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Millikan Oil Drop

Evan Rule April 7, 2013

Abstract In order to investigate the nature of electric charge, we carry out an experiment to measure the fundamental charge of the electron. Using a Millikan Oil Drop apparatus, we are able to make measurements of the falling velocity of oil droplets due to gravity and the rising velocity of oil droplets due to an applied electric eld. Using these measurements and several measurements of environmental variables, we are able to make a determination of the total charge carried by each oil drop. Then, by assuming that these charges must be an integer multiple of the fundamental charge and implementing numerical methods to resimulate our experiment, we are able to determine the value of the elementary charge to be e = 1.424 1019 C within a 1- error range of (1.420, 1.472) 1019 C.


The determination of the fundamental charge of an electron was one of the most important achievements in modern physics. At the turn of the 20th century, the existence of subatomic particles was still not universally accepted. Then, in 1909, Robert Millikan and Harvey Fletcher designed an experiment which allowed for the measurement of the fundamental charge of the electron. Millikans results not only conrmed the existence of subatomic particles, but also demonstrated that charge is quantized. In 1923, Millikan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in part for his Oil Drop experiment. Millikans apparatus makes possible an impressive measurement, akin to measuring the gravitational force on a particle of mass 1012 gram. A measurement of the fundamental charge also makes possible a determination of Avagadros number.

Experiment and Data

In order to make a measurement of fundamental charge, we employ a modernized version of the apparatus used by Millikan and Fletcher. By measuring the velocity of fall of an oil drop through air, we can make a determination of the radius of the drop using the relation a= b 2p

9vf b , 2g () 2p


where b = 8.20 103 P a m is a constant, p is the barometric pressure in pascals, is the viscosity of air in poise (Ns/m2 ), vf is the velocity of fall in m/s, is the density of the oil in kg/m3 , and g is the acceleration due to gravity in m/s. From the radius of the drop, it is straight-forward to calculate its mass, 4 m = a3 . (2) 3 1

Figure 1: A detailed, top-down view of the experimental setup. (Image taken from PASCO scientic)

Then, by observing the velocity of the drop rising in an applied electric eld, we can calculate the force on the drop, and using Eqs. (1) and (2), we can calculate the total charge carried by the oil drop as 4 q = g 3 where E (e.s.u) =

b 2p

9vf vf + vr b + , 2g 2p Evf V (volts) , 300d (cm)



and d is the separation of the plates in cm. The charge calculated via Eq. (3) has units of C.



The center of the apparatus is the droplet viewing chamber, which contains within it upper and lower capacitor plates separated by a plastic spacer. The capacitor is charged using the DC power supply. Within the chamber is a thorium-232 alpha source which is used to ionize the oil drops. The oil itself is non-volatile and has a stated density of 866 kg/m3 . The oil is reduced to small drops using the atomizer. The chamber is outtted with a viewing scope, which allows the user to observe the oil drops. For more details on the apparatus platform see Fig. 1. The experiment itself must be carried out in a suciently dark room in order to ensure good contrast of the oil droplets against the background. Other necessary measuring devices include a micrometer and a multimeter.



In preparation for the experiment, we ensure that the apparatus is level using the attached bubble level. Next, we make a measurement of the plate separation of the capacitor by disassembling the droplet viewing chamber and measuring the thickness of the plastic spacer with a micrometer. After reassembling the viewing chamber, we must align the viewing scope. We turn on the halogen lamp, insert the focusing wire into the chamber and adjust the focusing ring until the wire is in focus. After connecting the DC power supply, we adjust the voltage to 500 V. Using the multimeter, we make a measurement of the voltage supplied to the capacitor, as well as the resistance of the thermistor. Using the included thermistor reference table, we are able to determine from this measurement the temperature within the viewing chamber. To begin the experiment, we seal the chamber with the lid and load the oil into the atomizer. We adjust the ionization source lever to the Spray Droplet position and place the nozzle of the atomizer into the hole on the lid of the viewing chamber. We then squeeze the atomizer, lling the chamber with oil drops and return the ionization source level to the OFF position. We next select an oil drop to observe, preferably one which falls slowly when the plates are grounded and can be driven up and down by applying the voltage. With our chosen oil drop in focus, we use the stopwatch to record the time it takes the drop to fall the distance between major grid lines (0.5 mm). We then apply a potential dierence to the capacitor plates and record the time it takes the particle to move upwards by the distance between major gridlines. We repeat these measurements 5 - 20 times for a single oil drop before relling the chamber with the atomizer and repeating these measurements for a new oil drop. By introducing more alpha particles to the chamber, we can attempt to change the charge of the droplet. Data and Error Estimation When our data collection is complete, we have measurements of the rise and fall times of a number of distinct oil drops. We also know the plate potential, air temperature of the chamber, and barometric pressure for each trial. By properly calibrating the length scale of the images and knowing the time between them, we can readily calculate the velocity of the oil drops when falling due to gravity and when rising due to the applied electric eld. Because of the substantial air drag forces, the drops reach a constant terminal velocity very quickly in either direction. We measure the mean particle radius to be a = 6.59 107 m and the mean particle mass to be m = 1.22 1015 kg. The total charges which we calculate have a range of (0.7, 12.2) 1019 C.


We utilize the equations outlined in 2 in order to make a determination of the total charge carried by each oil drop in units of Coulombs. In these calculations, we take the barometric pressure to be equal to the atmospheric pressure at sea level (101,325 Pa) and the acceleration due to gravity to be g = 9.81 m/s2 . We measure the separation of the plates to be d = 0.75 cm and utilize the charts included in the lab manual in order to calculate from the measured resistance of the thermistor the viscosity of air in the oil drop chamber. We calculate the mean charge carried by 29 distinct particles. Since we assume the existence of a fundamental charge, we hypothesize that the total charge of a given oil drop should be an integer multiple of the fundamental charge. Therefore, we aim to minimize the value


(qi ni e)2 , 3


Size 10,000

Mean 1.434

Median 1.424

Mode 1.424

Standard Deviation 0.006

16th percentile 1.420

84th percentile 1.472

Table 1: Summary of the values calculated for fundamental charge via 10,000 bootstrap Monte Carlo simulations. The 16th and 84th percentiles are used to dene the 1- error range. All units (except size) are 1019 C.

Figure 2: A histogram plot of the mean total charge calculated for 29 oil drops. Note the location and
spacing of the peaks.

where qi is the mean charge of the i-th particle, e is our ducial value for the fundamental charge, and the value of ni is restricted to positive integers. By iterating e over the range (0, 10) by steps of 0.0001, we nd the value of e that minimizes 2 . We then implement a bootstrap Monte Carlo by re-sampling our data set (with replacement) to form a new data set of 29 particles. The 2 minimization is then repeated for each re-sampling. We compute 10,000 bootstrap Monte Carlo simulations, the results of which are summarized in Table 1 and Figure 3. We adopt the mode of the resulting distribution as the most likely value for the fundamental charge, e = 1.424 1019 : C, (6) within a 1- error range of (1.420, 1.472) 1019 C. According to the literature, the accepted value for the fundamental charge is e = 1.602176565(35) 1019 C (NIST). Our determined value for e is inconsistent with the standard value at the 4- level ( 99.994%).

Figure 3: A histogram plot of the value of the fundamental charge calculated via 10,000 bootstrap Monte
Carlo simulations. From this distribution, we determine the most likely value of the fundamental charge to be e = 1.424 1019 C.


Given the inconsistency between our determined value for e and the literature value, we must examine our procedure for sources of systematic error. In our calculation of the charge of a given oil drop, we assume the value of several parameters. First, we adopted the barometric pressure to be equal to atmospheric pressure at sea level. In general due to changing weather patterns, the barometric pressure will not be equal to 101,325 Pa. However, because typical changes in barometric pressure are minimal ( 2000 Pa), we can likely conclude that this variation will have little impact on our results (Haby, 2013). One value which can, on the other hand, vary dramatically and greatly alter our results is the density of the oil. As stated in the lab manual, the density of the oil is 866 kg/m3 , but it is recommended by the author that the density of the oil be veried by direct measurement. We neglected this step and assumed the given value. If, however, the oil is signicantly less dense than is stated in the manual, then we will calculate a falsely low value for the fundamental charge if we use the given value in our determination of the charge. For instance, if the density of the oil were 700 kg/m3 , then our calculated value for the elementary charge would be e = 1.580 1019 C, which is consistent with the literature value at the 1- level. Therefore, an interesting prospect for continued work is to determine directly the density of the oil, in order to verify if this is indeed the source of our discrepancy.


We conclude that our determined value for the fundamental charge is likely skewed by some systematic error. The large inconsistency (4- ) between our most likely value and the literature value provides us with strong evidence that our result is not a statistical anomaly and that there must be some aspect of our experiment which we have failed to account for. We can explore this observed discrepancy further by implementing a full systematic error analysis, one aspect of which would entail conrming or refuting the density of the oil as stated in the lab manual.

[1] PASCO scientic, Instruction Manual and Experiment Guide for the PASCO scientic Model AP-8210, Roseville, CA. 1996. [2] National Institute of Standards and Technology, Fundamental Physical Constants,, 2010, 2013. [3] Haby, Je. Air Pressure on Weathercasts,, 2013.