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COULOMB’S LAW

References

Elements of Electromagnetism, 5

th

Edition, M.N.O. Sadiku

Introduction to Electrodynamics, 3

rd

Edition, David J. Griffiths

Introduction

In the original experiments used by Charles Coulomb to establish a relationship between force

and charge (published in 1785) he used small spheres with defined relative charges and defined

distances of separation in conjunction with a torsion balance. The result that has come to be

known as Coulomb's Law states that the force, F, between two point charges, of charge q

1

and q

2

,

a distance r from each other is given by

⃗

̂ (1)

where k is a proportionality (Coulomb) constant equal to 8.9876 x 10

9

Nm

2

/C

2

and ̂ is a unit

vector pointing from the charge causing the force to the charge the force is acting upon. From

this equation it is clear that the magnitude of the force acting on a charged particle due to another

charged particle is proportional to the charge of the particle experiencing the force, the charge of

the particle causing the force, and the inverse square of the distance between the charges.

In the present experiment the PASCO torsion balance shown in figures 1 and 2 is used to verify

the inverse square relationship and the charge dependence of Coulomb's Law. The torsion

balance consists of a conductive sphere is mounted at one end of a rigid insulating rod of length

d which is counterbalanced, and suspended from a thin torsion wire. The rod can rotate around a

point P when a torque is applied to the sphere and as the sphere rotates the wire is twisted. The

sphere can then be returned to its equilibrium position by twisting the torsion dial on top of the

apparatus to counteract the initial torque. The torque the wire applies to the sphere,

is given

by the equation

(2)

where is a proportionality constant (the torsion constant) and is the twist angle required to

return the sphere to equilibrium.

Figure 1 PASCO torsion balance; the top view also shows the torsion dial and index marks.

Figure 2 Detailed view of torsion balance. a) Side view and b) Top see-through view with the

balance on its side and supported by the lateral support bar and conducting sphere supported by

the support tube.

This experiment involves two different setups of the torsion apparatus. In the first section the

torsion balance is maintained upright and a second sphere mounted on a slide assembly is

connected to the base of the apparatus, see figure 3 a). When the sphere is in its equilibrium

position the torque applied by the Coulomb force and the torque from the torsion wire are

balanced and we have the equation

**assuming the charges are equal and solving for theta yields
**

(3)

Figure 3 a) The torsion balance and slide assembly at equilibrium and b) the free body diagram

of the torques from the Coulomb force acting on sphere 1 (S1) from sphere 2 (S2) and the

restoring torsion torque at equilibrium with each other.

In the second case the apparatus rests on its side and small masses are placed on the uncharged

conducting sphere. The torsion wire is then twisted to balance the resulting gravitational torque

applied to rotate the sphere, see figure 4. In this case the torque equation is

**here m is the applied mass and g is the gravitational acceleration near the Earth's surface (g =
**

9.81 m/s

2

). Solving for the gravitational force yields

(4)

Figure 4 a) The torsion balance on its side in equilibrium with the gravitational force and b) the

free body diagram of the torques acting on the sphere.

Correcting for Spheres with Volume

All of the previous theory for this experiment has been derived assuming that the charged

spheres can be treated as point charges when considering the Coulomb forces. However, it stands

to reason that the simple relationship

**, where r is the center-to-center distance between
**

the two charged spheres, cannot hold precisely for our present setup. Here the distance of

separation is not very much larger than the radii of the spheres so that the charges on the spheres

will distribute themselves in a way that minimizes the electrostatic energy of the two-sphere

system. For like charges, for example, this means that the charge density will be smaller on the

sides of the spheres facing each other. In this case F is less than for two point charges of the

same charge and distance of separation. It can be shown that to correct for this the following

multiplicative correction factor can be applied to θ

3

1

3

(1 4 )

R

B

r

(5)

where R is the radius of the spheres. Take the diameter of the spheres to be 3.8 cm.

Procedure – Coulomb’s Law

Listed below are a series of guidelines that MUST be followed when using the Coulomb

apparatus. Failure to follow these instructions will result in bad data and may damage the

equipment.

1) DO NOT touch either the conducting sphere or the insulating rod that connects it to the

apparatus. Fingerprints on the conducting spheres can alter the spherically symmetric

charge distribution and distort the electric field. Fingerprints on the insulating rods can

create conduction pathways that drain charge off of the sphere.

2) DO NOT touch the torsion wire. This is unnecessary and can cause irreparable damage

to the wire. It is also easily broken by impact.

