Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
College Physics

19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference

College Physics19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
Buy book
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
    1. Introduction to Science and the Realm of Physics, Physical Quantities, and Units
    2. 1.1 Physics: An Introduction
    3. 1.2 Physical Quantities and Units
    4. 1.3 Accuracy, Precision, and Significant Figures
    5. 1.4 Approximation
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  3. 2 Kinematics
    1. Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 2.1 Displacement
    3. 2.2 Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
    4. 2.3 Time, Velocity, and Speed
    5. 2.4 Acceleration
    6. 2.5 Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
    7. 2.6 Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
    8. 2.7 Falling Objects
    9. 2.8 Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  4. 3 Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    1. Introduction to Two-Dimensional Kinematics
    2. 3.1 Kinematics in Two Dimensions: An Introduction
    3. 3.2 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Graphical Methods
    4. 3.3 Vector Addition and Subtraction: Analytical Methods
    5. 3.4 Projectile Motion
    6. 3.5 Addition of Velocities
    7. Glossary
    8. Section Summary
    9. Conceptual Questions
    10. Problems & Exercises
  5. 4 Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
    1. Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
    2. 4.1 Development of Force Concept
    3. 4.2 Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
    4. 4.3 Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
    5. 4.4 Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
    6. 4.5 Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
    7. 4.6 Problem-Solving Strategies
    8. 4.7 Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
    9. 4.8 Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  6. 5 Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
    1. Introduction: Further Applications of Newton’s Laws
    2. 5.1 Friction
    3. 5.2 Drag Forces
    4. 5.3 Elasticity: Stress and Strain
    5. Glossary
    6. Section Summary
    7. Conceptual Questions
    8. Problems & Exercises
  7. 6 Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    1. Introduction to Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
    2. 6.1 Rotation Angle and Angular Velocity
    3. 6.2 Centripetal Acceleration
    4. 6.3 Centripetal Force
    5. 6.4 Fictitious Forces and Non-inertial Frames: The Coriolis Force
    6. 6.5 Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    7. 6.6 Satellites and Kepler’s Laws: An Argument for Simplicity
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  8. 7 Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    1. Introduction to Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
    2. 7.1 Work: The Scientific Definition
    3. 7.2 Kinetic Energy and the Work-Energy Theorem
    4. 7.3 Gravitational Potential Energy
    5. 7.4 Conservative Forces and Potential Energy
    6. 7.5 Nonconservative Forces
    7. 7.6 Conservation of Energy
    8. 7.7 Power
    9. 7.8 Work, Energy, and Power in Humans
    10. 7.9 World Energy Use
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  9. 8 Linear Momentum and Collisions
    1. Introduction to Linear Momentum and Collisions
    2. 8.1 Linear Momentum and Force
    3. 8.2 Impulse
    4. 8.3 Conservation of Momentum
    5. 8.4 Elastic Collisions in One Dimension
    6. 8.5 Inelastic Collisions in One Dimension
    7. 8.6 Collisions of Point Masses in Two Dimensions
    8. 8.7 Introduction to Rocket Propulsion
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  10. 9 Statics and Torque
    1. Introduction to Statics and Torque
    2. 9.1 The First Condition for Equilibrium
    3. 9.2 The Second Condition for Equilibrium
    4. 9.3 Stability
    5. 9.4 Applications of Statics, Including Problem-Solving Strategies
    6. 9.5 Simple Machines
    7. 9.6 Forces and Torques in Muscles and Joints
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  11. 10 Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    1. Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
    2. 10.1 Angular Acceleration
    3. 10.2 Kinematics of Rotational Motion
    4. 10.3 Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
    5. 10.4 Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
    6. 10.5 Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
    7. 10.6 Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
    8. 10.7 Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  12. 11 Fluid Statics
    1. Introduction to Fluid Statics
    2. 11.1 What Is a Fluid?
    3. 11.2 Density
    4. 11.3 Pressure
    5. 11.4 Variation of Pressure with Depth in a Fluid
    6. 11.5 Pascal’s Principle
    7. 11.6 Gauge Pressure, Absolute Pressure, and Pressure Measurement
    8. 11.7 Archimedes’ Principle
    9. 11.8 Cohesion and Adhesion in Liquids: Surface Tension and Capillary Action
    10. 11.9 Pressures in the Body
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  13. 12 Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    1. Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
    2. 12.1 Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
    3. 12.2 Bernoulli’s Equation
    4. 12.3 The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
    5. 12.4 Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
