Electric potential

Last updated
electric potential
Common symbols
V, φ
SI unit volt
Other units
In SI base units V = kg m2 A−1 s−3
Dimension ML2T−3I−1

An electric potential (also called the electric field potential, potential drop or the electrostatic potential) is the amount of work needed to move a unit of charge from a reference point to a specific point inside the field without producing an acceleration. Typically, the reference point is the Earth or a point at infinity, although any point can be used.

Work (physics) process or amount (and direction) of energy transfer to an object via the application of forces on it through a displacement

Work is the product of force and displacement. In physics, a force is said to do work if, when acting, there is a movement of the point of application in the direction of the force.

Electric charge Physical property that quantifies an objects interaction with electric fields

Electric charge is the physical property of matter that causes it to experience a force when placed in an electromagnetic field. There are two types of electric charge: positive and negative. Like charges repel and unlike attract. An object with an absence of net charge is referred to as neutral. Early knowledge of how charged substances interact is now called classical electrodynamics, and is still accurate for problems that do not require consideration of quantum effects.

Infinity Mathematical concept of something without any limit

Infinity is a concept describing something without any bound, or something larger than any natural number. Philosophers have speculated about the nature of the infinite, for example Zeno of Elea, who proposed many paradoxes involving infinity, and Eudoxus of Cnidus, who used the idea of infinitely small quantities in his method of exhaustion. This idea is also at the basis of infinitesimal calculus.


In classical electrostatics, electric potential is a scalar quantity denoted by V or occasionally φ, [1] equal to the electric potential energy of any charged particle at any location (measured in joules) divided by the charge of that particle (measured in coulombs). By dividing out the charge on the particle a quotient is obtained that is a property of the electric field itself.

Electrostatics Electric charge at rest

Electrostatics is a branch of physics that studies electric charges at rest.

A scalar or scalar quantity in physics is a physical quantity that can be described by a single element of a number field such as a real number, often accompanied by units of measurement. A scalar is usually said to be a physical quantity that only has magnitude and no other characteristics. This is in contrast to vectors, tensors, etc. which are described by several numbers that characterize their magnitude, direction, and so on.

Electric potential energy potential energy that results from conservative Coulomb forces

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. An object may have electric potential energy by virtue of two key elements: its own electric charge and its relative position to other electrically charged objects.

This value can be calculated in either a static (time-invariant) or a dynamic (varying with time) electric field at a specific time in units of joules per coulomb (J C−1), or volts (V). The electric potential at infinity is assumed to be zero.

Electric field Vector field representing the Coulomb force per unit charge that would be exerted on a test charge at each point due to other electric charges

An electric field surrounds an electric charge, and exerts force on other charges in the field, attracting or repelling them. Electric field is sometimes abbreviated as E-field. The electric field is defined mathematically as a vector field that associates to each point in space the force per unit of charge exerted on an infinitesimal positive test charge at rest at that point. The SI unit for electric field strength is volt per meter (V/m). Newtons per coulomb (N/C) is also used as a unit of electric field strength. Electric fields are created by electric charges, or by time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields are important in many areas of physics, and are exploited practically in electrical technology. On an atomic scale, the electric field is responsible for the attractive force between the atomic nucleus and electrons that holds atoms together, and the forces between atoms that cause chemical bonding. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

Volt SI derived unit of voltage

The volt is the derived unit for electric potential, electric potential difference (voltage), and electromotive force. It is named after the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta (1745–1827).

In electrodynamics, when time-varying fields are present, the electric field cannot be expressed only in terms of a scalar potential. Instead, the electric field can be expressed in terms of both the scalar electric potential and the magnetic vector potential. [2] The electric potential and the magnetic vector potential together form a four vector, so that the two kinds of potential are mixed under Lorentz transformations.

Scalar potential concept in vector analysis and physics

Scalar potential, simply stated, describes the situation where the difference in the potential energies of an object in two different positions depends only on the positions, not upon the path taken by the object in traveling from one position to the other. It is a scalar field in three-space: a directionless value (scalar) that depends only on its location. A familiar example is potential energy due to gravity.