3) When moving the torsion balance always clamp the counterweight vane to protect the

torsion wire. When you do this, be sure to adjust the height and angle of the index arm so

that you can clamp the vane without pulling on the torsion wire.

4) DO NOT loosen or tighten the thumbscrew on the bottom of the torsion wire retainer

under any circumstances.

5) Never try to adjust the copper rings without first securing the counterweight vane with

the packing clamp, as you will likely break the torsion wire as you adjust the rings.

6) DO NOT ever touch the metal end/tip of the high voltage probe or you risk an electrical

shock of up to 6000 V.

7) There will always be some charge leakage from the spheres. Perform measurements as

quickly as possible after charging, to minimize the leakage effects.

8) Periodically check whether the zero displacement alignment has shifted during the

experiment and rotate the torsion wire retainer to account for this shift if it has.

i) Setting up the Coulomb’s Law Apparatus

Although the torsion balance – slide assembly should already be set up when you come to the

laboratory, you need to perform a final check on the setup before you begin any measurements.

The following must be carefully looked at and corrections/adjustments made as needed.

1) The copper rings should be in place on the counterweight vane, as shown in Figure 2. Note

that the exact location of these rings will vary from one apparatus to another. Release the

packing clamp that holds the counterweight vane, as shown in the top of Figure 2, and

position the copper rings so that the pendulum assembly is level.

2) Reposition the index arm so it is parallel with the base of the torsion balance and at the same

height as the vane.

3) Adjust the height of the magnetic damping arm so the counterweight vane is midway

between the magnets.

4) Turn the torsion knob until the index line for the degree scale is aligned with the zero degree

mark.

5) Rotate the bottom torsion wire retainer until the index line on the counterweight vane aligns

with the index line on the index arm.

6) Carefully turn the torsion balance on its side, supporting it with the lateral support bar, as

shown in Figure 2b. Place the support tube under the sphere to prevent it from hitting the

table and check to see if the pendulum assembly is balanced.

7) After the pendulum assembly is balanced place the torsion balance upright.

8) Check to see that the index line on the counterweight vane is still aligned with the index line

on the index arm. If needed, perform a slight readjustment as in steps 4 and 5 above.

9) Attach the slide assembly with the connecting bar and the four screws provided as seen in

figure 3a.

10) Check that the sphere on the slide assembly and the sphere on the balance are aligned

vertically as well as laterally (so that the centers are in line with the sliding scale) and that the

pointer on the slide arm reads 3.8 cm when the spheres are just touching.

ii) Handling the high voltage and charging the spheres

Setting up the Connections

The power supply has three high voltage connections/terminals on the front panel: one for the

negative (-) of the left 3 kV supply, one for the positive (+) of the right 3 kV supply and a

common terminal in the center. In the present experiments we require a maximum voltage of 6

kV. In this case the center terminal is not used and 6 kV appears across the left most and right

most terminals.

Connect the kilovolt power supply as shown in figure 5. Use the red HV probe cable for the

positive connection and two black banana to banana cables for the negative connections. The red

probe is used to charge the spheres during the experiment. One of the black cables is connected

to ground at the back of the power supply and the other black lead is used to discharge/ground

various objects during the experiment.

Figure 5 The kilovolt power supply and appropriate connections for charging and discharging

the spheres.

To Charge a Sphere

Make sure to repeat this entire procedure each time you charge a sphere or you will not get

consistent results.

1) Make sure that the power supply is turned off.

2) Touch the sphere with the black grounding cable to drain any possible charge buildup away

before charging the spheres yourself.

3) Touch BOTH of your hand to the black grounding wire to drain away any excess static

charge from your body.

4) When charging the sphere stand directly behind the balance and at a maximum, comfortable

distance from it. This will minimize the effects of static charges that may accumulate on your

clothing.

5) With one hand hold the charging probe near the end of the handle away from the tip and use

the other hand to turn on the power supply. If necessary adjust the voltage to the desired

level. If making multiple readings at the same voltage it is useful to leave the supply setting

at the desired voltage and simply turn the supply off between charging the spheres.

6) Charge the desired sphere by touching it lightly with the side of the high voltage probe for

about 2 seconds and then immediately turn the supply off and move the ends of both the

charging and grounding probes as far away from the torsion balance as possible. The high

voltage at the terminals of the supply can cause leakage currents which will affect the torsion

balance. Do not poke the sphere with the sharp end of the probe or you may scratch it and

change the charge profile. When charging the spheres, hold the charging probe near the end

of the handle, so your hand is as far from the sphere as possible. If your hand is too close to

the sphere, it will have a capacitive effect, increasing the charge on the sphere for a given

voltage.

