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# Electric Field Lines

For those of you who are keen on learning geography, you may find that strange lines run through topographical maps. Sometimes these lines get very close together, and sometimes, they are far apart. These lines, unfortunately, don't appear in the real world when one is on terra firma, so they must mean something else. These lines represent regions of equal height; the closer they are together, the steeper the terrain. Valleys and cliffs will be shown as areas where many of these lines converge since the slope is significantly large. Open fields and farmlands are usually flat and are shown by lines that are spread far apart. These lines are known as isolines, and the terrain's gradient is constant along a single isoline. In this article, we will learn how isolines can also be used to represent electric and gravitational fields.

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## Electric Field Lines Definition

The region around a charged particle is one in which another charged particle will interact with it. Like charges will repel each other while unlike charges attract. This indicates that a force exists between these particles, and we use this idea to define the electric field.

An electric field is a region of space in which a stationary, electrically charged particle experiences a force.

If a stationary electric charge feels a force around another charge, then they must both produce electric fields. The force experienced by a second charge will change depending on its magnitude and its position. If we draw lines of force that visually represent the magnitude and direction of the electric field at any point, we have drawn what are known as electric field lines.

Electric field lines are lines that represent the magnitude and direction of the electric field at different points in the region containing that field.

If the field lines around a charge are drawn, the interaction that another charge will experience in that field can be determined. Some rules apply to field lines, that is, electric field lines:

• can never cross. (This would mean that the field would have two different directions at the crossover point)
• start on positive charges and end on negative charges.
• are closer together when the field is stronger.
• Field lines are always normal to the surface of the charge.
• The number of field lines is determined by the strength of the field and hence by the magnitude of the charge.

## Electric Field Lines of Two Different Charges

The definitions and rules only help our understanding to an extent but visualizing the field lines would be much more helpful. A positively charged particle can often be represented as a point charge in free space. We could use the rules above to aid in constructing the field lines, as in the example below.

Question: Draw the electric field lines around a positive point charge $$+q$$ and a negative charge $$-q.$$

Answer: The electric force that another charged particle would experience would decrease at greater distances from the point charge, so the field lines would diverge outward. We can draw this as is done in Fig. 1 below.

Fig. 1 - The electric field lines due to a positive point charge point radially outward.

The field lines point radially outward, beginning on the charge. As our rules suggest, the field lines become more spread out as the field gets weaker, and no two field lines will ever cross. If the positive charge were replaced with a negative one, the field lines would point radially inward, as in Fig. 2 below.

Fig. 2 - The electric field lines due to a negative point charge point radially inward.

Note that spherical, charged objects can be treated as point charges with the charge concentrated at the center of the object.

## Equipotential Lines and the Electric Field

The electric potential $$V$$ due to a point charge at a distance $$r$$ from it is given by $V=\frac{1}{4\pi \varepsilon_0}\frac{q}{r},$ where the permittivity of free space $$\varepsilon_0=8.85\times 10^{-12}\,\mathrm{F\,m^{-1}}.$$ The SI unit of measurement of potential is the $$\text{joule per coulomb,}$$ $$\mathrm{J\,C^{-1}},$$ which is equivalent to the $$\text{volt},$$ $$\mathrm{V}.$$ Conceptually, the potential is the work done per unit charge in the field. For a uniform electric field, the electric field lines will be parallel to each other and point in the same direction. This shows that the field strength is constant, and the direction is the same at any point in the region containing the field. That direction will be determined by the sign of the charge on the surface of the object generating the potential.

The equation for electric potential tells us that at different distances $$r$$ from the surface containing the charge, there will be different potentials. However, along a line that is parallel to the surface, the potential will be constant, as all points on that line are equidistant from the surface. These lines of constant potential are called isolines, and for a uniform field, they appear as in Fig. 3 below.

Fig. 3 - The field lines for a uniform electric are parallel to each other. The isolines of equipotential are also parallel to each other but are perpendicular to the field lines at all points.

