Electric potential

Overview

Classical electromagnetism

Classical electromagnetism is a branch of theoretical physics that studies consequences of the electromagnetic forces between electric charges and currents...

, the

**electric potential**(a scalar

Scalar (physics)

In physics, a scalar is a simple physical quantity that is not changed by coordinate system rotations or translations , or by Lorentz transformations or space-time translations . This is in contrast to a vector...

quantity denoted by

*φ*,

*φ*

_{E}or

*V*and also called the

*electric field potential*or the

*electrostatic potential*) at a point within a defined space is equal to the electric potential energy

Electric potential energy

Electric potential energy, or electrostatic potential energy, is a potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces and is associated with the configuration of a particular set of point charges within a defined system...

(measured in joules

Joule

The joule ; symbol J) is a derived unit of energy or work in the International System of Units. It is equal to the energy expended in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre , or in passing an electric current of one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second...

) at that location divided by the charge

Electric charge

Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

there (measured in coulombs). The electric potential at a specific location in the electric field is independent of q

_{t}.

Encyclopedia

In classical electromagnetism

, the

quantity denoted by

(measured in joules

) at that location divided by the charge

there (measured in coulombs). The electric potential at a specific location in the electric field is independent of q

or in a dynamic (varying with time) electric field

at a specific time, and has the units of joules per coulomb, or volts

.

There is also a generalized electric scalar potential

that is used in electrodynamics when time-varying electromagnetic fields are present. This generalized electric potential cannot be simply interpreted as the ratio of potential energy to charge, however.

explores the concepts such as force, energy

, potential

etc. in more detail.

Force and potential energy are directly related. As an object moves in the direction that the force accelerates it, its potential energy decreases. For example, the gravitational potential energy of a cannonball at the top of a hill is greater than at the base of the hill. As the object falls, that potential energy decreases and is translated to motion, or inertial (kinetic) energy.

For certain forces, it is possible to define the "potential" of a field such that the potential energy of an object due to a field is dependent only on the position of the object with respect to the field. Those forces must affect objects depending only on the intrinsic properties of the object and the position of the object, and obey certain other mathematical rules.

Two such forces are the gravitational force (gravity) and the electric force in the absence of time-varying magnetic fields. The potential of an electric field is called the electric potential. The synonymous term "electrostatic potential" is also in common use.

The electric potential and the magnetic vector potential together form a four vector, so that the two kinds of potential are mixed under Lorentz transformation

s.

where

of the potential:

Then, by Gauss's law

, the potential satisfies Poisson's equation

:

where

(including bound charge) and

.

The concept of electric potential is closely linked with potential energy

. A test charge

The potential energy and hence also the electric potential is only defined up to an additive constant: one must arbitrarily choose a position where the potential energy and the electric potential are zero.

These equations cannot be used if the curl , i.e., in the case of a

; see Maxwell's equations

). The generalization of electric potential to this case is described below.

where

(permittivity of free space). This is known as the Coulomb Potential.

The electric potential due to a system of point charges is equal to the sum of the point charges' individual potentials. This fact simplifies calculations significantly, since addition of potential (scalar) fields is much easier than addition of the electric (vector) fields.

The equation given above for the electric potential (and all the equations used here) are in the forms required by SI units. In some other (less common) systems of units, such as CGS-Gaussian

, many of these equations would be altered.

: is path-dependent because (Faraday's law of induction

).

Instead, one can still define a scalar potential by also including the magnetic vector potential

where

. Because the divergence of the magnetic field is always zero due to the absence of magnetic monopole

s, such an

and one can therefore write

where

The electrostatic potential is simply the special case of this definition where

unlike electrostatics.

Note that this definition of

for the vector potential

of any scalar field can be added to

where

, just as for electrostatics. Another common choice is the Lorenz gauge, in which we choose

unit of electric potential is the volt

(in honor of Alessandro Volta

), which is why electric potential is also known as voltage

. Older units are rarely used nowadays. Variants of the centimeter gram second system of units included a number of different units for electric potential, including the abvolt and the statvolt

.

is connected between two different types of metal, it measures not the electric potential difference, but instead the potential difference corrected for the different atomic environments. The quantity measured by a voltmeter is called electrochemical potential or fermi level

, while the pure unadjusted electric potential is sometimes called Galvani potential

. The terms "voltage" and "electric potential" are a bit ambiguous in that, in practice, they can refer to

Classical electromagnetism

Classical electromagnetism is a branch of theoretical physics that studies consequences of the electromagnetic forces between electric charges and currents...