Part A) Force versus Distance

Measure the torsion angle 3 times at positions of 20 cm, 14 cm, 10 cm, 9 cm, 8 cm, 7 cm, 6 cm

and 5 cm using the following procedure.

1) Move the sliding sphere as far as possible from the suspended sphere and use the procedure

in “To Charge a Sphere” to charge both spheres to 6.0 kV.

2) Quickly slide the sliding sphere to the desired position. Adjust the torsion knob as necessary

to balance the forces and bring the pendulum back to the zero position as referenced from the

index markers. Record the torsion angle and the separation distance.

3) Repeat steps 1 and 2 until you have 3 consistent measurements for each separation distance

(the three data points should be within ± 1

o

).

Part B) Force versus Charge

Measure the torsion angle 3 times at charging voltages of 6 kV, 5 kV, 4.5 kV, 4 kV and 3 kV

using the following procedure.

1) Double check the alignment of the system using the steps in the “Setting up the Coulomb’s

Law Apparatus” section of the procedure.

2) Move the sliding sphere as far as possible from the suspended sphere and use the procedure

in “To Charge a Sphere” to charge both spheres to the desired voltage.

3) Position the sliding sphere at a position of 10 cm. Adjust the torsion knob as necessary to

balance the forces and bring the pendulum back to the zero position. Record the torsion angle

and the charging voltage.

4) Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you have three readings at each charging voltage that are within

about ± 1

o

from each other.

Part C) Coulomb’s Constant

In this part of the experiment you will determine the Coulomb constant k. To find k you must

measure three additional variables: the torsion constant of the torsion wire (/d), so you can

convert your torsion angles into measurements of force, and the charges, q

1

and q

2

in Coulombs.

Then, knowing F, q

1

, q

2

, and r, you can use the Coulomb’s Law equation to determine k.

Measuring the Torsion constant,

1) Open the blue box at the side of the torsion balance and place the three weights into the lid of

the box. Place the lid to the side, safe from being knocked over.

2) Carefully turn the Torsion Balance on its side, supporting it with the lateral support tube, as

shown in Figure 2b. The sphere should hang above the support tube without touching it. The

tube keeps the sphere from hitting the table.

3) Zero the torsion balance by rotating the torsion dial to zero and then rotating the torsion wire

retainer until the index lines are aligned.

4) Measure the torsion angle using the following procedure:

a. Carefully use the provided tweezers to place the desired mass on the center line of the

conductive sphere, see figure 4a.

b. Turn the torsion knob to bring the index lines back into alignment and record the

torsion angle and the applied mass.

c. Measure this angle for masses of 20 mg, 40 mg, 50 mg, 70 mg, and 90 mg

Finding the Charge

The charge on the spheres can be measured more accurately using an electrometer with a

Faraday ice pail. The setup for the measurement is shown in Figure 6. The electrometer and ice

pail can be modeled as an infinite impedance voltmeter in parallel with a capacitor. A sphere

with a charge q is touched against the ice pail. Since the capacitance of the ice pail and

electrometer is much greater than that of the sphere, virtually all of the charge q is transferred

onto the ice pail. The relationship between the voltage reading of the electrometer and the charge

deposited into the system is given by the equation q = CV, where C is the combined capacitance

of the electrometer, the ice pail, and the connecting leads. Therefore, in order to determine the

charge, you must know the capacitance of the system.

Figure 6 Measuring the Charge with an Electrometer and a Faraday Ice Pail

Finding the Capacitance of the System

1. Connect the electrometer to the ice pail as shown in figure 6. Remember to connect the

common ground wire to the power supply.

2. Move all of the equipment as far from the ice pail - electrometer system as possible.

3. Touch the inside and outside shells of the pail with the ground wire from your power

supply to remove any initial charge build up.

4. Using the provided LCR meter measure the capacitance of the entire system consisting of

the ice pail, the electrometer connecting wires, the electrometer itself, and the connecting

leads of the LCR meter.

5. Measure the capacitance of just the connecting wires of the LCR meter (typically

between 1pf and 2pf). This value depends highly on the length and orientation of the

LCR meter connecting wires. Try to keep them in the same orientation for the

measurement in step 3 and 4.

6. Calculate the capacitance of the system except for the LCR meter by subtracting the total

system capacitance from the LCR meter value.