Lorentz transformation space-time coordinates transformation that conserves the form of electromagnetism laws

In physics, the Lorentz transformations are a one-parameter family of linear transformations from a coordinate frame in spacetime to another frame that moves at a constant velocity relative to the former. The transformations are named after the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz. The respective inverse transformation is then parametrized by the negative of this velocity.


Classical mechanics explores concepts such as force, energy, potential etc. [3] Force and potential energy are directly related. A net force acting on any object will cause it to accelerate. As an object moves in the direction in which 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 it rolls downhill its potential energy decreases, being translated to motion, kinetic energy.

Classical mechanics sub-field of mechanics, which is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces

Classical mechanics describes the motion of macroscopic objects, from projectiles to parts of machinery, and astronomical objects, such as spacecraft, planets, stars and galaxies.

Energy Physical property transferred to objects to perform heating or work

In physics, energy is the quantitative property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on, or to heat, the object. Energy is a conserved quantity; the law of conservation of energy states that energy can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed. The SI unit of energy is the joule, which is the energy transferred to an object by the work of moving it a distance of 1 metre against a force of 1 newton.

Potential generally refers to a currently unrealized ability. The term is used in a wide variety of fields, from physics to the social sciences to indicate things that are in a state where they are able to change in ways ranging from the simple release of energy by objects to the realization of abilities in people. The philosopher Aristotle incorporated this concept into his theory of potentiality and actuality, a pair of closely connected principles which he used to analyze motion, causality, ethics, and physiology in his Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima, which is about the human psyche. That which is potential can theoretically be made actual by taking the right action; for example, a boulder on the edge of a cliff has potential energy that could be actualized by a push forcing it over the edge of the cliff, and a person whose natural aptitudes give them the potential to be a great pianist can actualize that potential by diligently practicing playing the piano.

It is possible to define the potential of certain force fields so that the potential energy of an object in that field depends only on the position of the object with respect to the field. Two such force fields are the gravitational field and an electric field (in the absence of time-varying magnetic fields). Such fields must affect objects due to the intrinsic properties of the object (e.g., mass or charge) and the position of the object.

Gravity Attractive force between objects with mass

Gravity, or gravitation, is a natural phenomenon by which all things with mass or energy—including planets, stars, galaxies, and even light—are brought toward one another. On Earth, gravity gives weight to physical objects, and the Moon's gravity causes the ocean tides. The gravitational attraction of the original gaseous matter present in the Universe caused it to begin coalescing, forming stars—and for the stars to group together into galaxies—so gravity is responsible for many of the large-scale structures in the Universe. Gravity has an infinite range, although its effects become increasingly weaker on farther objects.

Mass Quantity of matter

Mass is both a property of a physical body and a measure of its resistance to acceleration when a net force is applied. An object's mass also determines the strength of its gravitational attraction to other bodies.

Objects may possess a property known as electric charge and an electric field exerts a force on charged objects. If the charged object has a positive charge the force will be in the direction of the electric field vector at that point while if the charge is negative the force will be in the opposite direction. The magnitude of the force is given by the quantity of the charge multiplied by the magnitude of the electric field vector.


Electric potential around two spheres at opposite potential. The color coding runs from cyan (negative) through yellow (neutral) to pink (positive). VFPt metal balls plusminus potential.svg
Electric potential around two spheres at opposite potential. The color coding runs from cyan (negative) through yellow (neutral) to pink (positive).

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

where C is an arbitrary path connecting the point with zero potential to r. When the curl × E 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 gradient of the potential:

Then, by Gauss's law, the potential satisfies Poisson's equation:

where ρ is the total charge density (including bound charge) and · denotes the divergence.

The concept of electric potential is closely linked with potential energy. A test charge q has an electric potential energy UE given by

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 × E ≠ 0, i.e., in the case of a non-conservative electric field (caused by a changing magnetic field; see 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 charge Q is V=Q/(4peor). Different values of Q will make different values of electric potential V (shown in the image). Electric potential varying charge.gif
The electric potential created by a charge Q is V=Q/(4πεor). Different values of Q will make different values of electric potential V (shown in the image).

The electric potential arising from a point charge Q, at a distance r from the charge is observed to be

where ε0 is the permittivity of vacuum. [4] is known as the Coulomb potential.

