Electrostatics is a branch of physics that studies slow-moving or stationary electric charges.

A tabby cat covered in packing peanuts.
Foam peanuts clinging to a cat's fur due to static electricity. The electric field of the charged fur causes polarization of the molecules of the foam due to electrostatic induction, resulting in a slight attraction of the light plastic pieces to the fur.[1][2][3][4] This effect is also the cause of static cling in clothes.

Since classical times, it has been known that some materials, such as amber, attract lightweight particles after rubbing. The Greek word for amber, ἤλεκτρον (ḗlektron), was thus the source of the word electricity. Electrostatic phenomena arise from the forces that electric charges exert on each other. Such forces are described by Coulomb's law.

There are many examples of electrostatic phenomena, from those as simple as the attraction of plastic wrap to one's hand after it is removed from a package, to the apparently spontaneous explosion of grain silos, the damage of electronic components during manufacturing, and photocopier and laser printer operation.

The electrostatic model accurately predicts electrical phenomena in "classical" cases where the velocities are low and the system is macroscopic so no quantum effects are involved. It also plays a role in quantum mechanics, where additional terms also need to be included.

Coulomb's law


Coulomb's law states that:[5]

The magnitude of the electrostatic force of attraction or repulsion between two point charges is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

The force is along the straight line joining them. If the two charges have the same sign, the electrostatic force between them is repulsive; if they have different signs, the force between them is attractive.

If   is the distance (in meters) between two charges, then the force between two point charges   and   is:


where ε0 = 8.8541878188(14)×10−12 F⋅m−1[6] is the vacuum permittivity.[7]

The SI unit of ε0 is equivalently A2s4 ⋅kg−1⋅m−3 or C2N−1⋅m−2 or F⋅m−1.

Electric field

The electrostatic field (lines with arrows) of a nearby positive charge (+) causes the mobile charges in conductive objects to separate due to electrostatic induction. Negative charges (blue) are attracted and move to the surface of the object facing the external charge. Positive charges (red) are repelled and move to the surface facing away. These induced surface charges are exactly the right size and shape so their opposing electric field cancels the electric field of the external charge throughout the interior of the metal. Therefore, the electrostatic field everywhere inside a conductive object is zero, and the electrostatic potential is constant.

The electric field,  , in units of Newtons per Coulomb or volts per meter, is a vector field that can be defined everywhere, except at the location of point charges (where it diverges to infinity).[8] It is defined as the electrostatic force   on a hypothetical small test charge at the point due to Coulomb's law, divided by the charge  


Electric field lines are useful for visualizing the electric field. Field lines begin on positive charge and terminate on negative charge. They are parallel to the direction of the electric field at each point, and the density of these field lines is a measure of the magnitude of the electric field at any given point.

Consider a collection of   particles of charge  , located at points   (called source points), the electric field at   (called the field point) is:[8]


where   is the displacement vector from a source point   to the field point  , and   is a unit vector that indicates the direction of the field. For a single point charge at the origin, the magnitude of this electric field is   and points away from that charge if it is positive. The fact that the force (and hence the field) can be calculated by summing over all the contributions due to individual source particles is an example of the superposition principle. The electric field produced by a distribution of charges is given by the volume charge density   and can be obtained by converting this sum into a triple integral:


Gauss's law


Gauss's law[9][10] states that "the total electric flux through any closed surface in free space of any shape drawn in an electric field is proportional to the total electric charge enclosed by the surface." Many numerical problems can be solved by considering a Gaussian surface around a body. Mathematically, Gauss's law takes the form of an integral equation:


where   is a volume element. If the charge is distributed over a surface or along a line, replace   by   or  . The divergence theorem allows Gauss's Law to be written in differential form:


where   is the divergence operator.

Poisson and Laplace equations


The definition of electrostatic potential, combined with the differential form of Gauss's law (above), provides a relationship between the potential Φ and the charge density ρ:


This relationship is a form of Poisson's equation.[11] In the absence of unpaired electric charge, the equation becomes Laplace's equation:


Electrostatic approximation


The validity of the electrostatic approximation rests on the assumption that the electric field is irrotational:


From Faraday's law, this assumption implies the absence or near-absence of time-varying magnetic fields:


In other words, electrostatics does not require the absence of magnetic fields or electric currents. Rather, if magnetic fields or electric currents do exist, they must not change with time, or in the worst-case, they must change with time only very slowly. In some problems, both electrostatics and magnetostatics may be required for accurate predictions, but the coupling between the two can still be ignored. Electrostatics and magnetostatics can both be seen as non-relativistic Galilean limits for electromagnetism.[12] In addition, conventional electrostatics ignore quantum effects which have to be added for a complete description.[8]: 2 

Electrostatic potential


As the electric field is irrotational, it is possible to express the electric field as the gradient of a scalar function,  , called the electrostatic potential (also known as the voltage). An electric field,  , points from regions of high electric potential to regions of low electric potential, expressed mathematically as


The gradient theorem can be used to establish that the electrostatic potential is the amount of work per unit charge required to move a charge from point   to point   with the following line integral:


From these equations, we see that the electric potential is constant in any region for which the electric field vanishes (such as occurs inside a conducting object).

