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University of Calgary

Department of Physics and Astronomy

PHYS 259, Winter 2011

Labatorial 2: Electric Charges and the Forces between them

You have learned some fundamental facts about electrostatics in

school: There are two kinds of charge, which are called positive
and negative. There are forces between charges: opposite charges
attract, like charges repel. The magnitude of the force between
two (static) point charges is given by Coulombs law, FC (r) =
1 |q1 q2 |
40 r 2 . And there is a conservation law: charge can neither
be created nor destroyed. (Image from

There are several technical applications that make use of the attractive
forces between charges. A traditional one is shown in the figure on the left
(Image from

A more sophisticated version, the electrostatic scrubber, is shown in the figure on

the right. It is used to remove dust,
smoke, bacteria and other micrometer or
submicrometer size particles from exhaust
gases or indoor air. The charged aerosol
particles are attracted by the oppositely
charged scrubbing droplets. (Image from, where you can learn more
about this procedure.)

To understand how an object gets charged, and what that means on a microscopic level. To practice how
to find the resulting force on a charge by using vector addition.

Young and Freedman, Sears and Zemanskys University Physics with Modern Physics, 12th edition, Pearson
Addison-Wesley: 21.1-3.

Leaf electroscope, plastic rod, fur; computer with browser to watch the video static (from
PublicationsResources/SafetyResources/StopStaticCampaign.aspx); the applet mixed charges, which was
developed using the resources available on the Davidson University website,

Static Electricity

Question 1: Watch the video static and try to explain what happened. Your explanation should include
both the physics and what it is about the behaviour of the driver that may lead to a refueling fire incident
like this one.

Electric Charge, Charge Carriers, and the Forces between them

Question 2: In the video, you saw some possible consequences of the buildup of static charge (actually,
there is a lot of literature for practitioners about how to prevent this buildup, if you are interested in learning
a) What does it mean to charge an object? Specifically, does it mean to create charge and place it on an
object, or does it mean something else? Explain.

b) What is charge? Try to write down a definition.

Question 3: Above you see some images representing matter at different levels of resolution. For each of
the building blocks listed below, state whether or not they can, in principle, be charged; or if they are always
charged (and what the sign of that charge is):
gold nugget
protein molecule

Question 4: As you probably know from chemistry or another science class, the electric force between the
electron(s) and proton(s) in an atom holds the atom together. In Bohrs model of the hydrogen atom, the
electron orbits the proton on a circular path with a diameter of about 1010 m. Use the electrostatic force
to calculate the speed with which the electron orbits the proton in this model.

Question 5: In larger atoms, there are several protons inside the nucleus, and they are all positively charged.
a) Calculate the minimum electrostatic force between two protons inside a nucleus of radius 4 1015 m.

b) The result from part (a) is huge! If there is such a strong repulsive force between the protons, why
doesnt the nucleus explode? There must be an attractive force acting against this repulsion. Calculate the
magnitude of the gravitational attraction between the two protons.

c) Based on your result from part (b), is it possible that gravity is the attractive force that counteracts the
repulsion between the protons?

(Actually, its the strong nuclear force that keeps the nucleus together, one of the four fundamental forces.
You can find more information on the fundamental forces and particles at,
for example.)
Question 6: Based on your everyday experience, you might have expected the gravitational force between
two objects to be stronger than the electrical force. What is the difference between typical situations in daily
life and the example we calculated above?

Question 7: a) Calculate the ratio of the electrostatic to the gravitational force, FC /Fg , for an electron
and a proton inside an atom.

b) What is the ratio if they are 100 km apart?

CHECKPOINT 1: Before moving on to the next part, have your TA check

the results you obtained so far.

Charging Macroscopic Objects

Question 8: Now well return to the macroscopic level. Everyday objects are often (more or less) neutral.
Does that mean that they are not carrying any charges? Explain.

Question 9: When an everyday object is positively charged, would you expect that some protons have
been added to it or that some electrons have been removed? Or does that vary from case to case? Hint:
Remember what you know about the atomic structure of matter, for example, what it would mean to remove
a proton from an atom.

Question 10: You know that different materials behave differently when it comes to the motion of charges
(typically electrons) inside. Materials that allow electrons to move freely are conductors (e.g. copper, silver),
and materials that dont easily allow electronic motion are insulators (e.g. wood, rubber, glass). Is it possible
to charge both kinds of material? Explain and give examples.