, the

**electric potential**(a scalarScalar (physics)

In physics, a scalar is a simple physical quantity that is not changed by coordinate system rotations or translations , or by Lorentz transformations or space-time translations . This is in contrast to a vector...

quantity denoted by

*φ*,*φ*_{E}or*V*and also called the*electric field potential*or the*electrostatic potential*) at a point within a defined space is equal to the electric potential energyElectric potential energy

Electric potential energy, or electrostatic potential energy, is a potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces and is associated with the configuration of a particular set of point charges within a defined system...

(measured in joules

Joule

The joule ; symbol J) is a derived unit of energy or work in the International System of Units. It is equal to the energy expended in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre , or in passing an electric current of one ampere through a resistance of one ohm for one second...

) at that location divided by the charge

Electric charge

Electric charge is a physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when near other electrically charged matter. Electric charge comes in two types, called positive and negative. Two positively charged substances, or objects, experience a mutual repulsive force, as do two...

there (measured in coulombs). The electric potential at a specific location in the electric field is independent of q

_{t}. That is to say, it is a characteristic only of the electric field that is present. The electric potential can be calculated at a point in either a static (time-invariant) electric fieldElectric field

In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

or in a dynamic (varying with time) electric field

Electric field

In physics, an electric field surrounds electrically charged particles and time-varying magnetic fields. The electric field depicts the force exerted on other electrically charged objects by the electrically charged particle the field is surrounding...

at a specific time, and has the units of joules per coulomb, or volts

Volt

The volt is the SI derived unit for electric potential, electric potential difference, and electromotive force. The volt is named in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta , who invented the voltaic pile, possibly the first chemical battery.- Definition :A single volt is defined as the...

.

There is also a generalized electric scalar potential

Scalar potential

A scalar potential is a fundamental concept in vector analysis and physics . The scalar potential is an example of a scalar field...

that is used in electrodynamics when time-varying electromagnetic fields are present. This generalized electric potential cannot be simply interpreted as the ratio of potential energy to charge, however.

## Introduction

Objects may possess a property known as an electric charge. An electric field exerts a force on charged objects, accelerating them in the direction of the force, in either the same or the opposite direction of the electric field. If the charged object has a positive charge, the force and acceleration will be in the direction of the field. This force has the same direction as the electric field vector, and its magnitude is given by the size of the charge multiplied with the magnitude of the electric field. Classical mechanicsClassical mechanics

In physics, classical mechanics is one of the two major sub-fields of mechanics, which is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces...

explores the concepts such as force, energy

Energy

In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity. It is often understood as the ability a physical system has to do work on other physical systems...

, potential

Potential

*In linguistics, the potential mood*The mathematical study of potentials is known as potential theory; it is the study of harmonic functions on manifolds...

etc. in more detail.

Force and potential energy are directly related. As an object moves in the direction that the force accelerates it, its potential energy decreases. For example, the gravitational potential energy of a cannonball at the top of a hill is greater than at the base of the hill. As the object falls, that potential energy decreases and is translated to motion, or inertial (kinetic) energy.

For certain forces, it is possible to define the "potential" of a field such that the potential energy of an object due to a field is dependent only on the position of the object with respect to the field. Those forces must affect objects depending only on the intrinsic properties of the object and the position of the object, and obey certain other mathematical rules.

Two such forces are the gravitational force (gravity) and the electric force in the absence of time-varying magnetic fields. The potential of an electric field is called the electric potential. The synonymous term "electrostatic potential" is also in common use.

The electric potential and the magnetic vector potential together form a four vector, so that the two kinds of potential are mixed under Lorentz transformation

Lorentz transformation

In physics, the Lorentz transformation or Lorentz-Fitzgerald transformation describes how, according to the theory of special relativity, two observers' varying measurements of space and time can be converted into each other's frames of reference. It is named after the Dutch physicist Hendrik...

s.

## In electrostatics

The electric potential at a point**r**in a static electric field**E**is given by the line integralLine integral

In mathematics, a line integral is an integral where the function to be integrated is evaluated along a curve.The function to be integrated may be a scalar field or a vector field...

where

*C*is an arbitrary path connecting the point with zero potential to**r**. When the curl is zero, the line integral above does not depend on the specific path*C*chosen but only on its endpoints. In this case, the electric field is conservative and determined by the gradientGradient

In vector calculus, the gradient of a scalar field is a vector field that points in the direction of the greatest rate of increase of the scalar field, and whose magnitude is the greatest rate of change....

of the potential:

Then, by Gauss's law

Gauss's law

In physics, Gauss's law, also known as Gauss's flux theorem, is a law relating the distribution of electric charge to the resulting electric field. Gauss's law states that:...

