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You are on page 1of 8

**Figure 1. System of three charges.
**

The electric potential energy U of a system of two point charges was discussed in our

previous Chapter and is equal to

(1)

where q1 and q2 are the electric charges of the two objects, and r is their separation

distance. The electric potential energy of a system of three point charges (see Figure 1)

can be calculated in a similar manner

(2)

where q1, q2, and q3 are the electric charges of the three objects, and r12, r13, and r23 are

their separation distances (see Figure 1). The potential energy in eq.(2) is the energy

required to assemble the system of charges from an initial situation in which all charges

are infinitely far apart. Equation (2) can be written in terms of the electrostatic potentials

V:

(3)

where Vother(1) is the electric potential at the position of charge 1 produced by all other

charges

(4)

and similarly for Vother(2) and Vother(3).

**Example Problem: Model of a Carbon Nucleus
**

According to the alpha-particle model of the nucleus some nuclei consist of a regular

geometric arrangement of alpha particles. For instance, the nucleus of 12C consists of

three alpha particles on an equilateral triangle (see Figure 2). Assuming that the distance

between pairs of alpha particles is 3 x 10-15 m, what is the electric energy of this

arrangement of alpha particles ? Treat the alpha particles as pointlike.

**Figure 2. Alpha-particle model of 12C.
**

The electric potential at the location of each alpha particle is equal to

(5)

where d = 3.0 x 10-15 m. The electric energy of this configuration can be calculated by

combining eq.(5) and eq.(3):

(6)

2 Energy of a System of Conductors

**Figure 3. The capacitor.
**

The electrostatic energy of a system of conductors can be calculated using eq.(3). For

example, a capacitor consists of two large parallel metallic plates with area A. Suppose

that charges +Q and -Q are placed on the two plates (see Figure 3). Suppose the

electrostatic potential of plate 1 is V1 and the potential of plate 2 is V2. The electrostatic

energy of the capacitor is then equal to

(7)

The electric field E between the plates is a function of the charge density [sigma]

(8)

The potential difference V1 - V2 between the plates can be obtained by a path integration

of the electric field

(9)

Combining eq.(9) and eq.(7) we can calculate the electrostatic energy of the system:

(10)

This equation shows that electrostatic energy can be stored in a capacitor. Equation (10)

can be rewritten as

(11)

where Volume is the volume between the capacitor plates. The quantity [epsilon]0 . E2/2 is

called the energy density (potential energy per unit volume).

Figure 4. Field lines at the edge of a capacitor.

In the calculation of the energy density carried out for the capacitor we assumed that the

electric field was homogeneous in the region between the plates. In a real capacitor the

field at the edge is not homogeneous, and the calculation will have to be modified. Figure

4 shows a couple of field lines at the edge of a capacitor. Consider the two small sections

of the capacitor plates with charges dQ and -dQ, respectively, shown in Figure 4. The

contribution of these two sections to the total electrostatic energy of the capacitor is given

by

(12)

where V1 and V2 are the electrostatic potential of the top and bottom plate, respectively.

The potential difference, V1 - V2, is related to the electric field between the plates

(13)

The electric field E(l) can be related to the charges on the small segments of the capacitor

plates via Gauss' law. Consider a volume with its sides parallel to the field lines (see

Figure 5). The electric flux through its surface is equal to

(14)

where E(l) is the strength of the electric field at a distance l from the bottom capacitor

plate (see Figure 5) and dS(l) is the area of the top of the integration volume. The flux is

negative since the field lines are entering the integration volume. The flux through the

sides of the integration volume is zero since the sides are chosen to be parallel to the field

lines. The flux through the bottom of the integration volume is also zero, since the

electric field in any conductor is zero. Gauss' law requires that the flux through the

surface of any volume is equal to the charge enclosed by that volume divided by

[epsilon]0:

(15)

**Figure 5. Integration volume discussed in the text.
**

Combining eq.(14) and eq.(15) we obtain

(16)

Equations (12), (13) and (16) can be combined to give

(17)

This calculation can be generalized to objects of arbitrary shapes, and the electrostatic

energy of any system can be expressed as the volume integral of the energy density u

which is defined as

(18)

Thus

(19)

where the volume integration extends over all regions where there is an electric field.

**Example Problem: Fission of Uranium
**

In symmetric fission, the nucleus of uranium (238U) splits into two nuclei of palladium

(119Pd). The uranium nucleus is spherical with a radius of 7.4 x 10-15 m. Assume that the

two palladium nuclei adopt a spherical shape immediately after fission; at this instant, the

configuration is as shown in Figure 6. The size of the nuclei in Figure 6 can be calculated

from the size of the uranium nucleus because nuclear material maintains a constant

density.

**Figure 6. Two palladium nuclei right after fission of 238U.
**

a) Calculate the electric energy of the uranium nucleus before fission

b) Calculate the total electric energy of the palladium nuclei in the configuration shown

in Figure 6, immediately after fission. Take into account the mutual electric potential

**energy of the two nuclei and also the individual electric energy of the two palladium
**

nuclei by themselves.

c) Calculate the total electric energy a long time after fission when the two palladium

nuclei have moved apart by a very large distance.

d) Ultimately, how much electric energy is released into other forms of energy in the

complete fission process ?

e) If 1 kg of uranium undergoes fission, how much electric energy is released ?

a) The electric energy of the uranium nucleus before fission can be calculated using the

known electric field distribution generated by a uniformly charged sphere of radius R:

(20)

For the uranium nucleus q = 92e and R = 7.4 x 10-15 m. Substituting these values into eq.

(20) we obtain

(21)

b) Suppose the radius of a palladium nucleus is RPd. The total volume of nuclear matter of

the system shown in Figure 6 is equal to

(22)

Since the density of nuclear matter is constant, the volume in eq.(22) must be equal to the

volume of the original uranium nucleus

(23)

Combining eq.(23) and (22) we obtain the following equation for the radius of the

palladium nucleus:

(24)

The electrostatic energy of each palladium nucleus is equal to

(25)

where we have used the radius calculated in eq.(24) and a charge qPd = 46e. Besides the

internal energy of the palladium nuclei, the electric energy of the configuration must also

be included in the calculation of the total electric potential energy of the nuclear system

(26)

where qPd is the charge of the palladium nucleus (qPd = 26e) and Rint is the distance

between the centers of the two nuclei (Rint = 2 RPd = 11.7 x 10-15 m). Substituting these

values into eq.(26) we obtain

(27)

The total electric energy of the system at fission is therefore

(28)

c) Due to the electric repulsion between the positively charge palladium nuclei, they will

separate and move to infinity. At this point, the electric energy of the system is just the

sum of the electric energies of the two palladium nuclei:

(29)

d) The total release of energy is equal to the difference in the electric energy of the

system before fission (eq.(21)) and long after fission (eq.(29)):

(30)

e) Equation (30) gives the energy released when 1 uranium nucleus fissions. The number

of uranium nuclei in 1 kg of uranium is equal to

(31)

The total release of energy is equal to

(32)

To get a feeling for the amount of energy released when uranium fissions, we can

compare the energy in eq.(32) with the energy released by falling water. Suppose 1 kg of

water falls 100 m. The energy released is equal to the change in the potential energy of

the water:

(33)

The mass of water needed to generate an amount of energy equal to that released in the

fission of 1 kg uranium is

(34)

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