    6. 12.5 The Onset of Turbulence
    7. 12.6 Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
    8. 12.7 Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  14. 13 Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    1. Introduction to Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
    2. 13.1 Temperature
    3. 13.2 Thermal Expansion of Solids and Liquids
    4. 13.3 The Ideal Gas Law
    5. 13.4 Kinetic Theory: Atomic and Molecular Explanation of Pressure and Temperature
    6. 13.5 Phase Changes
    7. 13.6 Humidity, Evaporation, and Boiling
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  15. 14 Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    1. Introduction to Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
    2. 14.1 Heat
    3. 14.2 Temperature Change and Heat Capacity
    4. 14.3 Phase Change and Latent Heat
    5. 14.4 Heat Transfer Methods
    6. 14.5 Conduction
    7. 14.6 Convection
    8. 14.7 Radiation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  16. 15 Thermodynamics
    1. Introduction to Thermodynamics
    2. 15.1 The First Law of Thermodynamics
    3. 15.2 The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
    4. 15.3 Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
    5. 15.4 Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
    6. 15.5 Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
    7. 15.6 Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
    8. 15.7 Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  17. 16 Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    1. Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
    2. 16.1 Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
    3. 16.2 Period and Frequency in Oscillations
    4. 16.3 Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
    5. 16.4 The Simple Pendulum
    6. 16.5 Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
    7. 16.6 Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
    8. 16.7 Damped Harmonic Motion
    9. 16.8 Forced Oscillations and Resonance
    10. 16.9 Waves
    11. 16.10 Superposition and Interference
    12. 16.11 Energy in Waves: Intensity
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  18. 17 Physics of Hearing
    1. Introduction to the Physics of Hearing
    2. 17.1 Sound
    3. 17.2 Speed of Sound, Frequency, and Wavelength
    4. 17.3 Sound Intensity and Sound Level
    5. 17.4 Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms
    6. 17.5 Sound Interference and Resonance: Standing Waves in Air Columns
    7. 17.6 Hearing
    8. 17.7 Ultrasound
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  19. 18 Electric Charge and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
    2. 18.1 Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
    3. 18.2 Conductors and Insulators
    4. 18.3 Coulomb’s Law
    5. 18.4 Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
    6. 18.5 Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
    7. 18.6 Electric Forces in Biology
    8. 18.7 Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
    9. 18.8 Applications of Electrostatics
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  20. 19 Electric Potential and Electric Field
    1. Introduction to Electric Potential and Electric Energy
    2. 19.1 Electric Potential Energy: Potential Difference
    3. 19.2 Electric Potential in a Uniform Electric Field
    4. 19.3 Electrical Potential Due to a Point Charge
    5. 19.4 Equipotential Lines
    6. 19.5 Capacitors and Dielectrics
    7. 19.6 Capacitors in Series and Parallel
    8. 19.7 Energy Stored in Capacitors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  21. 20 Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    1. Introduction to Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
    2. 20.1 Current
    3. 20.2 Ohm’s Law: Resistance and Simple Circuits
    4. 20.3 Resistance and Resistivity
    5. 20.4 Electric Power and Energy
    6. 20.5 Alternating Current versus Direct Current
    7. 20.6 Electric Hazards and the Human Body
    8. 20.7 Nerve Conduction–Electrocardiograms
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  22. 21 Circuits and DC Instruments
    1. Introduction to Circuits and DC Instruments
    2. 21.1 Resistors in Series and Parallel
    3. 21.2 Electromotive Force: Terminal Voltage
    4. 21.3 Kirchhoff’s Rules
    5. 21.4 DC Voltmeters and Ammeters
    6. 21.5 Null Measurements
    7. 21.6 DC Circuits Containing Resistors and Capacitors
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  23. 22 Magnetism
    1. Introduction to Magnetism
    2. 22.1 Magnets
    3. 22.2 Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
    4. 22.3 Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
    5. 22.4 Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
    6. 22.5 Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
    7. 22.6 The Hall Effect
    8. 22.7 Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
    9. 22.8 Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
    10. 22.9 Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
    11. 22.10 Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
    12. 22.11 More Applications of Magnetism
    13. Glossary
    14. Section Summary
    15. Conceptual Questions
    16. Problems & Exercises
  24. 23 Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
    2. 23.1 Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
    3. 23.2 Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
    4. 23.3 Motional Emf
