Electic Charges

Electric charges observed in nature are multiples of a charge of an electron C. JJ Thomson discovered the electron in his cathode ray tube experiments in 1897. R. Millikan measured the mass to charge ratio of the electron in 1909 through his oil-drop experiment. In 1960, J. G. King proved experimentally that one proton carries a positive charge of C.

Electrostatic Force

The electrostatic force acts between electric charges in the following way:

  • two positive charges repel each other.
  • two negative charges repel each other.
  • a positive and a negative charge attract each other.
  • the force between two charges decreases inversely proportional to the square of the distance.
  • the force acts along the line that connects the charges.
  • in nature, positive and negative charges are balanced, and the net result is electrical neutrality! Balance is formed by tight fine mixtures of positive and negative charges.

A demonstration of the electric force by the MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin.


Coulomb’s Law

What we described is exactly the electrostatic force. All matter is a mixture of positive protons and negative electrons in a perfect balance. Coulomb described the strength and direction of the electrostatic force through his torsion-balance experiment in 1785. We can represent this electrostatic force visually. Figure twostaticch shows a stationary charge , repelling charge with a force . The figure shows the unit vector , and the distance vector , where is the distance between the two point charges. The equation that describes the electrostatic (Coulomb) force is given in Equation EqCoulombslaw.

In the above equation, F/m is the electrical permittivity of air, is the distance between charges, vector is a unit vector oriented from charge 1 to charge 2. The unit vector is on the line that connects charges 1 and 2, and therefore the electrostatic force is also on the line that connects the two charges. The force will either point in the direction of the unit vector if the force is repulsive (charges have the same sign), or in the opposite direction when the force is attractive (charges have the opposite sign). Note that we need at least two charges to find the electrostatic force.


Figure 1: Vector representation of Coulomb’s force between two static charges.

If the total net charge of an object is , and if that object has electrons and protons, then the total charge is .

What if the charge is in an insulator (aka dielectric) other than air?

If the charge is within a dielectric material, then we need to account for that by changing this somehow. If we place the charge inside a dielectric material, what do you think will happen with the atoms in the material? The atoms will get distorted and polarized. Such a polarized atom we call an electric dipole. The distortion process is called polarization. Because the material polarizes, the electric field around this point charge is different than if there was no material. To compensate for this new polarization, we multiply the dielectric permittivity of free space with a unitless quantity of . is called a relative dielectric constant. values for different materials can found on the internet. Some examples of dielectric constants are : air =1, Teflon =2.2, glass =4.4, Silicon = 11, GaAs =12, distilled water = 80. Equation EqCoulombslaw3 is the definition of the electrostatic force between two charges. Sometimes, the product of is written as .

Principle of Superposition

The principle of superposition states that in linear systems, we can calculate contributions of forces individually from different charges, then add them all up to get the total force on a charge.

If we have three or more charges, the total force from two charges to one charge is equal to the vector sum of the forces due to individual charges, see Figure UnitCh.


Figure 3: Electric Field due to two charges.

The force on the yellow charge below from charges and are:

Where and are unit vectors in the direction of and . The total field due to both charges is

Three positive charges, each are placed at A(0,0), B(8,0), and C(4,4). Calculate the magnitude and direction of total force exerted on B due to charges A and C. Check your result with the calculator below. Explore with the calculator below how would the direction of the net force on B change if the charges A and C become negative.

Four negative charges Q are distributed at (-1,0), (1,0), (0,1) and (0, -1). If we place the fifth charge Q at the origin (0,0), what will be the total force on this charge regardless of it’s polarity?
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Now, take a look at the simulation of the Baloon experiment. Charge the baloon by rubbing it on the sweater, then bring it to the wall. What happens? Observe how the neutral balloon is not attracted to the wall or sweater. When you rub it on the sweater, it will become attracted to the neutral wall. Why?

A live demonstration of the electrostatic force between charged and charged, and charged and neutral body.Charging by induction. Observe the types of materials: metals and dielectrics (insulators). Towards the end of the video is a live demonstration of the balloon experiment you worked on in Geogebra app. The demonstration is by the MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin.