amplify voltage.A transistor may be used as a switch (either fully on with maximum current, or fully off with no current) and as an amplifier (always partly on).

The amount of current amplification is called the current gain. There are two types of standard transistors, NPN and PNP, with different circuit symbols

Light Dependent Resistor(LDR)-

An LDR is an input transducer (sensor) which converts brightness (light) to resistance. It is made from cadmium Sulfide (CdS) and the resistance decreases as the brightness of light falling on the LDR increases.

A multimeter can be used to find the resistance in darkness and bright light, these are the typical results for a standard LDR:

Darkness: maximum resistance, about 1M .

Very bright light: minimum resistance, about 100 .

For many years the standard LDR has been the ORP12, now the NORPS12, which is about 13mm diameter. Miniature LDRs are also available and their diameter is about 5mm.


A thermistor is an input transducer (sensor) which converts temperature (heat) to resistance. Almost all thermistors have a negative temperature coefficient (NTC) which means their resistance decreases as their temperature increases. It is possible to make thermistors with a positive temperature coefficient (resistance increases as temperature increases) but these are rarely used. Always assume NTC if no information is given.

A multimeter can be used to find the resistance at various temperatures, these are some typical readings for example:

Icy water 0°C: high resistance, about 12k.

Room temperature 25°C: medium resistance, about 5k.

Boiling water 100°C: low resistance, about 400.

Suppliers usually specify thermistors by their resistance at 25°C (room temperature). Thermistors take several seconds to respond to a sudden temperature change, small thermistors respond more rapidly.

Piezo Transducer-

Piezo transducers are output transducers which convert an electrical signal to sound. They require a driver circuit (such as a 555 Timer’s mode) to provide a signal and if this is near their natural (resonant) frequency of about 3kHz they will produce a particularly loud sound.

Piezo transducers require a small current, usually less than 10mA, so they can be connected directly to the outputs of most ICs. They are ideal for buzzes and beeps, but are not suitable for speech or music because they distort the sound. They are sometimes supplied with red and black leads, but they may be connected either way round. PCB-mounting versions are also available.

Piezo transducers can also be used as input transducers for detecting sudden loud noises or impacts, effectively behaving as a crude microphone.

Buzzer and Bleeper-

These devices are output transducers converting electrical energy to sound. They contain an internal oscillator to produce the sound which is set at about 400Hz for buzzers and about 3kHz for Bleepers.

Buzzers have a voltage rating but it is only approximate, for example 6V and 12V buzzers can be used with a 9V supply. Their typical current is about 25mA.

Bleepers have wide voltage ranges, such as 3-30V, and they pass a low current of about 10mA.

Inductor (Coil)-

An inductor is a coil of wire which may have a core of air, iron or ferrite (a brittle material made from iron). Its electrical property is called inductance and the unit for this is the henry, symbol H. 1H is very large so mH and µH are used, 1000µH = 1mH and 1000mH = 1H.

Iron and ferrite cores increase the inductance. Inductors are mainly used in tuned circuits and to block high frequency AC signals (they are sometimes called chokes). They pass DC easily, but block AC signals, this is the opposite of capacitors.


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