Magnetic potential

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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.

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.

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 electrical currents and magnetized materials. In everyday life, the effects of magnetic fields are often 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. Magnetic fields 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 varies with location. As such, it is an example of a vector field.


The more frequently used magnetic vector potential is defined so that its curl is equal to the magnetic field: curl A = B. Together with the electric potential φ, the magnetic vector potential can be used to specify the electric field E as well. Therefore, many equations of electromagnetism can be written either in terms of the fields E and B, or equivalently in terms of the potentials A and φ. In more advanced theories such as quantum mechanics, most equations use potentials rather than fields.

In vector calculus, the curl is a vector operator that describes the infinitesimal rotation of a vector field in three-dimensional Euclidean space. At every point in the field, the curl of that point is represented by a vector. The attributes of this vector characterize the rotation at that point.

An electric potential is the amount of work needed to move a unit of positive 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 beyond the influence of the electric field charge can be used.

Electric field spatial distribution of vectors representing the force applied to a charged test particle

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. Mathematically the electric field is 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 strengh. 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.

The magnetic scalar potential ψ is sometimes used to specify the magnetic H-field in cases when there are no free currents, in a manner analogous to using the electric potential to determine the electric field in electrostatics. One important use of ψ is to determine the magnetic field due to permanent magnets when their magnetization is known. With some care the scalar potential can be extended to include free currents as well.[ citation needed ]

Electrostatics branch of physics

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

Magnetization physical quantity

In classical electromagnetism, magnetization or magnetic polarization is the vector field that expresses the density of permanent or induced magnetic dipole moments in a magnetic material. The origin of the magnetic moments responsible for magnetization can be either microscopic electric currents resulting from the motion of electrons in atoms, or the spin of the electrons or the nuclei. Net magnetization results from the response of a material to an external magnetic field, together with any unbalanced magnetic dipole moments that may be inherent in the material itself; for example, in ferromagnets. Magnetization is not always uniform within a body, but rather varies between different points. Magnetization also describes how a material responds to an applied magnetic field as well as the way the material changes the magnetic field, and can be used to calculate the forces that result from those interactions. It can be compared to electric polarization, which is the measure of the corresponding response of a material to an electric field in electrostatics. Physicists and engineers usually define magnetization as the quantity of magnetic moment per unit volume. It is represented by a pseudovector M.

Historically, Lord Kelvin first introduced vector potential in 1851, along with the formula relating it to the magnetic field. [1]

Magnetic vector potential

The magnetic vector potential A is a vector field, defined along with the electric potential ϕ (a scalar field) by the equations: [2]

Vector field assignment of a vector to each point in a subset of Euclidean space

In vector calculus and physics, a vector field is an assignment of a vector to each point in a subset of space. A vector field in the plane, can be visualised as: a collection of arrows with a given magnitude and direction, each attached to a point in the plane. Vector fields are often used to model, for example, the speed and direction of a moving fluid throughout space, or the strength and direction of some force, such as the magnetic or gravitational force, as it changes from one point to another point.

Scalar field Assignment of numbers to points in space

In mathematics and physics, a scalar field associates a scalar value to every point in a space – possibly physical space. The scalar may either be a (dimensionless) mathematical number or a physical quantity. In a physical context, scalar fields are required to be independent of the choice of reference frame, meaning that any two observers using the same units will agree on the value of the scalar field at the same absolute point in space regardless of their respective points of origin. Examples used in physics include the temperature distribution throughout space, the pressure distribution in a fluid, and spin-zero quantum fields, such as the Higgs field. These fields are the subject of scalar field theory.

where B is the magnetic field and E is the electric field. In magnetostatics where there is no time-varying charge distribution, only the first equation is needed. (In the context of electrodynamics, the terms vector potential and scalar potential are used for magnetic vector potential and electric potential , respectively. In mathematics, vector potential and scalar potential can be generalized to higher dimensions.)

Magnetostatics Branch of physics concerned with magnetic behavior in systems with steady electric currents

Magnetostatics is the study of magnetic fields in systems where the currents are steady. It is the magnetic analogue of electrostatics, where the charges are stationary. The magnetization need not be static; the equations of magnetostatics can be used to predict fast magnetic switching events that occur on time scales of nanoseconds or less. Magnetostatics is even a good approximation when the currents are not static — as long as the currents do not alternate rapidly. Magnetostatics is widely used in applications of micromagnetics such as models of magnetic storage devices as in computer memory. Magnetostatic focussing can be achieved either by a permanent magnet or by passing current through a coil of wire whose axis coincides with the beam axis.

In vector calculus, a vector potential is a vector field whose curl is a given vector field. This is analogous to a scalar potential, which is a scalar field whose gradient is a given vector field.

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.

If electric and magnetic fields are defined as above from potentials, they automatically satisfy two of Maxwell's equations: Gauss's law for magnetism and Faraday's Law. For example, if A is continuous and well-defined everywhere, then it is guaranteed not to result in magnetic monopoles. (In the mathematical theory of magnetic monopoles, A is allowed to be either undefined or multiple-valued in some places; see magnetic monopole for details).

Starting with the above definitions:

Alternatively, the existence of A and ϕ is guaranteed from these two laws using Helmholtz's theorem. For example, since the magnetic field is divergence-free (Gauss's law for magnetism; i.e., B = 0), A always exists that satisfies the above definition.

The vector potential A is used when studying the Lagrangian in classical mechanics and in quantum mechanics (see Schrödinger equation for charged particles, Dirac equation, Aharonov–Bohm effect).

In the SI system, the units of A are V·s·m −1 and are the same as that of momentum per unit charge.

Although the magnetic field B is a pseudovector (also called axial vector), the vector potential A is a polar vector. [3] This means that if the right-hand rule for cross products were replaced with a left-hand rule, but without changing any other equations or definitions, then B would switch signs, but A would not change. This is an example of a general theorem: The curl of a polar vector is a pseudovector, and vice versa. [3]

Gauge choices

The above definition does not define the magnetic vector potential uniquely because, by definition, we can arbitrarily add curl-free components to the magnetic potential without changing the observed magnetic field. Thus, there is a degree of freedom available when choosing A. This condition is known as gauge invariance.

Maxwell's equations in terms of vector potential

Using the above definition of the potentials and applying it to the other two Maxwell's equations (the ones that are not automatically satisfied) results in a complicated differential equation that can be simplified using the Lorenz gauge where A is chosen to satisfy:


Using the Lorenz gauge, Maxwell's equations can be written compactly in terms of the magnetic vector potential A and the electric scalar potential ϕ: [2]

In other gauges, the equations are different. A different notation to write these same equations (using four-vectors) is shown below.

Calculation of potentials from source distributions

The solutions of Maxwell's equations in the Lorenz gauge (see Feynman [2] and Jackson [4] ) with the boundary condition that both potentials go to zero sufficiently fast as they approach infinity are called the retarded potentials, which are the magnetic vector potential A(r, t) and the electric scalar potential ϕ(r, t) due to a current distribution of current density J(r′, t′), charge density ρ(r′, t′), and volume Ω, within which ρ and J are non-zero at least sometimes and some places):

where the fields at position vector r and time t are calculated from sources at distant position r′ at an earlier time t′. The location r′ is a source point in the charge or current distribution (also the integration variable, within volume Ω). The earlier time t′ is called the retarded time , and calculated as


There are a few notable things about A and ϕ calculated in this way:

In this form it is easy to see that the component of A in a given direction depends only on the components of J that are in the same direction. If the current is carried in a long straight wire, the A points in the same direction as the wire.

In other gauges, the formula for A and ϕ is different; for example, see Coulomb gauge for another possibility.

Depiction of the A-field

Representing the Coulomb gauge magnetic vector potential A, magnetic flux density B, and current density j fields around a toroidal inductor of circular cross section. Thicker lines indicate field lines of higher average intensity. Circles in the cross section of the core represent the B-field coming out of the picture, plus signs represent B-field going into the picture. [?] [?] A = 0 has been assumed. Magnetic Vector Potential Circular Toroid.svg
Representing the Coulomb gauge magnetic vector potential A, magnetic flux density B, and current density j fields around a toroidal inductor of circular cross section. Thicker lines indicate field lines of higher average intensity. Circles in the cross section of the core represent the B-field coming out of the picture, plus signs represent B-field going into the picture. A = 0 has been assumed.

See Feynman [6] for the depiction of the A field around a long thin solenoid.


assuming quasi-static conditions, i.e.

the lines and contours of A relate to B like the lines and contours of B relate to j. Thus, a depiction of the A field around a loop of B flux (as would be produced in a toroidal inductor) is qualitatively the same as the B field around a loop of current.

The figure to the right is an artist's depiction of the A field. The thicker lines indicate paths of higher average intensity (shorter paths have higher intensity so that the path integral is the same). The lines are drawn to (aesthetically) impart the general look of the A-field.

The drawing tacitly assumes A = 0, true under one of the following assumptions:

Electromagnetic four-potential

In the context of special relativity, it is natural to join the magnetic vector potential together with the (scalar) electric potential into the electromagnetic potential, also called four-potential.

One motivation for doing so is that the four-potential is a mathematical four-vector. Thus, using standard four-vector transformation rules, if the electric and magnetic potentials are known in one inertial reference frame, they can be simply calculated in any other inertial reference frame.

Another, related motivation is that the content of classical electromagnetism can be written in a concise and convenient form using the electromagnetic four potential, especially when the Lorenz gauge is used. In particular, in abstract index notation, the set of Maxwell's equations (in the Lorenz gauge) may be written (in Gaussian units) as follows:

where □ is the d'Alembertian and J is the four-current. The first equation is the Lorenz gauge condition while the second contains Maxwell's equations. The four-potential also plays a very important role in quantum electrodynamics.

Magnetic scalar potential

The scalar potential is another useful quantity in describing the magnetic field, especially for permanent magnets.

In a simply connected domain where there is no free current,

hence we can define a magnetic scalar potential, ψ, as [7]

Using the definition of H:

it follows that

Here, ∇ ⋅ M acts as the source for magnetic field, much like ∇ ⋅ P acts as the source for electric field. So analogously to bound electric charge, the quantity

is called the bound magnetic charge.

If there is free current, one may subtract the contribution of free current per Biot–Savart law from total magnetic field and solve the remainder with the scalar potential method. To date there has not been any reproducible evidence for the existence of magnetic monopoles. [8]

See also


  1. Yang, ChenNing (2014). "The conceptual origins of Maxwell's equations and gauge theory". Physics Today. 67 (11): 45–51. Bibcode:2014PhT....67k..45Y. doi:10.1063/PT.3.2585.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Feynman (1964 , pp. 1515)
  3. 1 2 Tensors and pseudo-tensors, lecture notes by Richard Fitzpatrick
  4. Jackson (1999 , p. 246)
  5. Kraus (1984 , p. 189)
  6. Feynman (1964 , p. 11, cpt 15 )
  7. Vanderlinde (2005 , pp. 194~199)
  8. Griffiths, David (2013). Introduction to Electrodynamics. Pearson. pp. 241–242. ISBN   9780321856562.

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