    5. 23.4 Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
    6. 23.5 Electric Generators
    7. 23.6 Back Emf
    8. 23.7 Transformers
    9. 23.8 Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
    10. 23.9 Inductance
    11. 23.10 RL Circuits
    12. 23.11 Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
    13. 23.12 RLC Series AC Circuits
    14. Glossary
    15. Section Summary
    16. Conceptual Questions
    17. Problems & Exercises
  25. 24 Electromagnetic Waves
    1. Introduction to Electromagnetic Waves
    2. 24.1 Maxwell’s Equations: Electromagnetic Waves Predicted and Observed
    3. 24.2 Production of Electromagnetic Waves
    4. 24.3 The Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 24.4 Energy in Electromagnetic Waves
    6. Glossary
    7. Section Summary
    8. Conceptual Questions
    9. Problems & Exercises
  26. 25 Geometric Optics
    1. Introduction to Geometric Optics
    2. 25.1 The Ray Aspect of Light
    3. 25.2 The Law of Reflection
    4. 25.3 The Law of Refraction
    5. 25.4 Total Internal Reflection
    6. 25.5 Dispersion: The Rainbow and Prisms
    7. 25.6 Image Formation by Lenses
    8. 25.7 Image Formation by Mirrors
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  27. 26 Vision and Optical Instruments
    1. Introduction to Vision and Optical Instruments
    2. 26.1 Physics of the Eye
    3. 26.2 Vision Correction
    4. 26.3 Color and Color Vision
    5. 26.4 Microscopes
    6. 26.5 Telescopes
    7. 26.6 Aberrations
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  28. 27 Wave Optics
    1. Introduction to Wave Optics
    2. 27.1 The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
    3. 27.2 Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
    4. 27.3 Young’s Double Slit Experiment
    5. 27.4 Multiple Slit Diffraction
    6. 27.5 Single Slit Diffraction
    7. 27.6 Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
    8. 27.7 Thin Film Interference
    9. 27.8 Polarization
    10. 27.9 *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  29. 28 Special Relativity
    1. Introduction to Special Relativity
    2. 28.1 Einstein’s Postulates
    3. 28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation
    4. 28.3 Length Contraction
    5. 28.4 Relativistic Addition of Velocities
    6. 28.5 Relativistic Momentum
    7. 28.6 Relativistic Energy
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  30. 29 Introduction to Quantum Physics
    1. Introduction to Quantum Physics
    2. 29.1 Quantization of Energy
    3. 29.2 The Photoelectric Effect
    4. 29.3 Photon Energies and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
    5. 29.4 Photon Momentum
    6. 29.5 The Particle-Wave Duality
    7. 29.6 The Wave Nature of Matter
    8. 29.7 Probability: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
    9. 29.8 The Particle-Wave Duality Reviewed
    10. Glossary
    11. Section Summary
    12. Conceptual Questions
    13. Problems & Exercises
  31. 30 Atomic Physics
    1. Introduction to Atomic Physics
    2. 30.1 Discovery of the Atom
    3. 30.2 Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
    4. 30.3 Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
    5. 30.4 X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
    6. 30.5 Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
    7. 30.6 The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
    8. 30.7 Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
    9. 30.8 Quantum Numbers and Rules
    10. 30.9 The Pauli Exclusion Principle
    11. Glossary
    12. Section Summary
    13. Conceptual Questions
    14. Problems & Exercises
  32. 31 Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
    2. 31.1 Nuclear Radioactivity
    3. 31.2 Radiation Detection and Detectors
    4. 31.3 Substructure of the Nucleus
    5. 31.4 Nuclear Decay and Conservation Laws
    6. 31.5 Half-Life and Activity
    7. 31.6 Binding Energy
    8. 31.7 Tunneling
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  33. 32 Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
    1. Introduction to Applications of Nuclear Physics
    2. 32.1 Medical Imaging and Diagnostics
    3. 32.2 Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation
    4. 32.3 Therapeutic Uses of Ionizing Radiation
    5. 32.4 Food Irradiation
    6. 32.5 Fusion
    7. 32.6 Fission
    8. 32.7 Nuclear Weapons
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  34. 33 Particle Physics
    1. Introduction to Particle Physics
    2. 33.1 The Yukawa Particle and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle Revisited
    3. 33.2 The Four Basic Forces
    4. 33.3 Accelerators Create Matter from Energy
    5. 33.4 Particles, Patterns, and Conservation Laws
    6. 33.5 Quarks: Is That All There Is?
    7. 33.6 GUTs: The Unification of Forces
    8. Glossary
    9. Section Summary
    10. Conceptual Questions
    11. Problems & Exercises
  35. 34 Frontiers of Physics
    1. Introduction to Frontiers of Physics
    2. 34.1 Cosmology and Particle Physics
    3. 34.2 General Relativity and Quantum Gravity
    4. 34.3 Superstrings
    5. 34.4 Dark Matter and Closure
    6. 34.5 Complexity and Chaos
    7. 34.6 High-temperature Superconductors
    8. 34.7 Some Questions We Know to Ask
    9. Glossary
    10. Section Summary
    11. Conceptual Questions
    12. Problems & Exercises
  36. A | Atomic Masses
  37. B | Selected Radioactive Isotopes
  38. C | Useful Information
  39. D | Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation
  40. Index