The electric potential for a system of point charges is equal to the sum of the point charges' individual potentials. This fact simplifies calculations significantly, because 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.

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

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 field. Because the divergence of the magnetic field is always zero due to the absence of magnetic monopoles, such an A can always be found. Given this, the quantity

is a conservative field by Faraday's law 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,

unlike electrostatics.


The SI derived unit of electric potential is the volt (in honor of Alessandro Volta), which is why a difference in electric potential between two points is known as voltage. Older units are rarely used today. Variants of the centimeter gram second system of units included a number of different units for electric potential, including the abvolt and the statvolt.

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 voltmeter 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. [5] The quantity measured by a voltmeter is called electrochemical potential or fermi level, while the pure unadjusted electric potential V is sometimes called Galvani potential . 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

Related Research Articles

Electromagnetic field Electric and magnetic fields produced by moving charged objects

An electromagnetic field is a physical field produced by moving electrically charged objects. It affects the behavior of non-comoving charged objects at any distance of the field. The electromagnetic field extends indefinitely throughout space and describes the electromagnetic interaction. It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature.

Lorentz force mutual force exerted by two punctual charges in relative motion

In physics the Lorentz force is the combination of electric and magnetic force on a point charge due to electromagnetic fields. A particle of charge q moving with a velocity v in an electric field E and a magnetic field B experiences a force of

Maxwells equations set of partial differential equations that describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents

Maxwell's equations are a set of coupled partial differential equations that, together with the Lorentz force law, form the foundation of classical electromagnetism, classical optics, and electric circuits. The equations provide a mathematical model for electric, optical, and radio technologies, such as power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses, radar etc. Maxwell's equations describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated by charges, currents, and changes of the fields. An important consequence of the equations is that they demonstrate how fluctuating electric and magnetic fields propagate at a constant speed (c) in a vacuum. Known as electromagnetic radiation, these waves may occur at various wavelengths to produce a spectrum of light from radio waves to γ-rays. The equations are named after the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, who between 1861 and 1862 published an early form of the equations that included the Lorentz force law. Maxwell first used the equations to propose that light is an electromagnetic phenomenon.

Potential energy Potential energy

In physics, potential energy is the energy held by an object because of its position relative to other objects, stresses within itself, its electric charge, or other factors.

Magnetic field Spatial distribution of vectors allowing the calculation of the magnetic force on a test particle

A magnetic field is a vector field that describes the magnetic influence of electric charges in relative motion and magnetized materials. The effects of magnetic fields are commonly seen in permanent magnets, which pull on magnetic materials and attract or repel other magnets. Magnetic fields surround and are created by magnetized material and by moving electric charges such as those used in electromagnets. They exert forces on nearby moving electrical charges and torques on nearby magnets. In addition, a magnetic field that varies with location exerts a force on magnetic materials. Both the strength and direction of a magnetic field vary with location. As such, it is described mathematically as a vector field.

In mathematics, Poisson's equation is a partial differential equation of elliptic type with broad utility in mechanical engineering and theoretical physics. It arises, for instance, to describe the potential field caused by a given charge or mass density distribution; with the potential field known, one can then calculate gravitational or electrostatic field. It is a generalization of Laplace's equation, which is also frequently seen in physics. The equation is named after the French mathematician, geometer, and physicist Siméon Denis Poisson.

Classical electromagnetism Branch of theoretical physics that studies consequences of the electromagnetic forces between electric charges and currents

Classical electromagnetism or classical electrodynamics is a branch of theoretical physics that studies the interactions between electric charges and currents using an extension of the classical Newtonian model. The theory provides a description of electromagnetic phenomena whenever the relevant length scales and field strengths are large enough that quantum mechanical effects are negligible. For small distances and low field strengths, such interactions are better described by quantum electrodynamics.

In physics, chemistry and biology, a potential gradient is the local rate of change of the potential with respect to displacement, i.e. spatial derivative, or gradient. This quantity frequently occurs in equations of physical processes because it leads to some form of flux.

