difference in electric energy between an energized conductor. another energized conductor. the ground or other object. Measured in volts.

The electric potential (also called the electric field potential, potential drop, the electrostatic potential) is defined as the amount of work energy needed per unit of electric charge to move this charge from a reference point to the specific point in an electric field. More precisely, it is the energy per unit charge for a test charge that is so small that the disturbance of the field under consideration is negligible. Furthermore, the motion across the field is supposed to proceed with negligible acceleration, so as to avoid the test charge acquiring kinetic energy or producing radiation. By definition, the electric potential at the reference point is zero units. Typically, the reference point is earth or a point at infinity, although any point can be used.

Electric potential
VFPt metal balls largesmall potential+contour.svg
Electric potential around two oppositely charged conducting spheres. Purple represents the highest potential, yellow zero, and cyan the lowest potential. The electric field lines are shown leaving perpendicularly to the surface of each sphere.
Common symbols
V, φ
SI unitvolt
Other units
In SI base unitsV = kg⋅m2⋅s−3⋅A−1
DimensionM L2 T−3 I−1

In classical electrostatics, the electrostatic field is a vector quantity expressed as the gradient of the electrostatic potential, which is a scalar quantity denoted by V or occasionally φ, equal to the electric potential energy of any charged particle at any location (measured in joules) divided by the charge of that particle (measured in coulombs). By dividing out the charge on the particle a quotient is obtained that is a property of the electric field itself. In short, an electric potential is the electric potential energy per unit charge.

This value can be calculated in either a static (time-invariant) or a dynamic (time-varying) electric field at a specific time with the unit joules per coulomb (J⋅C−1) or volt (V). The electric potential at infinity is assumed to be zero.

In electrodynamics, when time-varying fields are present, the electric field cannot be expressed only in terms of a scalar potential. Instead, the electric field can be expressed in terms of both the scalar electric potential and the magnetic vector potential. The electric potential and the magnetic vector potential together form a four-vector, so that the two kinds of potential are mixed under Lorentz transformations.

Practically, the electric potential is a continuous function in all space, because a spatial derivative of a discontinuous electric potential yields an electric field of impossibly infinite magnitude. Notably, the electric potential due to an idealized point charge (proportional to 1 ⁄ r, with r the distance from the point charge) is continuous in all space except at the location of the point charge. Though electric field is not continuous across an idealized surface charge, it is not infinite at any point. Therefore, the electric potential is continuous across an idealized surface charge. Additionally, an idealized line of charge has electric potential (proportional to ln(r), with r the radial distance from the line of charge) is continuous everywhere except on the line of charge.

« Back to Glossary Index