When a free positive charge qq size 12{q} {} is accelerated by an electric field, such as shown in Figure 19.2, it is given kinetic energy. The process is analogous to an object being accelerated by a gravitational field. It is as if the charge is going down an electrical hill where its electric potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. Let us explore the work done on a charge qq size 12{q} {} by the electric field in this process, so that we may develop a definition of electric potential energy.

A charge plus q moves from a positive to a negative sheet of charge. The change in the electric potential energy equals the change in kinetic energy. This is similar to the change from gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy when an object of mass m rolls downhill.
Figure 19.2 A charge accelerated by an electric field is analogous to a mass going down a hill. In both cases potential energy is converted to another form. Work is done by a force, but since this force is conservative, we can write W = –ΔPEW = –ΔPE size 12{W= - ?"PE"} {}.

The electrostatic or Coulomb force is conservative, which means that the work done on qq size 12{q} {} is independent of the path taken. This is exactly analogous to the gravitational force in the absence of dissipative forces such as friction. When a force is conservative, it is possible to define a potential energy associated with the force, and it is usually easier to deal with the potential energy (because it depends only on position) than to calculate the work directly.

We use the letters PE to denote electric potential energy, which has units of joules (J). The change in potential energy, ΔPEΔPE size 12{?"PE"} {}, is crucial, since the work done by a conservative force is the negative of the change in potential energy; that is, W =–ΔPEW =–ΔPE size 12{W"=-"?"PE"} {}. For example, work W W done to accelerate a positive charge from rest is positive and results from a loss in PE, or a negative ΔPEΔPE size 12{?"PE"} {}. There must be a minus sign in front of ΔPEΔPE size 12{?"PE"} {} to make W W positive. PE can be found at any point by taking one point as a reference and calculating the work needed to move a charge to the other point.

