Electrostatics Introduction – Formulas, Examples, & Facts

Electrostatics Introduction – Formulas, Examples, & Facts

Electromagnetism is one of the most important branches of physics. The technological developments of the modern 21st century are primarily due to our understanding of electromagnetism. The forces we experience in everyday life are electromagnetic in nature except gravity.

In standard XI, we studied about the gravitational force, tension, friction, normal force etc. Newton treated them to be independent of each other with each force being a separate natural force.

But what is the origin of all these forces? It is now understood that except gravity, all forces which we experience in every day life (tension in the string, normal force from the surface, friction etc.) arise from electromagnetic forces within the atoms. Some examples are

(i) When an object is pushed, the atoms in our hand interact with the atoms in the object and this interaction is basically electromagnetic in nature.

(ii) When we stand on Earth’s surface, the gravitational force on us acts downwards and the normal force acts upward to counter balance the gravitational force. What is the origin of this normal force?

It arises due to the electromagnetic interaction of atoms on the surface of the Earth with the atoms present in the feet of the person. Though, we are attracted by the gravitational force of the Earth, we stand on Earth only because of electromagnetic force of atoms.

(iii) When an object is moved on a surface, static friction resists the motion of the object. This static friction arises due to electromagnetic interaction between the atoms present in the object and atoms on the surface. Kinetic friction also has similar origin.

Electrostatics Introduction

From these examples, it is clear that understanding electromagnetism is very essential to understand the universe in a holistic manner. The basic principles of electromagnetism are dealt with in volume 1 at XII standard physics. This unit deals with the behaviour and other related phenomena of charges at rest. This branch of electricity which deals with stationary charges is called Electrostatics.

Historical Background of Electric Charges

Two millenniums ago, Greeks noticed that amber (a solid, translucent material formed from the resin of a fossilized tree) after rubbing with animal fur attracted small pieces of leaves and dust. The amber possessing this property is said to be ‘charged’. It was initially thought that amber has this special property. Later people found that not only amber but even a glass rod rubbed with silk cloth, attracts pieces of papers. So glass rod also becomes ‘charged’ when rubbed with a suitable material.

Consider a charged rubber rod hanging from a thread as shown in Figure 1.1. Suppose another charged rubber rod is brought near the first rubber rod; the rods repel each other. Now if we bring a charged glass rod close to the charged rubber rod, they attract each other. At the same time, if a charged glass rod is brought near another charged glass rod, both the rods repel each other.

Electrostatics Introduction

From these observations, the following inferences are made

1. The charging of rubber rod and that of glass rod are different from one another.

2. The charged rubber rod repels another charged rubber rod, which implies that ‘like charges repel each other’. We can also arrive at the same inference by observing that a charged glass rod repels another charged glass rod.

3. The charged rubber rod attracts the charged glass rod, implying that the charge in the glass rod is not the same kind of charge present in the rubber.

Thus unlike charges attract each other. Therefore, two kinds of charges exist in the universe. In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin called one type of charge as positive (+) and another type of charge as negative (-). Based on Franklin’s convention, rubber and amber rods are negatively charged while the glass rod is positively charged. If the net charge is zero in the object, it is said to be electrically neutral.

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Following the pioneering work of J. J. Thomson and E. Rutherford, in the late 19th century and in the beginning of 20th century, we now understand that the atom is electrically neutral and is made up of the negatively charged electrons, positively charged protons, and neutrons which have zero charge.

The material objects made up of atoms are neutral in general. When an object is rubbed with another object (for example rubber with silk cloth), some amount of charge is transferred from one object to another due to the friction between them and the object is then said to be electrically charged. Charging the objects through rubbing is called triboelectric charging.

(i) Electric Charge

Most objects in the universe are made up of atoms, which in turn are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. These particles have mass, an inherent property of particles. Similarly, the electric charge is another intrinsic and fundamental property of particles. The nature of charges is understood through various experiments performed in the 19th and 20th century. The SI unit of charge is coulomb.

Electrostatics Introduction

(ii) Conservation of Charges

Benjamin Franklin argued that when one object is rubbed with another object, charges get transferred from one to the other. Before rubbing, both objects are electrically neutral and rubbing simply transfers the charges from one object to the other. (For example, when a glass rod is rubbed against silk cloth, some negative charge are transferred from glass to silk. As a result, the glass rod is positively charged and silk cloth becomes negatively charged).

From these observations, he concluded that charges are neither created or nor destroyed but can only be transferred from one object to other. This is called conservation of total charges and is one of the fundamental conservation laws in physics. It is stated more generally in the following way.

The total electric charge in the universe is constant and charge can neither be created nor be destroyed. In any physical process, the net change in charge will always be zero.

Electrostatics Introduction

(iii) Quantisation of Charges

What is the smallest amount of charge that can be found in nature? Experiments show that the charge on an electron is -e and the charge on the proton is +e. Here, e denotes the fundamental unit of charge. The charge q on any object is equal to an integral multiple of this fundamental unit of charge e.

q = ne ………….. (1.1)

Here n is any integer (0, ±1, ±2, ±3, ±4 ………..). This is called quantisation of electric charge.

Robert Millikan in his famous experiment found that the value of e = 1.6 × 10-19 C. The charge of an electron is – 1.6 × 10-19 C and the charge of the proton is + 1.6 × 10-19 C.

When a glass rod is rubbed with silk cloth, the number of charges transferred is usually very large, typically of the order of 1010. So the charge quantisation is not appreciable at the macroscopic level. Hence the charges are treated to be continuous (not discrete). But at the microscopic level, quantisation of charge plays a vital role.

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