Note that the isolines are always perpendicular to the field lines. This is always necessary since any component of the electric field along the direction of an isoline will cause an electric force on a charge along that line. Work would be done along that isoline and potential would not remain constant, which cannot occur.

The scenario is different for a point charge. The field lines would be radial, but we would require that the isolines always be perpendicular to them. The isolines would therefore form concentric circles centered on the point charge $$q.$$ Fig. 4 below shows the field lines and isolines due to a positive point charge.

Fig. 4 - The electric field lines of a positive charge point radially outward and the lines of equipotential are always perpendicular to them and so form concentric circles centered on the charge.

The circular isolines mean that the potential is constant along a circular path of radius $$r$$ surrounding the point charge. If we think classically and assume that electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom in a circular path, this would be why the nucleus does not work on electrons. The magnitude of the average electric field is given by $\left|\vec{E}\right|=\left|\frac{\Delta V}{\Delta r}\right|,$ in a region between two points separated by a distance $$\Delta r$$ and having a potential difference $$\Delta V$$ between them. The SI unit of measurement of the electric field strength is $$\text{volts per meter},$$ $$\mathrm{V\,m^{-1}}.$$

### Drawing Isolines for a Point Charge

There are a few things to consider when drawing an isoline of equipotential. Firstly, the isolines are circular rather than polygonal because there are many field lines not drawn in the diagram. The only way for the isolines to be perpendicular to them all is if they are circular. The following steps can be taken when asked to draw isolines:

• Consider the sign of the charge and draw the electric field lines, as in Fig. 5 below.

Fig. 5 - The first step in drawing isolines of equipotential is drawing the electric field lines which are radially outward for a positive charge.

• Construct tiny line segments that are perpendicular to all of the field lines and at equal distances from the charge, as in Fig. 6 below. Only a few a drawn but the picture can be completed by drawing the rest.

Fig. 6 - The second step in drawing isolines is to draw short line segments that are parallel to the field lines.

• Join the segments as smoothly as possible to create the electric lines of equipotential, as in Fig. 7 below.

Fig. 7 - The final step in drawing isolines is to join the segments together to form smooth curves. In the case of a positive point charge, this would result in concentric circles.

Note that there are many field lines, but the number is not definite; it is only used to compare the strengths of two or more fields. There are infinitely many isolines since there should be one for every value of the energy.

## Differences between Electric Field and Gravitational Field

Electric fields are not the only type of field in physics, so it would be difficult to believe that electric field lines would be the only type of field lines. In fact, gravitational fields are quite similar to electric fields. The field lines are radial for point masses, and the equipotential lines are always perpendicular to the field lines. The equipotential lines are lines of constant potential energy per unit mass rather than per unit charge as in the case of electric fields.

On a large scale, we can consider the Earth to be a point mass with its mass being concentrated at its center (called the center of mass). The field lines, as viewed from afar, would be radially inward. Unlike charge, mass can only be positive, and so field lines can only ever point inward to represent the attractive force of gravity. The field lines represent the direction in which another mass would move when entering the field. Fig. 8 below shows the gravitational field lines and gravitational equipotential lines for an isolated mass $$m.$$

Fig. 8 - The gravitational field lines for a point mass point radially inward and the lines of equipotential form concentric circles centered on the mass.

The field lines and equipotential lines may look the same, and even Coulomb's law shares similarities with Newton's law of gravitation, $$F\propto \frac{1}{r^2},$$ but there are many significant differences between the two fields. The table below describes some of the differences between the electric field and the gravitational field.

Table 1 - Differences between Electric Fields and Gravitational Fields

 Electric Fields Gravitational Fields Electric fields exist in a region around charges. Gravitational fields exist in a region around masses. Field lines show the force on a positive test charge in the region. Field lines show the force on a test mass in the region. Charges can be positive or negative meaning that field lines can point inward or outward. Masses can only be positive meaning that field lines can only point inward. Lines of electric equipotential are lines of constant potential energy per unit charge. Lines of gravitational equipotential are lines of constant potential energy per unit mass.

Field lines are used to represent lines of force for all types of fields and are not restricted to only electric and gravitational fields.

