The atomic structure of some materials produces free electrons. As their name implies, free electrons can move freely through the material. The motion of the electrons is complicated, however we can break it down into two types, random motion and uniform drift. These types of motion will be described below, but it is important to point out that it is only the uniform drift of electrons, that produces electrical current.
Thermal energy causes free electrons to move with random motion. This motion is characterised by fast short movements
with random changes in direction.
This movement does not cause any noticable electrical effects because;
This motion is similar to the motion of water molecules in a glass of still water at room temperature. The individual water molecules will be moving randomly due to the thermal energy. However there is no net movement of water in the glass.
When an electrical field is set up within a conductive material, the free electrons drift towards the positive potential. They still retain their random motion due to thermal energy, but now they drift away from the "fixed" position referred to above. This is similar to the movement of water molecules in a stream. The water molecules may move with some random motion due to thermal energy, but they all drift gradually downstream.
Electron drift velocity is a measure of the net movement of electrons through the material. The drift velocity is much lower than the velocity of the random motion (which is around 1000 km/s). The actual value of drift velocity varies, but a typical figure for metals is 1mm/s (1 millimetre per second).