Potential Energy

W =–ΔPEW =–ΔPE size 12{W" = -"?"PE"} {}. For example, work W W done to accelerate a positive charge from rest is positive and results from a loss in PE, or a negative ΔPE.ΔPE. There must be a minus sign in front of ΔPEΔPE to make WW positive. PE can be found at any point by taking one point as a reference and calculating the work needed to move a charge to the other point.

Gravitational potential energy and electric potential energy are quite analogous. Potential energy accounts for work done by a conservative force and gives added insight regarding energy and energy transformation without the necessity of dealing with the force directly. It is much more common, for example, to use the concept of voltage (related to electric potential energy) than to deal with the Coulomb force directly.

Calculating the work directly is generally difficult, since W = FdcosθW = Fdcosθ and the direction and magnitude of F F size 12{F} {} can be complex for multiple charges, for odd-shaped objects, and along arbitrary paths. But we do know that, since F =qEF =qE size 12{F= ital "qE"} {}, the work, and hence ΔPEΔPE, is proportional to the test charge q.q. size 12{q} {} To have a physical quantity that is independent of test charge, we define electric potential VV size 12{V} {} (or simply potential, since electric is understood) to be the potential energy per unit charge:

V = PE q . V = PE q . size 12{V= { {"PE"} over {q} } "." } {}
19.1

Electric Potential

This is the electric potential energy per unit charge.

V = PE q V = PE q size 12{V= { {"PE"} over {q} } } {}
19.2

Since PE is proportional to qq size 12{q} {} , the dependence on qq size 12{q} {} cancels. Thus VV size 12{V} {} does not depend on qq size 12{q} {}. The change in potential energy ΔPEΔPE size 12{?"PE"} {} is crucial, and so we are concerned with the difference in potential or potential difference ΔVΔV size 12{?V} {} between two points, where

ΔV = V B V A = Δ PE q . ΔV = V B V A = Δ PE q . size 12{ΔV=V rSub { size 8{B} } - V rSub { size 8{A} } = { {Δ"PE"} over {q} } "." } {}
19.3

The potential difference between points A and B, VBVAVBVA size 12{V rSub { size 8{B} } -V rSub { size 8{A} } } {}, is thus defined to be the change in potential energy of a charge q q size 12{q} {} moved from A to B, divided by the charge. Units of potential difference are joules per coulomb, given the name volt (V) after Alessandro Volta.

1 V = 1 J C 1 V = 1 J C size 12{1" V=1 " { {J} over {C} } } {}
19.4

Potential Difference

The potential difference between points A and B, VB-VAVB-VA size 12{V rSub { size 8{B} } -V rSub { size 8{A} } } {}, is defined to be the change in potential energy of a charge q q moved from A to B, divided by the charge. Units of potential difference are joules per coulomb, given the name volt (V) after Alessandro Volta.

1 V = 1 J C 1 V = 1 J C
19.5

The familiar term voltage is the common name for potential difference. Keep in mind that whenever a voltage is quoted, it is understood to be the potential difference between two points. For example, every battery has two terminals, and its voltage is the potential difference between them. More fundamentally, the point you choose to be zero volts is arbitrary. This is analogous to the fact that gravitational potential energy has an arbitrary zero, such as sea level or perhaps a lecture hall floor.