## Electric Field Lines Example

Now that we have seen illustrations of the field lines and equipotential isolines for the electric field, we can test our knowledge on the following example.

Question: The potential difference between two oppositely-charged, parallel plates is $$120\,\mathrm{V}.$$ If the plates are separated by a distance of $$0.50\,\mathrm{m},$$ calculate the magnitude of the average electric field strength in the region between the plates.

Answer: To be able to draw the electric field lines between the plates, we must note that the field will be uniform in the region between the plates. Fig. 9 below shows the field lines for this arrangement.

Fig. 9 - The field lines for the parallel plate arrangement in the example are parallel since the field is uniform.

The parallel field lines indicate the uniform nature of the field. We can find the magnitude of the average electric field strength as follows, \begin{align} \left|\vec{E}\right|&=\left|\frac{\Delta V}{\Delta r}\right|\\[4 pt]&=\left|\frac{120\,\mathrm{V}}{0.50\,\mathrm{m}}\right|\\[4 pt]&=240\,\mathrm{V\,m^{-1}}. \end{align} The average strength of the electric field between the plates is $$240\,\mathrm{V\,m^{-1}}.$$

## Electric Field Lines - Key takeaways

• An electric field is a region of space in which a stationary, electrically charged particle experiences a force.
• Electric field lines are lines that represent the magnitude and direction of the electric field at different points in the region containing that field.
• The field lines represent the direction in which a positive test charge will move when entering the field.
• The field lines point radially outward for a positive point charge and radially inward for a negative point charge.
• The field lines are parallel for a uniform field.
• Lines of equipotential/isolines are always perpendicular to field lines.
• The electric potential $$V$$ along a line of equipotential remains constant.
• There are many similarities between electric and gravitational field lines and equipotential lines.
• The magnitude of the average electric field is given by $\left|\vec{E}\right|=\left|\frac{\Delta V}{\Delta r}\right|$ in a region between two points separated by a distance $$\Delta r$$ and having a potential difference $$\Delta V$$ between them.

## References

1. Fig. 1 - The electric field lines due to a positive point charge point radially outward, StudySmarter Originals
2. Fig. 2 - The electric field lines due to a negative point charge point radially inward, StudySmarter Originals
3. Fig. 3 - The field lines for a uniform electric are parallel to each other. The isolines of equipotential are also parallel to each other but are perpendicular to the field lines at all points, StudySmarter Originals
4. Fig. 4 - The electric field lines of a positive charge point radially outward and the lines of equipotential are always perpendicular to them and so form concentric circles centered on the charge, StudySmarter Originals
5. Fig. 8 - The gravitational field lines for a point mass point radially inward and the lines of equipotential form concentric circles centered on the mass, StudySmarter Originals
6. Fig. 9 - The field lines for the parallel plate arrangement in the example are parallel since the field is uniform, StudySmarter Originals
7. Fig. 5 - The first step in drawing isolines of equipotential is drawing the electric field lines which are radially outward for a positive charge, StudySmarter Originals
8. Fig. 6 - The second step in drawing isolines is to draw short line segments that are parallel to the field lines, StudySmarter Originals
9. Fig. 7 - The final step in drawing isolines is to join the segments together to form smooth curves. In the case of a positive point charge, this would result in concentric circles, StudySmarter Originals

#### Flashcards in Electric Field Lines 89

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What do electric field lines represent?

Electric field lines are lines that represent the magnitude and direction of the electric field at different points in the region containing that field.

How do electric field lines work?

The field lines represent the direction in which a positive test charge will move when entering the field.

Do electric field lines go from positive to negative?

Electric field lines begin on positive charge and end on negative charge.

In what direction do electric field lines point?

Electric field lines point from positive to negative.

Are electric field lines always straight?

Electric field lines can be straight or curved.

## Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What shape is formed by the lines of electric equipotential around a stationary point charge?

Which of the following are similarities between electric fields and gravitational fields?

Electric field lines show the force on a negative test charge in the region of the field.

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