Question 11: You are probably aware that many objects can be charged by rubbing. A typical demonstration you may have seen is someone holding a plastic rod in one hand and rubbing it with a piece of fur.
Would that work with a metal rod, too? Explain why, or why not.

Question 12: To illustrate how a metallic object can be charged, we will use an electroscope.
a) Rub a plastic rod with fur and touch the metal plate on top of the electroscope. What do you observe?

b) Now explain the physics behind your observation: Sketch the electroscope and the charge distribution on
it, after you have touched it with the charged plastic rod.

c) When the plastic rod is taken away from the electroscope, do the leaves remain apart, or do they collapse?
Describe and explain what is happening.

d) When you touch the charged electroscope with a finger, do the leaves remain apart, or do they collapse?
Describe and explain what is happening.

Question 13: Discharge the electroscope. This time, bring a charged plastic rod close to the electroscope,
but dont let it touch the electroscope.
a) Describe what happens and sketch the charge distribution on the electroscope and on the rod.

b) What happens when you move the rod away? Describe and explain.

Question 14: How can you charge an electroscope using a charged plastic rod, but without touching the
electroscope with the rod? Describe the procedure in steps by sketching the charge distribution on the rod
and the electroscope (and whatever else you need) in each step, like a comic strip. Explain what happens in
each step. Hint: Use your sketch from the previous question to find the solution to this one.

CHECKPOINT 2: Before moving on to the next part, have your TA check

the results you obtained so far.

Electric forces between two point charges

Question 15: The figure shows two point charges

of 1C and +1C. Draw the force vectors on each

Question 16: This time, consider two point charges

of 1C and +2C. Draw the force vectors on each
charge. What is different, compared to the original


Question 17: Describe how the force vectors (direction and magnitude) would change, as compared to the
original situation, if the sign of the charge on the right were changed to negative.

Question 18: Describe how the force vectors (direction and magnitude) would change, as compared to the
original situation, if the distance between the two charges were doubled.

Question 19: If you wanted to double the magnitude of the force, as compared to the original situation,
how would you have to change the distance between the two charges?

Electric forces between three point charges in one dimension



Question 20: The figure shows four different

situations in which three charges are placed on
the x-aixs. For each situation, draw the forces
exerted by the charges on the left and on the
right on the charge in the middle. Then, use
a different colour to draw the net force on the
middle charge. Make sure to clearly show the
relative magnitudes.

Question 21: A charge of +2.0 nC is at the origin, and a second charge of -4.0 nC is at x=1.0 cm.
a) At what x-coordinate could you place a test charge so that it would experience no net force?

b) In part (a), you should have found two mathematical solutions. Explain how you know which one is
the actual physical solution, using a sketch. (You may use the applet mixed charges to study the two

c) What physical situation does the other mathematically correct solution describe?

CHECKPOINT 3: Before moving on to the next part, have your TA check

the results you obtained so far.


Electric forces between point charges in two dimensions

Question 22: When you take your laundry out of the dryer, you notice some annoying static cling and
wonder how much charge is actually involved here. You remember a textbook problem that seemed quite
detached from reality then, but turns out to be useful now: You take two small empty cans out of the
recycling bin and place them on the kitchen scale. They each have a mass of 100 g. You tie them together
with a string and hang the string over a nail that is sticking out of the wall. The cans are hanging down 40
cm. Then, you take your flannel shirt out of the dryer and touch the cans with it. The cans move apart such
that each is now hanging at an angle of 10 degrees from the vertical. How much charge has been transferred
from your shirt? Include a sketch in your answer and show your work.


Question 23: In the space below, write one or two sentences: What is the message that you are taking
home from this labatorial?

FINAL CHECKPOINT: First, clean up your workspace. Then, ask your

TA to check the results you obtained in the last part.

Equations and Constants

Fg (r)

Ugrav (y)

vx (t)


vx2 (t)


FC (r)

x =

m1 m2
mv 2
v0x + ax t

G =

x0 + v0x t + ax t2
+ 2ax (x(t) x0 )
= r
= 2 r



6.67 1011

N m2
kg 2

8.99 109 N m2 C 2

8.85 1012 C 2 N 1 m2

e =

1.60 1019 C


9.11 1031 kg


1.67 1027 kg


1.67 1027 kg

1 |q1 q2 |
magnitude of the Coulomb (electrostatic) force between two charges
40 r2

b b2 4ac
solutions of the quadratic equation ax2 + bx + c = 0