How do conductors and insulators work? — SN, Beverly, MA
Because of the quantum physic that dominates the behaviors of tiny objects in our universe, electrons can’t travel in every path you can imagine; they can only travel in one of the paths that are allowed by quantum physics—paths that are called orbitals in atoms and levels in solids. When a material is assembled out of its constituent atoms, those atoms bring with them both their electrons and their quantum orbitals. These orbitals merge and blend as the atoms touch and they shift to form bands of levels in the resulting solid. The electrons in this solid end up traveling in the levels with the lowest energies. Because of the Pauli exclusion principle, only one indistinguishable electron can travel in each level. Since there are effectively two types of electrons, spin-up and spin-down, only two electrons can travel in each level of the solid.
In a conductor, there are many unused levels available within easy reach of the electrons. If the electrons have to begin moving toward the left, in order to carry an electric current, some of the electrons that are in right-heading levels can shift into empty left-heading levels in order to let that current flow. But in an insulator, all of the easily accessible levels are filled and the electrons can’t shift to other levels in order to carry current in a particular direction. While there are empty levels around, an electron would need a large increase in its energy to begin traveling in one of these empty levels. As a result, the electrons in an insulator can’t carry an electric current.