Measuring the Charges q

1

and q

2

1. You should have a sphere connected to a hanging wire stored in a protective plastic bag

at your station. Only hold this sphere by the end of the wire opposite of the actual sphere.

Carefully remove the sphere from its bag without letting it touch anything else.

2. Ground the sphere, as well as the inner and outer walls of the ice pail.

3. Carefully charge the hanging sphere with the same voltage as in Part A (6.0 kV).

4. Place the hanging sphere in the middle of the ice pail in contact with the inside section

and record the value of the voltage on the electrometer. Repeat this process 3 times and

obtain an average result.

Part D – Verifying Gauss’s Law

Gauss’s Law (Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777-1855) states

∮

⃗⃗

⃗⃗⃗⃗⃗⃗

with

∑

**where G.S. stands for a Gaussian surface – a closed surface – enclosing a net charge q
**

encl

. An

important consequence (or prediction) of Gauss’s Law is that there can be no charge inside a

charged conductor – all charge resides on the outer surface of the conductor. Thus one way of

verifying Gauss’s Law is to show that the charge inside charged conductors is always zero. In

this experiment a Faraday’s ice pail is used to represent a closed conducting shell. The validity of

Gauss’s Law is demonstrated by placing a charge on this conductor and then showing that this

charge only resides on the outside of the conductor.

Procedure

This part utilizes the Faraday’s ice pail, kilovolt power supply, electrometer and the third sphere

(the torsion balance and slide assembly are not used here).

1) Setup the electrometer and ice pail system as in figure 6. It is likely already setup from the

previous part of the experiment.

2) Ground the inner and outer walls of the ice pail.

3) Charge the hanging sphere to 6.0 kV using the procedure in “To Charge a Sphere”.

4) Carefully lower the sphere into the middle of the ice pail following a vertical line along the

central axis of the pail. Record the electrometer reading and any evidence of external forces

acting on the sphere at each of the following locations (see figure 7 for a visual reference)

a. The sphere above the pail

b. Just as the sphere enters the pail

c. The sphere halfway between the top and bottom of the pail

d. Just before the sphere touches the bottom of the pail

e. Just after the sphere touches the bottom of the pail

5) Carefully lift the sphere out of the pail along the same path and again note the voltages and

force observations at each location in step 4.

6) Repeat steps 2 to 4 with the exception that you stop the sphere at D and omit e) above

7) Repeat steps 2 to 5, along a vertical line approximately midway between the central axis of

the pail and the interior side of the pail.

Figure 7 Observation Locations for Gauss’s Law Verification

Analysis

Part A)

1) Calculate the inverse square of the separation distance values and plot the average torsion

angle θ versus 1/r

2

.

2) Compare the resulting plot to the theoretical predictions and discuss your result. What

conclusion can you make about the distance dependence of Coulomb’s Law?

3) Calculate corrected torsion angles using equation 5 and plot θ

corrected

versus 1/r

2

.

4) Again compare your plot to the theory and discuss the outcome.

5) From your results what is the functional relationship between force and distance?

Part B)

1) Calculate the square of the charging voltage and plot the average torsion angle θ versus

charging voltage squared.

2) Compare the resulting plot to the theoretical predictions and discuss your result. What

conclusion can you make about the charge dependence of Coulomb’s Law?

3) From your results, what is the functional relationship between force and the charge product?

Part C)

1) Calculate the gravitational force (in Newtons) for each of the masses used and plot Force

versus torsion angle, θ.

2) Using equation 4 and your graph of Force versus Twist Angle determine the value of /d in

Newtons per degree.

3) Calculate the charge on the spheres of part (A) using the equation: q = CV

4) Calculate your best estimate of the Coulomb constant using equation 3 and your

measurements from part A and part C.

5) Compare your experimental value with the accepted value of Coulomb’s Constant 8.9876 x

10

9

2

2

C

Nm

. Discuss any differences and make a conclusion about Coulomb’s Law.

Part D)

What conclusions can you draw about the force acting on a charge being lowered into the ice

pail? What does this say about the state of charge on the walls of the ice pail and the electric field

inside the inner pail? What does this say about the electric field between the inner and outer

walls of the pail? How does this compare with what the electric field should be in this region?

Rationalize how your findings in this part are as predicted by Gauss’s Law.

List of Apparatus

1 PASCO Coulomb Balance with conductive sphere and slide assembly with conductive sphere

1 PASCO high voltage power supply

1 Agilent LCR meter (U1731C)

1 Faraday ice pail

1 Free sphere tethered to fishing line.

1 PASCO electrometer

3 Banana - Banana Cables

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