Ohm’s Law is a simple and powerful mathematical tool for helping us analyze electric circuits, but it has limitations, and we must understand these limitations in order to properly apply it to real circuits. For most conductors, resistance is a rather stable property, largely unaffected by voltage or current. For this reason we can regard the resistance of many circuit components as a constant, with voltage and current being directly related to each other.
For instance, our previous circuit example with the 3 Ω lamp, we calculated current through the circuit by dividing voltage by resistance (I=E/R). With an 18 volt battery, our circuit current was 6 amps. Doubling the battery voltage to 36 volts resulted in a doubled current of 12 amps. All of this makes sense, of course, so long as the lamp continues to provide exactly the same amount of friction (resistance) to the flow of electrons through it:
However, reality is not always this simple. One of the phenomena explored in a later chapter is that of conductor resistance changing with temperature. In an incandescent lamp (the kind employing the principle of electric current heating a thin filament of wire to the point that it glows white-hot), the resistance of the filament wire will increase dramatically as it warms from room temperature to operating temperature. If we were to increase the supply voltage in a real lamp circuit, the resulting increase in current would cause the filament to increase temperature, which would in turn increase its resistance, thus preventing further increases in current without further increases in battery voltage. Consequently, voltage and current do not follow the simple equation “I=E/R” (with R assumed to be equal to 3 Ω) because an incandescent lamp’s filament resistance does not remain stable for different currents.
The phenomenon of resistance changing with variations in temperature is one shared by almost all metals, of which most wires are made. For most applications, these changes in resistance are small enough to be ignored. In the application of metal lamp filaments, the change happens to be quite large.
This is just one example of “nonlinearity” in electric circuits. It is by no means the only example. A “linear” function in mathematics is one that tracks a straight line when plotted on a graph. The simplified version of the lamp circuit with a constant filament resistance of 3 Ω generates a plot like this: