Vacuum permittivity


Value of ε0 Unit
8.8541878188(14)×10−12 Fm−1
8.8541878188(14)×10−12 C2kg−1m−3s2
55.26349406 e2eV−1μm−1

Vacuum permittivity, commonly denoted ε0 (pronounced "epsilon nought" or "epsilon zero"), is the value of the absolute dielectric permittivity of classical vacuum. It may also be referred to as the permittivity of free space, the electric constant, or the distributed capacitance of the vacuum. It is an ideal (baseline) physical constant. Its CODATA value is:

ε0 = 8.8541878188(14)×10−12 F⋅m−1.[1]

It is a measure of how dense of an electric field is "permitted" to form in response to electric charges and relates the units for electric charge to mechanical quantities such as length and force.[2] For example, the force between two separated electric charges with spherical symmetry (in the vacuum of classical electromagnetism) is given by Coulomb's law:

Here, q1 and q2 are the charges, r is the distance between their centres, and the value of the constant fraction (known as the Coulomb constant, ke) is approximately 9×109 N⋅m2⋅C−2. Likewise, ε0 appears in Maxwell's equations, which describe the properties of electric and magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation, and relate them to their sources. In electrical engineering, ε0 itself is used as a unit to quantify the permittivity of various dielectric materials.

Value edit

The value of ε0 is defined by the formula[3]


where c is the defined value for the speed of light in classical vacuum in SI units,[4]: 127  and μ0 is the parameter that international standards organizations refer to as the magnetic constant (also called vacuum permeability or the permeability of free space). Since μ0 has an approximate value 4π × 10−7 H/m,[5] and c has the defined value 299792458 m⋅s−1, it follows that ε0 can be expressed numerically as[6]


The historical origins of the electric constant ε0, and its value, are explained in more detail below.

Redefinition of the SI units edit

The ampere was redefined by defining the elementary charge as an exact number of coulombs as from 20 May 2019,[4] with the effect that the vacuum electric permittivity no longer has an exactly determined value in SI units. The value of the electron charge became a numerically defined quantity, not measured, making μ0 a measured quantity. Consequently, ε0 is not exact. As before, it is defined by the equation ε0 = 1/(μ0c2), and is thus determined by the value of μ0, the magnetic vacuum permeability which in turn is determined by the experimentally determined dimensionless fine-structure constant α:


with e being the elementary charge, h being the Planck constant, and c being the speed of light in vacuum, each with exactly defined values. The relative uncertainty in the value of ε0 is therefore the same as that for the dimensionless fine-structure constant, namely 1.6×10−10.[7]

Terminology edit

Historically, the parameter ε0 has been known by many different names. The terms "vacuum permittivity" or its variants, such as "permittivity in/of vacuum",[8][9] "permittivity of empty space",[10] or "permittivity of free space"[11] are widespread. Standards organizations also use "electric constant" as a term for this quantity.[12][13]

Another historical synonym was "dielectric constant of vacuum", as "dielectric constant" was sometimes used in the past for the absolute permittivity.[14][15] However, in modern usage "dielectric constant" typically refers exclusively to a relative permittivity ε/ε0 and even this usage is considered "obsolete" by some standards bodies in favor of relative static permittivity.[13][16] Hence, the term "dielectric constant of vacuum" for the electric constant ε0 is considered obsolete by most modern authors, although occasional examples of continuing usage can be found.

As for notation, the constant can be denoted by either ε0 or ϵ0, using either of the common glyphs for the letter epsilon.

Historical origin of the parameter ε0 edit

As indicated above, the parameter ε0 is a measurement-system constant. Its presence in the equations now used to define electromagnetic quantities is the result of the so-called "rationalization" process described below. But the method of allocating a value to it is a consequence of the result that Maxwell's equations predict that, in free space, electromagnetic waves move with the speed of light. Understanding why ε0 has the value it does requires a brief understanding of the history.

Rationalization of units edit

The experiments of Coulomb and others showed that the force F between two, equal, point-like "amounts" of electricity that are situated a distance r apart in free space, should be given by a formula that has the form


where Q is a quantity that represents the amount of electricity present at each of the two points, and ke is the Coulomb constant. If one is starting with no constraints, then the value of ke may be chosen arbitrarily.[17] For each different choice of ke there is a different "interpretation" of Q: to avoid confusion, each different "interpretation" has to be allocated a distinctive name and symbol.

In one of the systems of equations and units agreed in the late 19th century, called the "centimetre–gram–second electrostatic system of units" (the cgs esu system), the constant ke was taken equal to 1, and a quantity now called "Gaussian electric charge" qs was defined by the resulting equation


The unit of Gaussian charge, the statcoulomb, is such that two units, at a distance of 1 centimetre apart, repel each other with a force equal to the cgs unit of force, the dyne. Thus, the unit of Gaussian charge can also be written 1 dyne1/2 cm. "Gaussian electric charge" is not the same mathematical quantity as modern (MKS and subsequently the SI) electric charge and is not measured in coulombs.

The idea subsequently developed that it would be better, in situations of spherical geometry, to include a factor 4π in equations like Coulomb's law, and write it in the form:


This idea is called "rationalization". The quantities qs′ and ke′ are not the same as those in the older convention. Putting ke′ = 1 generates a unit of electricity of different size, but it still has the same dimensions as the cgs esu system.

