Equipotential Lines

Visualizing electric potentials and how they change over space is not easy to do; it'd be impossible to show the potential of each of the infinite number of points within a region. Instead, we can use a clever tool known as equipotential lines; these lines show paths of constant potential within a field. Even though they represent fixed values of potential, when viewed collectively, they can give a clear indication of how a potential is changing over space, as well as what this means about the electric field which arises from this potential. In this article, we're going to take a deeper look at what these equipotential lines are, their relationship to electric field lines, and what they look like in a few key types of electric field. 

Equipotential Lines Equipotential Lines

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Table of contents

    Equipotential Lines Meaning

    Before we can get to grips with what equipotential lines are, we need to ensure that we are clear on what we mean by Electric potential.

    The Electric Potential of a point \(x\) in an electric field, is the work done per unit charge by the field to move a charged particle from some reference point to \(x\).

    Work done is the energy associated with the action of a force over some displacement.

    When a particle moves between two points within an electric field, it moves through a potential difference \(\Delta V\) equal to the work done by the field in moving the particle. This change in potential then corresponds to a change in kinetic energy in the particle. This is why charged particles always accelerate in the direction of decreasing potential, as their kinetic energy increases as their potential energy decreases.

    Visualizing changes in potential over regions of space can be tricky as the potential is a scalar field that assigns a number to every point in space. One handy trick is to use equipotential lines.

    An Equipotential Line is a path through an electric field through which the potential remains constant.

    As changes in potential correspond to work done to move a particle between two points, it follows that no work is done by the field when moving a particle along an equipotential line. Hence there is no component of force along an equipotential line.

    By drawing out these equipotential lines, we can visualize how the potential changes throughout the field and the sorts of symmetries within the potential and the field. For example, a potential with radial symmetry will have circular equipotential lines as the potential is constant at a fixed radius. Also, the closer equipotential lines are together, the greater the gradient of the potential is. This idea is somewhat similar to the use of contours in maps to represent the contours of the landscape.

    Equipotential Lines A map with contour lines overlaid StudySmarterFig. 1 - Contours on maps visualize the layout of the landscape by showing lines of constant altitudes. Equipotential lines work in a similar way to visualize an electric potential.

    The relationship between electric potential and the strength of an electric field is most accurately described using calculus. In this way, the magnitude of an electric field is defined as the gradient of the potential

    \[E(x)=-\frac{\mathrm{d}V(x)}{\mathrm{d}x}.\]

    Alternatively, we can find the potential difference between two points \(\mathrm{A},\,\mathrm{B}\) in an electric field by integrating over the field between these two points\[\Delta V_{\mathrm{AB}}=V_\mathrm{B}-V_\mathrm{A}=-\int_\mathrm{A}^\mathrm{B}E(x)\mathrm{d}x.\]

    Let's look at an example.

    Consider a potential described by the function \[V(x)=\frac{1}{x^4}-\frac{1}{x^7}.\]

    What is the function of the electric field \(E(x)\) associated with this potential?

    Answer:We need to differentiate this function with respect to \(x\) to find the field\[\begin{align}E(x)&=-\frac{\mathrm{d}V(x)}{\mathrm{d}x}\\&=\frac{4}{x^5}-\frac{7}{x^8}.\end{align}\]

    Let's look at one more example.

    Consider an electric field defined by the function \(E(x)=\frac{1}{x^3}\), what is the potential difference between two points \(x=2\) and \(x=4\).

    Answer:

    This involves integrating the field function over \(x\) between \(x=2\) and \(x=4\).

    \[\begin{align}\Delta V&=-\int_2^4\frac{1}{x^3}\mathrm{d}x\\&=-\left[\frac{-1}{2x^2}\right]_2^4\\&=\frac{1}{32}-\frac{1}{8}\\&=-\frac{3}{32}.\end{align}\]

    Equipotential Lines Rules

    Given a set of equipotential lines for a field, there are a number of properties of that field that can be ascertained by analyzing the equipotential lines. For example, consider the definition of the electric field as the negative gradient of the potential

    \[E(x)=-\frac{\mathrm{d}V(x)}{\mathrm{d}x}.\]

    As the potential is constant everywhere along an equipotential line, \(\frac{\mathrm{d}V(x)}{\mathrm{d}x}=0\) everywhere along the line, implying that there is no component of the electric field along an equipotential line. This can only be the case if the equipotential lines are perpendicular to the electric field lines at all points. Knowing this allows us to construct the field lines if given the equipotential lines and vice versa, as we shall when taking a closer look at some examples later on.