In summary, the relationship between potential difference (or voltage) and electrical potential energy is given by

Δ V = ΔPE q and ΔPE = qΔV . Δ V = ΔPE q and ΔPE = qΔV . size 12{?V= { {?"PE"} over {q} } " and "D"PE="q?V "." } {}
19.6

Potential Difference and Electrical Potential Energy

The relationship between potential difference (or voltage) and electrical potential energy is given by

Δ V = ΔPE q and ΔPE = qΔV . Δ V = ΔPE q and ΔPE = qΔV . size 12{?V= { {?"PE"} over {q} } " and "D"PE="q?V "." } {}
19.7

The second equation is equivalent to the first.

Voltage is not the same as energy. Voltage is the energy per unit charge. Thus a motorcycle battery and a car battery can both have the same voltage (more precisely, the same potential difference between battery terminals), yet one stores much more energy than the other since ΔPE =qΔVΔPE =qΔV. The car battery can move more charge than the motorcycle battery, although both are 12 V batteries.

Example 19.1 Calculating Energy

Suppose you have a 12.0 V motorcycle battery that can move 5000 C of charge, and a 12.0 V car battery that can move 60,000 C of charge. How much energy does each deliver? (Assume that the numerical value of each charge is accurate to three significant figures.)

Strategy

To say we have a 12.0 V battery means that its terminals have a 12.0 V potential difference. When such a battery moves charge, it puts the charge through a potential difference of 12.0 V, and the charge is given a change in potential energy equal to ΔPE =qΔVΔPE =qΔV.

So to find the energy output, we multiply the charge moved by the potential difference.

Solution

For the motorcycle battery, q=5000 Cq=5000 C and ΔV=12.0 VΔV=12.0 V. The total energy delivered by the motorcycle battery is

ΔPE cycle = 5000 C 12.0 V = 5000 C 12.0 J/C = 6.00 × 10 4 J. ΔPE cycle = 5000 C 12.0 V = 5000 C 12.0 J/C = 6.00 × 10 4 J.
19.8

Similarly, for the car battery, q=60,000Cq=60,000C size 12{q="60","000"" C"} {} and

ΔPE car = 60,000 C 12.0 V = 7.20 × 10 5 J. ΔPE car = 60,000 C 12.0 V = 7.20 × 10 5 J.
19.9

Discussion

While voltage and energy are related, they are not the same thing. The voltages of the batteries are identical, but the energy supplied by each is quite different. Note also that as a battery is discharged, some of its energy is used internally and its terminal voltage drops, such as when headlights dim because of a low car battery. The energy supplied by the battery is still calculated as in this example, but not all of the energy is available for external use.

Note that the energies calculated in the previous example are absolute values. The change in potential energy for the battery is negative, since it loses energy. These batteries, like many electrical systems, actually move negative charge—electrons in particular. The batteries repel electrons from their negative terminals (A) through whatever circuitry is involved and attract them to their positive terminals (B) as shown in Figure 19.3. The change in potential is ΔV=VB–VA=+12 VΔV=VB–VA=+12 V and the charge qq is negative, so that ΔPE=qΔVΔPE=qΔV is negative, meaning the potential energy of the battery has decreased when qq has moved from A to B.

A headlight is connected to a 12 V battery. Negative charges move from the negative terminal of the battery to the positive terminal, resulting in a current flow and making the headlight glow. However, the positive terminal is at a greater potential than the negative terminal.
Figure 19.3 A battery moves negative charge from its negative terminal through a headlight to its positive terminal. Appropriate combinations of chemicals in the battery separate charges so that the negative terminal has an excess of negative charge, which is repelled by it and attracted to the excess positive charge on the other terminal. In terms of potential, the positive terminal is at a higher voltage than the negative. Inside the battery, both positive and negative charges move.

Example 19.2 How Many Electrons Move through a Headlight Each Second?

When a 12.0 V car battery runs a single 30.0 W headlight, how many electrons pass through it each second?

Strategy

To find the number of electrons, we must first find the charge that moved in 1.00 s. The charge moved is related to voltage and energy through the equation ΔPE= qΔVΔPE= qΔV. A 30.0 W lamp uses 30.0 joules per second. Since the battery loses energy, we have ΔPE=–30.0 JΔPE=–30.0 J and, since the electrons are going from the negative terminal to the positive, we see that ΔV=+12.0 VΔV=+12.0 V.

