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I've read in many physics books that electrons flow due to a potential difference across a conductor, and that the flow of electrons is opposite to the current direction. But, if electrons move from the atoms in the conductor, won't the atoms become unstable?

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  • $\begingroup$ Why do atoms have to be unstable ? What makes you think so? They are not coupled with free electrons. Besides only free or valence electrons are free to go in metals. $\endgroup$ Apr 13 at 7:36
  • $\begingroup$ Hi, I see you put the solid-state physics tag. Are you thinking about solid conductors (metals)? By unstable, do you think the metal will fall apart? $\endgroup$
    – Dr. Nate
    Apr 22 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Dr.Nate, I know the metals don't get structurally damaged by the current flow. I didn't understand how removing electrons from the atoms of the conductor took place. The answers have cleared the doubt. $\endgroup$ Apr 27 at 3:59

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I wouldn’t call it unstable, but you are right in so far as, if you had a material with all charges bound in individually overall charge neutral atoms, that material would not be a conductor. For a material to be a conductor you need to have freely movable charges, for example inside a metal there will exist electrons not bound to individual atoms even without external field applied to it.

In an electrolyte solution, you will have ions that can move freely through the liquid.

What you described with the terms of “atoms become unstable” would perhaps be somewhat descriptive of what happens in a gas discharge, where initially you have a very weakly conducting gas of atoms, with a very low density of ions, but as you increase the voltage applied to it, at some point the voltage will be large enough to cause ionization breaking electrons out of their atomic bindings and create a highly conductive plasma.

For completeness I would like to mention, that in a gas discharge the ionization process usually is not the external voltage ripping the atoms apart directly, but rather accelerating already free charges to high enough energies, which then ionize more atoms when colliding with them, which then get accelerated again and so on.

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I believe the imagery in these answers would be useful to help you visualize this.

Put in simpler terms, individual electrons do not necessarily complete the lap around the circuit, instead, there is a metaphorical line of electrons going all around it, and as one goes into the battery, another pops out of the other end back into the wire.

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