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1 Introduction

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
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

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

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

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

where d = 3.0 x 10-15 m. The electric energy of this configuration can be calculated by
combining eq.(5) and eq.(3):


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

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

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

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

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

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
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

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
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


Figure 5. Integration volume discussed in the text.
Combining eq.(14) and eq.(15) we obtain
Equations (12), (13) and (16) can be combined to give

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

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

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:

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

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

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

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


The electrostatic energy of each palladium nucleus is equal to

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

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

The total electric energy of the system at fission is therefore

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:

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)):

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

The total release of energy is equal to

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:
The mass of water needed to generate an amount of energy equal to that released in the
fission of 1 kg uranium is