Solution

To find the charge q q size 12{q} {} moved, we solve the equation ΔPE= qΔVΔPE= qΔV:

q = ΔPE ΔV . q = ΔPE ΔV .
19.10

Entering the values for ΔPEΔPE size 12{?"PE"} {} and ΔVΔV, we get

q=–30.0 J+12.0 V=–30.0 J+12.0 J/C=–2.50 C.q=–30.0 J+12.0 V=–30.0 J+12.0 J/C=–2.50 C.
19.11

The number of electrons nene size 12{n rSub { size 8{e} } } {} is the total charge divided by the charge per electron. That is,

ne = –2.50 C –1.60 × 10 –19 C/e = 1.56 × 10 19 electrons. ne = –2.50 C –1.60 × 10 –19 C/e = 1.56 × 10 19 electrons.
19.12

Discussion

This is a very large number. It is no wonder that we do not ordinarily observe individual electrons with so many being present in ordinary systems. In fact, electricity had been in use for many decades before it was determined that the moving charges in many circumstances were negative. Positive charge moving in the opposite direction of negative charge often produces identical effects; this makes it difficult to determine which is moving or whether both are moving.

The Electron Volt

The energy per electron is very small in macroscopic situations like that in the previous example—a tiny fraction of a joule. But on a submicroscopic scale, such energy per particle (electron, proton, or ion) can be of great importance. For example, even a tiny fraction of a joule can be great enough for these particles to destroy organic molecules and harm living tissue. The particle may do its damage by direct collision, or it may create harmful x rays, which can also inflict damage. It is useful to have an energy unit related to submicroscopic effects. Figure 19.4 shows a situation related to the definition of such an energy unit. An electron is accelerated between two charged metal plates as it might be in an old-model television tube or oscilloscope. The electron is given kinetic energy that is later converted to another form—light in the television tube, for example. (Note that downhill for the electron is uphill for a positive charge.) Since energy is related to voltage by ΔPE=qΔV,ΔPE=qΔV, we can think of the joule as a coulomb-volt.

In an electron gun the electrons move from the negatively charged plate to the positively charged plate. Their kinetic energy will be equal to the potential energy.
Figure 19.4 A typical electron gun accelerates electrons using a potential difference between two metal plates. The energy of the electron in electron volts is numerically the same as the voltage between the plates. For example, a 5000 V potential difference produces 5000 eV electrons.

On the submicroscopic scale, it is more convenient to define an energy unit called the electron volt (eV), which is the energy given to a fundamental charge accelerated through a potential difference of 1 V. In equation form,

1 eV = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 V = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 J/C = 1.60 × 10 –19 J. 1 eV = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 V = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 J/C = 1.60 × 10 –19 J.
19.13

Electron Volt

On the submicroscopic scale, it is more convenient to define an energy unit called the electron volt (eV), which is the energy given to a fundamental charge accelerated through a potential difference of 1 V. In equation form,

1 eV = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 V = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 J/C = 1.60 × 10 –19 J. 1 eV = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 V = 1.60 × 10 –19 C 1 J/C = 1.60 × 10 –19 J.
19.14

An electron accelerated through a potential difference of 1 V is given an energy of 1 eV. It follows that an electron accelerated through 50 V is given 50 eV. A potential difference of 100,000 V (100 kV) will give an electron an energy of 100,000 eV (100 keV), and so on. Similarly, an ion with a double positive charge accelerated through 100 V will be given 200 eV of energy. These simple relationships between accelerating voltage and particle charges make the electron volt a simple and convenient energy unit in such circumstances.