Electrostatic energy


A test particle's potential energy,  , can be calculated from a line integral of the work,  . We integrate from a point at infinity, and assume a collection of   particles of charge  , are already situated at the points  . This potential energy (in Joules) is:


where   is the distance of each charge   from the test charge  , which situated at the point  , and   is the electric potential that would be at   if the test charge were not present. If only two charges are present, the potential energy is  . The total electric potential energy due a collection of N charges is calculating by assembling these particles one at a time:


where the following sum from, j = 1 to N, excludes i = j:


This electric potential,   is what would be measured at   if the charge   were missing. This formula obviously excludes the (infinite) energy that would be required to assemble each point charge from a disperse cloud of charge. The sum over charges can be converted into an integral over charge density using the prescription  :


This second expression for electrostatic energy uses the fact that the electric field is the negative gradient of the electric potential, as well as vector calculus identities in a way that resembles integration by parts. These two integrals for electric field energy seem to indicate two mutually exclusive formulas for electrostatic energy density, namely   and  ; they yield equal values for the total electrostatic energy only if both are integrated over all space.

Electrostatic pressure


On a conductor, a surface charge will experience a force in the presence of an electric field. This force is the average of the discontinuous electric field at the surface charge. This average in terms of the field just outside the surface amounts to:


This pressure tends to draw the conductor into the field, regardless of the sign of the surface charge.

See also



  1. ^ Ling, Samuel J.; Moebs, William; Sanny, Jeff (2019). University Physics, Vol. 2. OpenStax. ISBN 9781947172210. Ch.30: Conductors, Insulators, and Charging by Induction
  2. ^ Bloomfield, Louis A. (2015). How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life. John Wiley and Sons. p. 270. ISBN 9781119013846.
  3. ^ "Polarization". Static Electricity – Lesson 1 – Basic Terminology and Concepts. The Physics Classroom. 2020. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  4. ^ Thompson, Xochitl Zamora (2004). "Charge It! All About Electrical Attraction and Repulsion". Teach Engineering: Stem curriculum for K-12. University of Colorado. Retrieved 18 June 2021.
  5. ^ J, Griffiths (2017). Introduction to Electrodynamics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 296–354. doi:10.1017/9781108333511.008. ISBN 978-1-108-33351-1. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  6. ^ "2022 CODATA Value: vacuum electric permittivity". The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty. NIST. May 2024. Retrieved 2024-05-18.
  7. ^ Matthew Sadiku (2009). Elements of electromagnetics. Oxford University Press. p. 104. ISBN 9780195387759.
  8. ^ a b c Purcell, Edward M. (2013). Electricity and Magnetism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 16–18. ISBN 978-1107014022.
  9. ^ "Sur l'attraction des sphéroides elliptiques, par M. de La Grange". Mathematics General Collection. doi:10.1163/9789004460409_mor2-b29447057. Retrieved 2023-08-11.
  10. ^ Gauss, Carl Friedrich (1877), "Theoria attractionis corporum sphaeroidicorum ellipticorum homogeneorum, methodo nova tractata", Werke, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, pp. 279–286, doi:10.1007/978-3-642-49319-5_8, ISBN 978-3-642-49320-1, retrieved 2023-08-11
  11. ^ Poisson, M; sciences (France), Académie royale des (1827). Mémoires de l'Académie (royale) des sciences de l'Institut (imperial) de France. Vol. 6. Paris.
  12. ^ Heras, J. A. (2010). "The Galilean limits of Maxwell's equations". American Journal of Physics. 78 (10): 1048–1055. arXiv:1012.1068. Bibcode:2010AmJPh..78.1048H. doi:10.1119/1.3442798. S2CID 118443242.

Further reading

  • Hermann A. Haus; James R. Melcher (1989). Electromagnetic Fields and Energy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-249020-X.
  • Halliday, David; Robert Resnick; Kenneth S. Krane (1992). Physics. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-80457-6.
  • Griffiths, David J. (1999). Introduction to Electrodynamics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-805326-X.
  •   Media related to Electrostatics at Wikimedia Commons
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics Vol. II Ch. 4: Electrostatics
  • Introduction to Electrostatics: Point charges can be treated as a distribution using the Dirac delta function

  Learning materials related to Electrostatics at Wikiversity