, the potential satisfies Poisson's equation

Poisson's equation

In mathematics, Poisson's equation is a partial differential equation of elliptic type with broad utility in electrostatics, mechanical engineering and theoretical physics...

:

where

*ρ*is the total charge densityCharge density

The linear, surface, or volume charge density is the amount of electric charge in a line, surface, or volume, respectively. It is measured in coulombs per meter , square meter , or cubic meter , respectively, and represented by the lowercase Greek letter Rho . Since there are positive as well as...

(including bound charge) and

**∇**· denotes the divergenceDivergence

In vector calculus, divergence is a vector operator that measures the magnitude of a vector field's source or sink at a given point, in terms of a signed scalar. More technically, the divergence represents the volume density of the outward flux of a vector field from an infinitesimal volume around...

.

The concept of electric potential is closely linked with potential energy

Potential energy

In physics, potential energy is the energy stored in a body or in a system due to its position in a force field or due to its configuration. The SI unit of measure for energy and work is the Joule...

. A test charge

*q*has an electric potential energyElectric potential energy

Electric potential energy, or electrostatic potential energy, is a potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces and is associated with the configuration of a particular set of point charges within a defined system...

*U*_{E}given byThe potential energy and hence also the electric potential is only defined up to an additive constant: one must arbitrarily choose a position where the potential energy and the electric potential are zero.

These equations cannot be used if the curl , i.e., in the case of a

*nonconservative electric field*(caused by a changing magnetic fieldMagnetic field

A magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...

; see Maxwell's equations

Maxwell's equations

Maxwell's equations are a set of partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, classical optics, and electric circuits. These fields in turn underlie modern electrical and communications technologies.Maxwell's equations...

). The generalization of electric potential to this case is described below.

### Electric potential due to a point charge

The electric potential created by a point charge*Q*, at a distance*r*from the charge (relative to the potential at infinity), can be shown to bewhere

*ε*_{0}is the electric constantElectric constant

The physical constant ε0, commonly called the vacuum permittivity, permittivity of free space or electric constant is an ideal, physical constant, which is the value of the absolute dielectric permittivity of classical vacuum...

(permittivity of free space). This is known as the Coulomb Potential.

The electric potential due to a system of point charges is equal to the sum of the point charges' individual potentials. This fact simplifies calculations significantly, since addition of potential (scalar) fields is much easier than addition of the electric (vector) fields.

The equation given above for the electric potential (and all the equations used here) are in the forms required by SI units. In some other (less common) systems of units, such as CGS-Gaussian

Gaussian units

Gaussian units comprise a metric system of physical units. This system is the most common of the several electromagnetic unit systems based on cgs units. It is also called the Gaussian unit system, Gaussian-cgs units, or often just cgs units...

, many of these equations would be altered.

## Generalization to electrodynamics

When time-varying magnetic fields are present (which is true whenever there are time-varying electric fields and vice versa), it is not possible to describe the electric field simply in terms of a scalar potential*V*because the electric field is no longer conservativeConservative force

A conservative force is a force with the property that the work done in moving a particle between two points is independent of the path taken. Equivalently, if a particle travels in a closed loop, the net work done by a conservative force is zero.It is possible to define a numerical value of...

: is path-dependent because (Faraday's law of induction

Faraday's law of induction

Faraday's law of induction dates from the 1830s, and is a basic law of electromagnetism relating to the operating principles of transformers, inductors, and many types of electrical motors and generators...

).

Instead, one can still define a scalar potential by also including the magnetic vector potential

**A**. In particular,**A**is defined to satisfy:where

**B**is the magnetic fieldMagnetic field

A magnetic field is a mathematical description of the magnetic influence of electric currents and magnetic materials. The magnetic field at any given point is specified by both a direction and a magnitude ; as such it is a vector field.Technically, a magnetic field is a pseudo vector;...