Magnetic moment extensive physical property

The magnetic moment is the magnetic strength and orientation of a magnet or other object that produces a magnetic field. Examples of objects that have magnetic moments include: loops of electric current, permanent magnets, elementary particles, various molecules, and many astronomical objects.

In electrodynamics, Poynting's theorem is a statement of conservation of energy for the electromagnetic field, in the form of a partial differential equation, due to the British physicist John Henry Poynting. Poynting's theorem is analogous to the work-energy theorem in classical mechanics, and mathematically similar to the continuity equation, because it relates the energy stored in the electromagnetic field to the work done on a charge distribution, through energy flux.

Magnetic potential Integral of the magnetic field

The term magnetic potential can be used for either of two quantities in classical electromagnetism: the magnetic vector potential, or simply vector potential, A; and the magnetic scalar potentialψ. Both quantities can be used in certain circumstances to calculate the magnetic field B.

A classical field theory is a physical theory that predicts how one or more physical fields interact with matter through field equations. The term 'classical field theory' is commonly reserved for describing those physical theories that describe electromagnetism and gravitation, two of the fundamental forces of nature. Theories that incorporate quantum mechanics are called quantum field theories.

In electromagnetism, the Lorenz gauge condition or Lorenz gauge is a partial gauge fixing of the electromagnetic vector potential. The condition is that This does not completely determine the gauge: one can still make a gauge transformation where is a harmonic scalar function.

Maxwell stress tensor

The Maxwell stress tensor is a symmetric second-order tensor used in classical electromagnetism to represent the interaction between electromagnetic forces and mechanical momentum. In simple situations, such as a point charge moving freely in a homogeneous magnetic field, it is easy to calculate the forces on the charge from the Lorentz force law. When the situation becomes more complicated, this ordinary procedure can become impossibly difficult, with equations spanning multiple lines. It is therefore convenient to collect many of these terms in the Maxwell stress tensor, and to use tensor arithmetic to find the answer to the problem at hand.

Mathematical descriptions of the electromagnetic field Formulations of electromagnetism

There are various mathematical descriptions of the electromagnetic field that are used in the study of electromagnetism, one of the four fundamental interactions of nature. In this article, several approaches are discussed, although the equations are in terms of electric and magnetic fields, potentials, and charges with currents, generally speaking.

In quantum mechanics, the Pauli equation or Schrödinger–Pauli equation is the formulation of the Schrödinger equation for spin-½ particles, which takes into account the interaction of the particle's spin with an external electromagnetic field. It is the non-relativistic limit of the Dirac equation and can be used where particles are moving at speeds much less than the speed of light, so that relativistic effects can be neglected. It was formulated by Wolfgang Pauli in 1927.

Liénard–Wiechert potential electromagnetic effect of point charges

The Liénard–Wiechert potentials describe the classical electromagnetic effect of a moving electric point charge in terms of a vector potential and a scalar potential in the Lorenz gauge. Built directly from Maxwell's equations, these potentials describe the complete, relativistically correct, time-varying electromagnetic field for a point charge in arbitrary motion, but are not corrected for quantum-mechanical effects. Electromagnetic radiation in the form of waves can be obtained from these potentials. These expressions were developed in part by Alfred-Marie Liénard in 1898 and independently by Emil Wiechert in 1900.

Coulombs law Fundamental physical law of electromagnetism

Coulomb's law, or Coulomb's inverse-square law, is an experimental law of physics that quantifies the amount of force between two stationary, electrically charged particles. The electric force between charged bodies at rest is conventionally called electrostatic force or Coulomb force. The quantity of electrostatic force between stationary charges is always described by Coulomb's law. The law was first published in 1785 by French physicist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, and was essential to the development of the theory of electromagnetism, maybe even its starting point, because it was now possible to discuss quantity of electric charge in a meaningful way.


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  3. Young, Hugh A.; Freedman, Roger D. (2012). Sears and Zemansky's University Physics with Modern Physics (13th ed.). Boston: Addison-Wesley. p. 754.
  4. "2018 CODATA Value: vacuum electric permittivity". The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty. NIST. 20 May 2019. Retrieved 2019-05-20.
  5. Bagotskii VS (2006). Fundamentals of electrochemistry. p. 22. ISBN   978-0-471-70058-6.

Further reading