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Electric Potential

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Electric Potential

Electric potential is a scalar quantity; it describes the work that is done per charged particle in order to move it from one point to another. While the electric potential is scalar and does not have direction, the electric charge has a sign that relates to the charge of the particle of interest.

Characteristics of electric potential

  • Electric potential is positive around an isolated positive charge.

  • Electric potential is negative around an isolated negative charge.

  • Electric potential is zero at an infinite distance from the charge under study.

Electric potential in a field

The electric potential of a point charge (q) in a field is proportional to the charge creating the potential, and inversely proportional to the permittivity and distance from the point charge. This is expressed mathematically in the equation below, where V is the electric potential in volts, Q is the point charge, r is the distance measured in metres and εo is the permittivity of a vacuum measured in Farad/metre, equal to 8.85 ⋅ 10-12 F/m.

From the equation, it can be summarised that for a positive charge q, the electric potential increases when the distance r decreases, as more work will be required to move the positive charge due to the repulsive force. Similarly, for a negative charge q, the distance from the charge decreases, as the positive test charge would move more easily due to the attractive force. This is illustrated below, where the interaction between a positive and a negative charge is shown.

Electric Potential, Electric fields around charges, StudySmarter

Electric field, Georgia Panagi - StudySmarter Originals

To find the potential at a point caused by multiple charges, you have to find the sum of the potential from each charge.

What is electric potential energy?

Electric potential energy is the energy that is needed to move a charge (q) from one point to another in an electric field.

For example, in order to move a positive charge closer to another positive charge, work is needed to overcome the repulsive force. Similarly, when a positive charge is moved away from a negative charge, work is also needed to overcome the attractive force.

The energy transferred to the moving charge is called electric potential energy. The stronger the electric field, the larger the potential energy required to move the charge through the field.

Electric potential energy for two point charges

The electric potential of a pair of point charges is directly proportional to the magnitude of the product of the two charges as shown in the equation below.

Vacuum permittivity ε0 is a constant that represents the tendency of the electric field to permeate in a vacuum. Its value is given below, and is measured in F/m.

Change in electric potential energy can be found by utilising the respective distance of each unit charge.

Electric potential and work

The electric potential can also be expressed mathematically in terms of work; remember, it is the work required to move a charge through an electric field. The work is equal to the product of the electric potential and the charge causing electric potential. This is shown below, where ΔV is the change in electric potential measured in volts, and Q is the charge measured in Coulombs.

What is the electric potential gradient?

The electric potential gradient is the varying electric potential across an electric field. The electric field at any point is equal to the negative gradient of the potential distance at that point. The potential difference is shown below.

The gradient is defined by the equipotential lines which are represented in orange circular dotted lines and show the electric potential in an electric field. These are always perpendicular to the electric field lines which are illustrated with blue lines. The equipotential lines express the strength of the electric potential. The denser the equipotential lines the stronger the potential.

Electric Potential, Electric field and equipotential lines, StudySmarter

Electric field and equipotential lines, Study Smarter

What is electric potential difference?

Electric potential difference is the work needed to move a charged particle in an electric field, from point A to point B. This is expressed in the equation below, where E is the electric field strength, V is the electric potential in volts, and r is the distance between the two points of interest in metres.

The negative sign shown below expresses the direction of the electric field. It is always outwards from the positive charge and inwards towards the negative charge (take a look at the first image).

An electric generator with a spherical shape has a radius of 10cm and generates a potential of 150kV. Find the electric potential at a 25cm distance from the generator.

Solution:

We begin by finding the charge using the potential equation and re-arranging to make Q the subject, then substituting the given values.

Then we proceed to find potential by using the potential equation. But now we use the total distance at 25cm away from the generator, which is the distance of the radius plus the distance from the generator.

Electric Potential - Key takeaways

  • Electric potential is the work required to move a charge from one point to another.

  • The electric potential difference is the change in electric field strength between two points of an electric field.

  • The electric potential (V) decreases, as the distance between the point under study and the electric potential source increases.

Frequently Asked Questions about Electric Potential

Electric potential is the work required to move a charge. 

You can find electric field strength once you know the electric potential and the separation between two points, A and B. Then you use the formula E=VAB/d.

The electric potential is the work required to move a point charge in from an electric field. Potential difference is the change in electric field strength.

Electric potential is measured in Volts.

Electric potential is a scalar quantity. 

Final Electric Potential Quiz

Question

What is electric potential?


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Answer

It is the work required to move a point charge in an electric field. 

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Question

What is electric field strength?

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Answer

It is a measure of an electric field’s density.

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Question

How is work related to electric potential?


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Answer

Electric potential is proportional to the work and charge.

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Question

What is electric potential energy?


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Answer

It is the energy required to move a point charge in an electric field.

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Question

What is the formula for electric potential difference?


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Answer

E = -ΔV/Δr

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Question

What is the unit of electric potential difference?


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Answer

V

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Question

What is the direction of electric field lines?


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Answer

From the positive to the negative.

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Question

What is the electric field gradient? 

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Answer

It shows the rate of change of electric field strength. Graphically, it is represented from the equipotential lines.

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Question

Which of the following is true?


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Answer

The electric potential V decreases in the direction the test charge would normally move  due to repulsion or attraction.

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Question

What is the difference between equipotential lines and electric field lines?

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Answer

Equipotential lines express the electric potential strength and electric field lines express the electric field strength.

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