. Because the divergence of the magnetic field is always zero due to the absence of magnetic monopole

Magnetic monopole

A magnetic monopole is a hypothetical particle in particle physics that is a magnet with only one magnetic pole . In more technical terms, a magnetic monopole would have a net "magnetic charge". Modern interest in the concept stems from particle theories, notably the grand unified and superstring...

s, such an

**A**can always be found. Given this, the quantity*is*a conservative field by Faraday's lawFaraday's law of induction

Faraday's law of induction dates from the 1830s, and is a basic law of electromagnetism relating to the operating principles of transformers, inductors, and many types of electrical motors and generators...

and one can therefore write

where

*V*is the scalar potential defined by the conservative field**F**.The electrostatic potential is simply the special case of this definition where

**A**is time-invariant. On the other hand, for time-varying fields, note thatunlike electrostatics.

Note that this definition of

*V*depends on the gauge choiceGauge fixing

In the physics of gauge theories, gauge fixing denotes a mathematical procedure for coping with redundant degrees of freedom in field variables. By definition, a gauge theory represents each physically distinct configuration of the system as an equivalence class of detailed local field...

for the vector potential

**A**(the gradientGradient

In vector calculus, the gradient of a scalar field is a vector field that points in the direction of the greatest rate of increase of the scalar field, and whose magnitude is the greatest rate of change....

of any scalar field can be added to

**A**without changing**B**). One choice is the Coulomb gauge, in which we choose . In this case, we obtainwhere

*ρ*is the charge densityCharge density

The linear, surface, or volume charge density is the amount of electric charge in a line, surface, or volume, respectively. It is measured in coulombs per meter , square meter , or cubic meter , respectively, and represented by the lowercase Greek letter Rho . Since there are positive as well as...

, just as for electrostatics. Another common choice is the Lorenz gauge, in which we choose

**A**to satisfy## Units

The SISi

Si, si, or SI may refer to :- Measurement, mathematics and science :* International System of Units , the modern international standard version of the metric system...

unit of electric potential is the volt

Volt

The volt is the SI derived unit for electric potential, electric potential difference, and electromotive force. The volt is named in honor of the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta , who invented the voltaic pile, possibly the first chemical battery.- Definition :A single volt is defined as the...

(in honor of Alessandro Volta

Alessandro Volta

Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Gerolamo Umberto Volta was a Lombard physicist known especially for the invention of the battery in 1800.-Early life and works:...

), which is why electric potential is also known as voltage

Voltage

Voltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points...

. Older units are rarely used nowadays. Variants of the centimeter gram second system of units included a number of different units for electric potential, including the abvolt and the statvolt

Statvolt

The statvolt is a unit of voltage and electrical potential used in the cgs system of units. The conversion to the SI system isIt is a useful unit for electromagnetism because one statvolt per centimetre is equal in magnitude to one gauss. Thus, for example, an electric field of one statvolt/cm has...

.

## Galvani potential versus electrochemical potential

Inside metals (and other solids and liquids), the energy of an electron is affected not only by the electric potential, but also by the specific atomic environment that it is in. When a voltmeterVoltmeter

A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. Analog voltmeters move a pointer across a scale in proportion to the voltage of the circuit; digital voltmeters give a numerical display of voltage by use of an analog to...

is connected between two different types of metal, it measures not the electric potential difference, but instead the potential difference corrected for the different atomic environments. The quantity measured by a voltmeter is called electrochemical potential or fermi level

Fermi level

The Fermi level is a hypothetical level of potential energy for an electron inside a crystalline solid. Occupying such a level would give an electron a potential energy \epsilon equal to its chemical potential \mu as they both appear in the Fermi-Dirac distribution function,which...

, while the pure unadjusted electric potential is sometimes called Galvani potential

Galvani potential

Galvani potential in electrochemistry, is the electric potential difference between two points in the bulk of two phases...

. The terms "voltage" and "electric potential" are a bit ambiguous in that, in practice, they can refer to

*either*of these in different contexts.## See also

- Absolute electrode potentialAbsolute electrode potentialAbsolute electrode potential, in electrochemistry, according to an IUPAC definition, is the electrode potential of a metal measured with respect to a universal reference system .-Definition:...
- Electrochemical potential
- Electrode potentialElectrode potentialElectrode potential, E, in electrochemistry, according to an IUPAC definition, is the electromotive force of a cell built of two electrodes:* on the left-hand side is the standard hydrogen electrode, and...
- Galvani potentialGalvani potentialGalvani potential in electrochemistry, is the electric potential difference between two points in the bulk of two phases...
- VoltageVoltageVoltage, otherwise known as electrical potential difference or electric tension is the difference in electric potential between two points — or the difference in electric potential energy per unit charge between two points...

, or**electric potential difference**