    This relationship between field lines and equipotential lines gives us a definition for electric field lines in terms of potential. The electric field lines are always directed such that they are perpendicular to the equipotential lines and point in the direction of reducing potential. We can also say something about the magnitude of an electric field based solely on its equipotential lines. Each equipotential indicates a value of the potential in a region, so the separation of equipotential lines is a visual representation of the gradient of the potential. The closer the equipotential lines are to each other, the higher the gradient will be. As the magnitude of the electric field is equivalent to the gradient of the potential, we see that the separation of equipotential lines indicates the strength of the electric field in a region.

    Let's use these rules that we have laid out, to analyze the equipotential line of a few key electric fields.

    Equipotential Lines for a Single Positive Charge

    The fundamental example of an electric field is that of a single charge, in this case, we will consider a positive charge. The electric field strength of a field emanating from a single charge \(q\) follows Coulomb's Law\[E(r)=\frac{kQ}{r^2},\]

    where \(k=9\times10^9\,\mathrm{N}\,\mathrm{m}^2\,\mathrm{C}^{-1}\) is a fundamental constant known as Coulomb's constant. Coulomb's law tells us that the electric field around a point charge varies with the radial distance from the charge. The electric field lines of a radial field, as seen in Figure 2, extend out from a single point, and are much closer together at small distances from the charge and much less dense further away. This shows how the strength of the field decreases away from the charge.

    Equipotential Lines Radial field lines extending from a positive charge StudySmarterFig. 2 - A single positive charge produces field lines that extend radially outwards from the source charge. Note that the field lines are closer together nearer the charge, as the field is the strongest and closest to the source.

    We can construct the equipotential lines for this field by using the rules we laid out in the previous section. As the equipotential lines must be perpendicular to the field lines everywhere, they must be circles of a fixed radius, with this radius increasing the further one gets from the charge. This can be seen as a consequence of the radial symmetry of the field, points an equal radial distance from the charge have the same field and potential.

    These equipotential lines can be seen in Figure 3.

    Equipotential Lines Diagram showing the equipotential lines of point charge overlaid on the field lines from a point charge StudySmarterFig. 3 - The equipotential lines, or isolines, of a radial electric field, are concentric circles of increasing radii. These circles are perpendicular everywhere to the field lines.

    This can be seen mathematically by integrating the electric field to find\[\begin{align}V&=-\int \frac{kQ}{r^2}\mathrm{d}r\\&=\frac{kQ}{r}+C.\end{align}\]

    where \(C\) is just the choice of reference potential and can be taken to be zero. So the potential also varies radially, and so equipotential lines are paths of a fixed radius from the charge, as we saw in figure 3.

    Equipotential Lines of a Dipole

    An electric dipole refers to a system of two opposite charges separated by some distance. For example, a simple hydrogen atom is an electric dipole consisting of a negatively charged electron orbiting a positively charged proton. The force between a dipole is again defined by Coulomb's Law as\[F=\frac{kq_1q_2}{r^2}.\]

    However, we can also consider the effect of this dipole on a third test charge by establishing the field lines around a dipole. Note that the electric field is an additive quantity. This means that the total electric field of a dipole is given by the sum of the electric fields for each charge. Using what we know about single charges from the previous section, the electric field around a dipole is

    Equipotential Lines Diagram of an electric dipole StudySmarterFig. 4 - Two charges \(q_1,q_2\) combine to form an electric dipole. The force between them is determined by the distance \(r\) whilst the electric field around them is determined by both \(r_1,r_2\).

    \[E(r_1,r_2)=\frac{kq_1}{r_1^2}+\frac{kq_2}{r_2^2}.\]

    Where \(r_1\) is the distance from \(q_1\) and \(r_2\) is the distance from \(q_2\). If we consider the simple example of two charges of equal magnitude \(q\) but opposite signs, like the hydrogen atom, then this simplifies to\[E(r_1,r_2)=kq\left(\frac{1}{r_1^2}-\frac{1}{r_2^2}\right). \]

    This electric field produces the field lines shown in figure 5.

    Equipotential Lines Diagram showing the electric field lines and equipotential lines around an electric dipole StudySmarterFig. 5 - The electric field lines around a dipole are shown in black, whilst the equipotential lines are shown in green.

    Note how the electric field lines are no longer radially symmetric but are in a closed loop such that every field line begins at the positive charge and ends at the negative charge. In this way, the positive charge is a source of field lines, and the negative charge is a sink.

