Note on Electric Potential

Notes Page
Physics 102 Page
In class on Wednesday (1/27/99), a question arose about whether potential differences are different for positive and negative charges placed between two charged plates. The answer is an unequivocal "NO."
The first way to see this is by going back to what I said when I first introduced electric potential. The reason that we have this concept to begin with is that it does not depend on what kind of charges we're moving through a potential difference--unlike potential energy. It is a property of the region we're interested in and it arises from the charge distributions that create the electric field, which are separate from the positive and negative charges that we're talking about now. In our case, the charges on the plates (below) create the electric field and the potential difference. Both of these quantities (field and potential) exist even before we put charges (positive or negative) in the region.

Recall from class that for a uniform electric field (as exists in the region between the charged plates shown above):

V = Ed

if we go from the negative plate to the positive (opposite the electric field) and

V = -Ed

if we go from the positive plate to the negative (in the same direction as the field). We say that the positive plate is at higher potential than the negative plate. This is true no matter what kind of charge we put in the middle.
What is different for the two kinds of charge in the middle is the potential energy (and also the force). Think about gravity again. When a rock is farther from where it wants to go, it has greater potential energy. If we put a positive charge near the positive plate, it's far from where it wants to go. Thus it has more potential energy than when it's near the negative plate. Because of our positive test charge convention, positive charges have higher potential energy where the potential is higher. Now, if we put an electron near the positive plate, that's like putting the rock near the ground. It's already near its goal, and thus has lower potential energy. So for negative charges, higher potential means lower potential energy. But they both have the same potential because V = U/q.
Perhaps the best way to visualize this paradox is to return to the example of point charges. Recall that

Also recall that for the point charge we defined the potential energy to be zero at when the charge q is infinitely far away from Q. In that case, when both q and Q are positive, the potential energy is positive. It's zero at infinity and it gets larger as you move the two charges closer together. Remember, the more a charge (or a mass) is separated from where it wants to be, the greater is its potential energy. For two positive charges, they want to be as far away as possible.
When we have -q and +Q, the situation is different. The potential energy is still zero at infinity, but now as -q moves toward +Q, it's moving toward where it wants to go and thus is losing potential energy. The only way that can happen is if the potential energy is negative for attractive forces. The plot below shows the potential energy as a function of r for both cases.

This plot clearly shows that the potential energy moves in opposite directions for positive and negative charges. In fact, if you understand this graph, you should have a good grasp of why electric potential is the same even though what happens to the positive charge is different than what happens to the negative charge. The key lies in that electric potential difference is defined as

This means that the potential experienced by both positive and negative q is the same as they move in the vicinity of +Q. For example, as a positive charge goes from a to b, its potential energy decreases and (since it's positive), we see that it also experiences a decreasing electric potential. For a negative charge going from a to b, the potential energy decreases, but it also experiences decreasing potential because its charge is negative. The plot of V(r) for a positive point charge is shown below. As indicated, positive charges move to regions of lower potential and negative charges move to regions of higher potential.

I hope that this helps to clear up this topic. It is a tricky concept to comprehend, so please let me know if it's still not clear.
Electric Potential Survey

Has this note cleared up the question about potential that came up in class?

  Yes   No

Comments or questions about electric potential (or other topics)

Your name:

After submitting your survey responses, use the back button on your browser to return here.

Notes Page
Physics 102 Page