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An electric charge alters the space around it. Throughout the space around every charge is a

vector thing called the electric field. Also filling the space around every charge is a scalar thing,

called the voltage or the electric potential. Electric fields and voltages are two different ways to

describe the same thing.

(Note on terminology: The text book uses the term "electric potential", but it is easy to confuse

electric potential with "potential energy", which is something different. So I will use the term

"voltage" instead.)

Voltage overview

The voltage at a point in empty space is a number (not a vector) measured in units called volts

(V) . Near a positive charge, the voltage is high. Far from a positive charge, the voltage is low.

Voltage is a kind of "electrical height". Voltage is to charge like height is to mass. It takes a lot

of energy to place a mass at a great height. Likewise, it takes a lot of energy to place a positive

charge at a place where there voltage is high.

+Q

Only changes in voltage V between two different locations have physical significance. The

zero of voltage is arbitrary, in the same way that the zero of height is arbitrary.

We define V in 2 equivalent ways:

U of q

V = = change in potential energy of a test charge divided by the test charge

q

K KB

V = VB VA = E dr

A

K K

For constant E-field, this integral simplifies to V = E r (r = change in position)

The electric field is related to the voltage in this way: Electric field is the rate of change of

voltage with position. E-field is measured in units of N/C, which turn out to be the same as

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volts per meter (V/m). E-fields points from high voltage to low voltage. Where there is a big E-

field, the voltage is varying rapidly with distance.

E-field

high low

voltage voltage

In order to understand these strange, abstract definitions of voltage, we must review work and

potential energy

G

Definition of work done by a force: consider an object pulled or pushed by a constant force F .

While the force is applied, the object moves through a displacement of r = rf - ri.

F

Notice that the direction of displacement is not the

(i) r (f)

same as the direction of the force, in general.

K K

Work done by a force F = WF F r = F r cos = F || r (constant F)

If the force F varies during the displacement (or the displacement is not a straight line), then we

K K

must use the more general definition of work done by a force WF F dr

Work is not a vector, but it does have a sign (+) or (-). Work is positive, negative, or zero,

depending on the angle between the force and the displacement.

F

F

F

r r

r

< 90, W positive = 90, W = 0 > 90, W negative

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Definition of Potential Energy U: Associated with conservative forces, such as gravity and

electrostatic force, there is a kind of energy of position called potential energy. The change in

potential energy U of a system is defined to be the negative of the work done by the "field

force", which is the work done by an "external agent" opposing the field.

U Wext = Wfield

m is lifted upward a height h by an "external agent" (a hand

h Fext

which exerts a force to oppose the force of gravity). The g

force of gravity is the "field". In this case, the work done m

Fgrav = mg

by the hand is Wext = +mgh. The work done by the field vi = 0

(gravity) is Wfield = mgh. The change in the potential

energy of the earth/book system is U = Wext = Wfield = +mgh . The work done by the

external agent went into the increased gravitational potential energy of the book. (The initial and

final velocities are zero, so there was no increase in kinetic energy.)

A conservative force is force for which the amount of work done depends only on the initial and

final positions, not on the path taken in between. Only in the case that the work done by the field

in independent of the path, does it make any sense to associate a change in energy with a change

in position.

(K = kinetic energy = m v2 )

Voltage

voltage) in the same way as we defined gravitational potential energy, with the relation U =

Wext = Wfield. Consider two parallel metal plates (a capacitor) with equal and opposite charges

on the plates which create a uniform electric field between the plates. The field will push a test

charge +q toward the negative plate with a constant force of magnitude F = q E. (The situation is

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much like a mass in a gravitational field, but there is no gravity in this example.) Now imagine

grabbing the charge with tweezers (an external agent) and pulling the charge +q a displacement

r against the electric field toward the positive plate. By definition, the change in electrostatic

potential energy of the charge is

K K K K

U = U f Ui = + Wext = Wfield = Ffield r = q E r

I recommend that you do not try to get the signs from the equations it's too easy to get

confused. Get the sign of U by asking whether the work done by the external agent is positive

or negative and apply U = +Wext.