Connections: Energy Units

The electron volt (eV) is the most common energy unit for submicroscopic processes. This will be particularly noticeable in the chapters on modern physics. Energy is so important to so many subjects that there is a tendency to define a special energy unit for each major topic. There are, for example, calories for food energy, kilowatt-hours for electrical energy, and therms for natural gas energy.

The electron volt is commonly employed in submicroscopic processes—chemical valence energies and molecular and nuclear binding energies are among the quantities often expressed in electron volts. For example, about 5 eV of energy is required to break up certain organic molecules. If a proton is accelerated from rest through a potential difference of 30 kV, it is given an energy of 30 keV (30,000 eV) and it can break up as many as 6000 of these molecules (30,000 eV ÷ 5 eV per molecule= 6000 molecules30,000 eV ÷ 5 eV per molecule= 6000 molecules). Nuclear decay energies are on the order of 1 MeV (1,000,000 eV) per event and can, thus, produce significant biological damage.

Conservation of Energy

The total energy of a system is conserved if there is no net addition (or subtraction) of work or heat transfer. For conservative forces, such as the electrostatic force, conservation of energy states that mechanical energy is a constant.

Mechanical energy is the sum of the kinetic energy and potential energy of a system; that is, KE+PE = constantKE+PE = constant size 12{"KE"+"PE=constant"} {}. A loss of PE of a charged particle becomes an increase in its KE. Here PE is the electric potential energy. Conservation of energy is stated in equation form as

KE+PE = constantKE+PE = constant size 12{"KE"+"PE=constant"} {}
19.15

or

KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f , KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f , size 12{"KE" rSub { size 8{i} } +"PE" rSub { size 8{i} } "=KE" rSub { size 8{f} } +"PE" rSub { size 8{f} } ,} {}
19.16

where i and f stand for initial and final conditions. As we have found many times before, considering energy can give us insights and facilitate problem solving.

Example 19.3 Electrical Potential Energy Converted to Kinetic Energy

Calculate the final speed of a free electron accelerated from rest through a potential difference of 100 V. (Assume that this numerical value is accurate to three significant figures.)

Strategy

We have a system with only conservative forces. Assuming the electron is accelerated in a vacuum, and neglecting the gravitational force (we will check on this assumption later), all of the electrical potential energy is converted into kinetic energy. We can identify the initial and final forms of energy to be KEi =0, KEf =½mv2, PEi =qV, and PEf =0.KEi =0, KEf =½mv2, PEi =qV, and PEf =0.

Solution

Conservation of energy states that

KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f . KE i + PE i = KE f + PE f .
19.17

Entering the forms identified above, we obtain

qV = mv 2 2 . qV = mv 2 2 . size 12{ ital "qV"= { size 8{1} } wideslash { size 8{2} } ital "mv" rSup { size 8{2} } "." } {}
19.18

We solve this for vv size 12{v} {}:

v = 2 qV m . v = 2 qV m . size 12{v= sqrt { { {2 ital "qV"} over {m} } } "." } {}
19.19

Entering values for q, V, and m q, V, and m size 12{q, V", and "m} {} gives

v = 2 –1.60 × 10 –19 C –100 J/C 9.11 × 10 –31 kg = 5.93 × 10 6 m/s. v = 2 –1.60 × 10 –19 C –100 J/C 9.11 × 10 –31 kg = 5.93 × 10 6 m/s.
19.20

Discussion

Note that both the charge and the initial voltage are negative, as in Figure 19.4. From the discussions in Electric Charge and Electric Field, we know that electrostatic forces on small particles are generally very large compared with the gravitational force. The large final speed confirms that the gravitational force is indeed negligible here. The large speed also indicates how easy it is to accelerate electrons with small voltages because of their very small mass. Voltages much higher than the 100 V in this problem are typically used in electron guns. Those higher voltages produce electron speeds so great that relativistic effects must be taken into account. That is why a low voltage is considered (accurately) in this example.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information Citation information

© Jun 21, 2012 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.