A-level Physics/Forces, Fields and Energy/Electric fields
Like gravitational fields, electric fields are a field of force that act from a distance, where the force here is exerted by a charged object on another charged object. You may already be familiar with the fact that opposite charges attract, and that like charges repel. Here, we will look at ways to calculate field strengths and the magnitude of forces exerted, in a very similar manner to gravitational fields.
- 1 Representing electric fields
- 2 Coulomb's law
- 3 Electric field strength
- 4 Force on particles
- 5 Comparison of electric and gravitational fields
Representing electric fields
Electric field lines are drawn always pointing from positive to negative, like the flow of current. Just like magnetic and gravitational fields, the separation of the lines tell us the relative strength.
Radial fields are drawn from a centre point. The field is stronger nearer the surface of the object, and weakens as you move further away. For a positive charge, the arrows point outwards, and for a negative charge, the arrows point inwards.
Between two charged plates there is a uniform electric field, which means that its strength is constant between each plate. This is represented by parallel lines, directed from the positive plate to the negative plate. The field curves outwards slightly on the edges of the plates, and it is important that you draw it like that.
When there are several radial and uniform fields close to each other, they have to be combined into one field, since each of their fields interact and change. The most common shapes are shown, and the arrows, as always, point from positive to negative. You should be able to draw field lines for simple variations on these.
The closer the charge lines are the stronger the force is.
Coulomb's law is very similar to Newton's law of gravitation, except instead of relating the force between two masses together, it relates the force between two charges, and . Since the two charges are point charges which have radial fields, they follow the inverse square law.
Therefore, the relationship can be expressed as:
Or, in words:
Just like Newton's law, we need to introduce a constant of proportionality to make it into an equation, which in this case is k:
Permittivity of free space
is known as the permittivity of free space, and is roughly . It is often useful to just remember that in free space, however you do also need to know , as you may be given the permittivity of different mediums.
Signs of charges
Note that for each charge, you must keep the signs intact in the equation. If you were to have two positive, or two negative charges in the equation, the result would be positive, but if you were to have one negative and one positive charge, the final answer would be negative. The sign of the answer tells us whether the force between the two charges is an attraction, or a repulsion, like charges will repel, and opposite charges will attract. This also explains the minus sign in Newton's law of gravitation, since the force between two masses is always an attraction.
Electric field strength
Just as gravitational field strength is the force exerted per unit mass, we could define the electric field strength in terms of charge:
This is just like saying that the electric field strength is the force a charge of +1 coulomb experiences in that electric field. Therefore, we can find the electric field strength, E, by:
From this equation, you can see that the electric field strength is measured in .
Field strength of a uniform field
You can make a uniform electric field by charging two plates. Increasing the voltage between them will increase the field strength, and moving the plates further apart will decrease the field strength. A simple equation for field strength can be made from these two points:
Where V is the voltage between the plates, and d is the distance between them.
Here you can see that the units of electric field strength is . is equivalent to .
Field strength of a radial field
Since the electric field strength could be said to be the force exerted on a charge of +1C, we can substitute 1 coulomb for in Coulomb's law. We then get the equation:
- , or
This will tell us the field strength of a charge, Q, at a distance, r.
Force on particles
To calculate the force an electron experiences in a uniform field, we can combine with in the following steps:
For an electron with a charge of -e, this becomes:
- , or
This is useful if you are asked to find the force on an electron in a uniform field, most often in a cathode ray tube.
Comparison of electric and gravitational fields
As you may have already noticed, electric and gravitational fields are quite similar. You should be aware of the similarities and differences between them.
- For point charges or masses, the variation of force with distance follows the inverse square law.
- Both exert a force from a distance, with no contact.
- The field strength of both is defined in terms of force per unit of the property of the object that causes the force (i.e. mass and charge).
- Gravitational fields can only produce forces of attraction, whereas electric fields can produce attraction and repulsion.
- Objects can be shielded from an electric field, but there is no way to shield an object from a gravitational field.
- Electric fields only act upon charged masses, however gravitational fields act upon all masses.