(f) hi PE

+q

E F=qE r

lo PE

(i)

If the E-field is not constant, then the work done involves an integral

f f

K K K K

U = U f Ui = Wfield = Ffield dr = q E d r .

i i

Now we are ready for the definition of voltage difference between two points in space. Notice

that the change in PE of the test charge q is proportional to q, so the ratio U/q is independent of

G

G Fon q

q. Recall that electric field is defined as the force per charge : E . Similarly, we define

q

the voltage difference V as the change in PE per charge:

f

U K K

V = E dr , or U = q V

q i

Remember that the E-field always points from high voltage to low voltage:

K K

V = E r (if E = constant)

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E-field

high low

voltage voltage

K K K K

If E & r , then V = E r = () Vf Vi < 0 , Vi > Vf

To say that "the voltage at a point in space is V" means this: if a test charge q is placed at that

point, the potential energy of the charge q (the work required to place the charge there) is

U = q V. If the charge is moved from one place to another, the change in PE is U = q V .

Only changes in PE and changes in V are physically meaningful. We are free set the zero of PE

and V anywhere we like.

energy joule

Units of voltage = [V] = = = volt (V) . 1 V = 1 J/C

charge coulomb

V=?

+Q kQ

r Answer: V (r) =

r

Notice that this formula gives V = 0 at r = . When dealing with point charges, we always set the

zero of voltage at r = .

Q

r r r

+Q

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Proof:

+Q dr

(i)

r (f)

K K K K

E & dr E dr = + E dr , so we have

V = Vf Vi = V(r = ) V(r) = E dr

0 r

kQ 1 kQ

V(r) = + E dr = dr = kQ = Done.

r 2 r r

r r r

If we have several charges Q1, Q2, Q3, , the voltage at a point near the charges is

kq i dq

Vtot = V1 + V2 + V3 + ... = V

i

i = i ri

or k r

K K K K K

Proof: V = E tot dr = (E1 + E 2 + ...) dr = V1 + V2 + ...

G

Much easier to work with V's (scalars) than with E 's (vectors).

d

apart. What is the voltage at point x midway between the charges?

x

What is the E-field midway between the charges? How much work is +Q +Q

required to place a charge +q at x?

V=?

Vtot = V1 + V2 = E=?

kQ kQ 2kQ 2kQ 4kQ

Vtot = V1 + V2 = + = + =

( d / 2) ( d / 2) d d d

G G G

The E-field is zero between the charges (Since E tot = E1 + E 2 = 0. Draw a picture to see this!)

V-7 of 9

The work required to bring a test charge +q from far away to the point x is positive, since it is

hard to put a (+) charge near two other (+) charges. You have to push to get the +q in place. The

work done is

4kQ

Wext = U = +q V, where V = Vfinal Vinitial = V(at x) V(at

) =

0

d

4kq Q

Wext =

d

The SI units of energy is the joule (J). 1 joule = 1 newtonmeter = 1Nm Another, non-SI unit

of energy is the electron-volt (eV), often used by chemists. The eV is a very convenient unit of

energy to use when working with the energies of electrons or protons.

From the relation U = q V, we see that energy has the units of charge voltage. If the charge

q = 1 e = |charge of the electron| and V = 1 volt, then U = q V = 1 e 1V = a unit of energy

called an "eV". Notice that the name "eV" reminds you what the unit is: it's an "e" times a "V"

= 1 e 1 volt.

1 eV = 1.6 10-19 J

If q = e (or a multiple of e), it is easier to use units of eV instead of joules when computing (work

done) = (change in PE).

Example of use of eV. A proton, starting at rest, "falls" from the positive plate to the negative

plate on a capacitor. The voltage difference between the plates is V = 1000 V. What is the

final KE of the proton (just before it hits the negative plate)?

E

V=0V

V-8 of 9

K K K K

Given E, we can compute V = E dr = E r (if E constant) . Notice that if the

K K

displacement r is perpendicular to the direction of E, then V = E r = 0 . A surface of

constant V is one along which V = 0 . Equipotential (constant voltage) lines are always at right

angles to the electric field.

equipotential lines

Computing E from V

K K K K

Given E, we can compute V = E dr = E r (if E constant) .

K K

Suppose r & E and r very small so that E constant, then

K K V dV

V = E r = E r E= =

r dr

dV

"E is the rate of change of V": but E = only if the r-axis is the direction of E.

dr

K

Suppose r = x x is along the x-axis, but not necessarily along E.

K K K V dV dV

E r = E x x = E x x = V E x = = , Ey = , etc

x dx dy

V

Actually, must take "partial derivative" E x = means hold y, z constant,

x take derivative w.r.t x

K V V V

Gradient operator: E = V = x + y + z

x y z

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everywhere inside and on the surface).

V = Er = 0 (since E r )

air

+ + + + + + + + + + + + +

V = 0 (since E = 0 )

metal

V = 0 V = constant

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