The next step was to treat the quantity representing "amount of electricity" as a fundamental quantity in its own right, denoted by the symbol q, and to write Coulomb's law in its modern form:


The system of equations thus generated is known as the rationalized metre–kilogram–second (RMKS) equation system, or "metre–kilogram–second–ampere (MKSA)" equation system. The new quantity q is given the name "RMKS electric charge", or (nowadays) just "electric charge".[citation needed] The quantity qs used in the old cgs esu system is related to the new quantity q by:


In the 2019 redefinition of the SI base units the elementary charge is fixed at 1.602176634 10−19 ampere-seconds and the value of the vacuum permittivity must be determined experimentally.[18]: 132 

Determination of a value for ε0 edit

One now adds the requirement that one wants force to be measured in newtons, distance in metres, and charge to be measured in the engineers' practical unit, the coulomb, which is defined as the charge accumulated when a current of 1 ampere flows for one second. This shows that the parameter ε0 should be allocated the unit C2⋅N−1⋅m−2 (or an equivalent unit – in practice, farad per metre).

In order to establish the numerical value of ε0, one makes use of the fact that if one uses the rationalized forms of Coulomb's law and Ampère's force law (and other ideas) to develop Maxwell's equations, then the relationship stated above is found to exist between ε0, μ0 and c0. In principle, one has a choice of deciding whether to make the coulomb or the ampere the fundamental unit of electricity and magnetism. The decision was taken internationally to use the ampere. This means that the value of ε0 is determined by the values of c0 and μ0, as stated above. For a brief explanation of how the value of μ0 is decided, see Vacuum permeability.

Permittivity of real media edit

By convention, the electric constant ε0 appears in the relationship that defines the electric displacement field D in terms of the electric field E and classical electrical polarization density P of the medium. In general, this relationship has the form:


For a linear dielectric, P is assumed to be proportional to E, but a delayed response is permitted and a spatially non-local response, so one has:[19]


In the event that nonlocality and delay of response are not important, the result is:


where ε is the permittivity and εr the relative static permittivity. In the vacuum of classical electromagnetism, the polarization P = 0, so εr = 1 and ε = ε0.

See also edit

Notes edit

  1. ^ "2022 CODATA Value: vacuum electric permittivity". The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty. NIST. May 2024. Retrieved 18 May 2024.
  2. ^ "electric constant". Electropedia: International Electrotechnical Vocabulary (IEC 60050). Geneva: International Electrotechnical Commission. Retrieved 26 March 2015..
  3. ^ The approximate numerical value is found at: "–: Electric constant, ε0". NIST reference on constants, units, and uncertainty: Fundamental physical constants. NIST. Retrieved 22 January 2012. This formula determining the exact value of ε0 is found in Table 1, p. 637 of PJ Mohr; BN Taylor; DB Newell (April–June 2008). "Table 1: Some exact quantities relevant to the 2006 adjustment in CODATA recommended values of the fundamental physical constants: 2006" (PDF). Rev Mod Phys. 80 (2): 633–729. arXiv:0801.0028. Bibcode:2008RvMP...80..633M. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.80.633.
  4. ^ a b Le Système international d’unités [The International System of Units] (PDF) (in French and English) (9th ed.), International Bureau of Weights and Measures, 2019, ISBN 978-92-822-2272-0
  5. ^ See the last sentence of the NIST definition of ampere.
  6. ^ A summary of the definitions of c, μ0 and ε0 is provided in the 2006 CODATA Report: CODATA report, pp. 6–7
  7. ^ "2022 CODATA Value: fine-structure constant". The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty. NIST. May 2024. Retrieved 18 May 2024.
  8. ^ SM Sze & KK Ng (2007). "Appendix E". Physics of semiconductor devices (Third ed.). New York: Wiley-Interscience. p. 788. ISBN 978-0-471-14323-9.
  9. ^ RS Muller, Kamins TI & Chan M (2003). Device electronics for integrated circuits (Third ed.). New York: Wiley. Inside front cover. ISBN 978-0-471-59398-0.
  10. ^ FW Sears, Zemansky MW & Young HD (1985). College physics. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-201-07836-7.
  11. ^ B. E. A. Saleh and M. C. Teich, Fundamentals of Photonics (Wiley, 1991)
  12. ^ International Bureau of Weights and Measures (2006), The International System of Units (SI) (PDF) (8th ed.), p. 104, ISBN 92-822-2213-6, archived (PDF) from the original on 4 June 2021, retrieved 16 December 2021
  13. ^ a b Braslavsky, S.E. (2007). "Glossary of terms used in photochemistry (IUPAC recommendations 2006)" (PDF). Pure and Applied Chemistry. 79 (3): 293–465, see p. 348. doi:10.1351/pac200779030293. S2CID 96601716.
  14. ^ "Naturkonstanten". Freie Universität Berlin.
  15. ^ King, Ronold W. P. (1963). Fundamental Electromagnetic Theory. New York: Dover. p. 139.
  16. ^ IEEE Standards Board (1997). IEEE Standard Definitions of Terms for Radio Wave Propagation. p. 6. doi:10.1109/IEEESTD.1998.87897. ISBN 978-0-7381-0580-2.
  17. ^ For an introduction to the subject of choices for independent units, see John David Jackson (1999). "Appendix on units and dimensions". Classical electrodynamics (Third ed.). New York: Wiley. pp. 775 et seq. ISBN 978-0-471-30932-1.
  18. ^ "9th edition of the SI Brochure". BIPM. 2019. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  19. ^ Jenö Sólyom (2008). "Equation 16.1.50". Fundamentals of the physics of solids: Electronic properties. Springer. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-540-85315-2.