A-level Physics (Advancing Physics)/Potential Dividers

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Circuit symbols for a potential divider

A potential divider, or potentiometer, consists of a number of resistors, and a voltmeter. The voltage read by the voltmeter is determined by the ratio of the resistances on either side of the point at which one end of the voltmeter is connected.

To understand how a potential divider works, let us consider resistors in series. The resistances add up, so, in a circuit with two resistors:

If we apply Ohm's law, remembering that the current is constant throughout a series circuit:

Multiply by current (I):

So, just as the resistances in series add up to the total resistance, the potential differences add up to the total potential difference. The ratios between the resistances are equal to the ratios between the potential differences. In other words, we can calculate the potential difference across a resistor using the formula:

In many cases, you will be told to assume that the internal resistance of the power source is negligible, meaning that you can take the total potential difference as the EMF of the power source.

A potential divider may work by combining a variable resistor such as an LDR or thermistor with a constant resistor, as in the diagram below. As the resistance of the variable resistor changes, the ratio between the resistances changes, so the potential difference across any given resistor changes.

Thermistor potential divider.svg

Alternatively, a potential divider may be made of many resistors. A 'wiper' may move across them, varying the number of resistors on either side of the wiper as it moves, as in the following diagram:

Potentiometer diagram with four resistors.svg


1. A 12 kΩ resistor and a 20 kΩ resistor are connected to a 9V battery. A voltmeter is connected across the 12kΩ resistor. What is the reading on the voltmeter? (Assume negligible internal resistance.)

2. A potential divider consists of 100 5Ω resistors, with a wiper which moves on one resistor for every 3.6° a handle connected to it turns. The wiper is connected to a voltmeter, and the circuit is powered by a 120V power source with negligible internal resistance. What is the reading on the voltmeter when the handle turns 120°?

3. A 9V battery with internal resistance 0.8Ω is connected to 3 resistors with conductances of 3, 2 and 1 Siemens. A voltmeter is connected across the 3 and 2 Siemens resistors. An ammeter is placed in the circuit, between the battery and the first terminal of the voltmeter, and reads 2A. What is the reading on the voltmeter?

Worked Solutions