    The equipotential lines of the dipole can also be seen in figure 5, shown in green. This time, they are elliptical paths around each charge, no longer circular due to the influence of the other charge. There is also an equipotential line of zero charges along the line \(r_1=r_2\) as we can see from the fact that the potential follows the equation\[V(r_1,r_2)=kq\left(\frac{1}{r_1}-\frac{1}{r_2}\right).\]

    Equipotential Lines for Parallel Plates

    For the final electric field example, we'll look at the equipotential lines between parallel plates. The field between parallel plates is quite different from that of a single charge or dipole as it is a Uniform Electric Field.

    A Uniform Electric Field is an electric field whose strength is constant everywhere within the field.

    The fact that electric field strength is constant everywhere is represented by field lines that are parallel to one another and evenly spaced. The reason for this uniformity can be seen in figure 6. By considering the parallel plates to be formed of a row of individual point charges, it follows that any vertical components of field lines, i.e., pointing parallel to the surface of the plate, will be canceled out by the field lines of the neighboring point charges. Hence all that is left is a set of parallel, evenly spaced field lines from the positive plate to the other.

    Equipotential Lines Diagram showing how the field lines between parallel plates arise due to the point charges within the plates StudySmarterFig. 6 - The electric field between parallel plates is made up of evenly spaced parallel field lines, as can be seen by considering the plates as a column of point charges.

    The equipotential lines in a uniform field are particularly simple to find, as given that they must be perpendicular to the field lines, it follows that they are also a set of mutually parallel lines equivalent to the field lines but rotated by \(90^{\circ}\). As the electric field strength is constant so too is the gradient of the potential, hence the separation of the equipotential lines is constant. Using these properties, we can easily construct the equipotential lines, as shown in figure 7.

    Equipotential Lines Diagram showing the equipotential lines in a uniform field between two parallel plates StudySmarterFig. 7 - The equipotential lines in a uniform field are evenly spaced parallel lines, much like the field lines but simply rotated by \(90^{\circ}\,\mathrm{deg}\).

    Equipotential Lines - Key Takeaways

    • The electric potential of a point within a field is defined as the work done by the field in moving a test charge from some reference point to the point in the field.
    • The electric field strength of a field can be defined in terms of the negative gradient of the potential\[E(x)=-\frac{\mathrm{d}V(x)}{\mathrm{d}x}.\]
    • Equipotential lines are paths through a field where the potential remains constant all the way along the path.
    • There is no component of an electric field along an equipotential line. Hence electric field lines and equipotential lines are perpendicular everywhere.
    • The equipotential lines for a radial electric field around a point charge are circles of fixed radius, which are packed closer together the nearer to the source charge they are.
    • In a uniform field between two parallel plates, both the field lines and the equipotential lines are sets of parallel lines evenly spaced. The equipotential lines are parallel to the surface of the plates, whilst the field lines are perpendicular to the surface.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Cntr-map-1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cntr-map-1.jpg) by MapXpert (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:MapXpert) is under Public Domain.
    2. Fig. 2 - Field lines around positive charge, StudySmarter Originals.
    3. Fig. 3 - Equipotential and Field Lines around positive charge, StudySmarter Originals.
    4. Fig. 4 - Dipole, StudySmarter Originals.
    5. Fig. 5 - Electric dipole field lines and equipotential lines (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Electric-dipole-field-lines-and-equipotential-lines.svg) by MikeRun (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User_talk:MikeRun) is licenced by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    6. Fig. 6 Electric Field Lines in Uniform Electric Field, StudySmarter Originals.
    7. Fig. 7 - Equipotential Lines in Uniform Electric Field, StudySmarter Originals.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Equipotential Lines

    Where do equipotential lines start?

    Equipotential lines do not 'start' from anywhere as they are simply regions of constant potential and so either stretch throughout all space or are closed loops meaning they have no clearly defined start.

    Do equipotential lines have direction? 

    As the value of the potential is constant throughout an equipotential line there is no way to define a direction for the lines.

    What is the shape of the equipotential lines? 

    Equipotential lines come in different shapes depending on the electric field producing them, for example a uniform field produces parallel equipotential lines whilst a radial field produces equipotential lines which are closed circles of fixed radius.

    What do equipotential lines represent? 

    Equipotential lines represent regions of constant potential within an electric field.

    Can equipotential lines intersect? 

    Two different equipotential lines cannot intersect as this would imply they take the same value of potential at the intersection point, which by definition implies that they are the same equipotential line. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these expressions gives the change in potential \(\Delta V\) in terms of the electric field \(E\)?

    The potential ... as you move along an equipotential line.

    A charge moving along an equipotential line experiences ... ?

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