An electric field (sometimes E-field) is the physical field that surrounds electrically-charged particles and exerts force on all other charged particles in the field, either attracting or repelling them. It also refers to the physical field for a system of charged particles. Electric fields originate from electric charges, or from time-varying magnetic fields. Electric fields and magnetic fields are both manifestations of the electromagnetic force, one of the four fundamental forces (or interactions) of nature.
Electric fields are important in many areas of physics, and are exploited practically in electrical technology. In atomic physics and chemistry, for instance, the electric field is the attractive force holding the atomic nucleus and electrons together in atoms. It is also the force responsible for chemical bonding between atoms that result in molecules.
The electric field is defined mathematically as a vector field that associates to each point in space the (electrostatic or Coulomb) force per unit of charge exerted on an infinitesimal positive test charge at rest at that point. The derived SI units for the electric field are volts per meter (V/m), exactly equivalent to newtons per coulomb (N/C).
The electric field is defined at each point in space as the force (per unit charge) that would be experienced by a vanishingly small positive test charge if held at that point.: 469–70 As the electric field is defined in terms of force, and force is a vector (i.e. having both magnitude and direction), it follows that an electric field is a vector field.: 469–70 Vector fields of this form are sometimes referred to as force fields. The electric field acts between two charges similarly to the way the gravitational field acts between two masses, as they both obey an inverse-square law with distance. This is the basis for Coulomb's law, which states that, for stationary charges, the electric field varies with the source charge and varies inversely with the square of the distance from the source. This means that if the source charge were doubled, the electric field would double, and if you move twice as far away from the source, the field at that point would be only one-quarter its original strength.
The electric field can be visualized with a set of lines whose direction at each point is the same as the field's, a concept introduced by Michael Faraday, whose term 'lines of force' is still sometimes used. This illustration has the useful property that the field's strength is proportional to the density of the lines. The field lines are the paths that a point positive charge would follow as it is forced to move within the field, similar to trajectories that masses follow within a gravitational field. Field lines due to stationary charges have several important properties, including always originating from positive charges and terminating at negative charges, they enter all good conductors at right angles, and they never cross or close in on themselves.: 479 The field lines are a representative concept; the field actually permeates all the intervening space between the lines. More or fewer lines may be drawn depending on the precision to which it is desired to represent the field. The study of electric fields created by stationary charges is called electrostatics.
Faraday's law describes the relationship between a time-varying magnetic field and the electric field. One way of stating Faraday's law is that the curl of the electric field is equal to the negative time derivative of the magnetic field.: 327 In the absence of time-varying magnetic field, the electric field is therefore called conservative (i.e. curl-free).: 24, 90–91 This implies there are two kinds of electric fields: electrostatic fields and fields arising from time-varying magnetic fields.: 305–307 While the curl-free nature of the static electric field allows for a simpler treatment using electrostatics, time-varying magnetic fields are generally treated as a component of a unified electromagnetic field. The study of time varying magnetic and electric fields is called electrodynamics.
Electric fields are caused by electric charges, described by Gauss's law, and time varying magnetic fields, described by Faraday's law of induction. Together, these laws are enough to define the behavior of the electric field. However, since the magnetic field is described as a function of electric field, the equations of both fields are coupled and together form Maxwell's equations that describe both fields as a function of charges and currents.
The equations of electromagnetism are best described in a continuous description. However, charges are sometimes best described as discrete points; for example, some models may describe electrons as point sources where charge density is infinite on an infinitesimal section of space.
Electrostatic fields are electric fields that do not change with time. Such fields are present when systems of charged matter are stationary, or when electric currents are unchanging. In that case, Coulomb's law fully describes the field.
This suggests similarities between the electric field E and the gravitational field g, or their associated potentials. Mass is sometimes called "gravitational charge".
A uniform field is one in which the electric field is constant at every point. It can be approximated by placing two conducting plates parallel to each other and maintaining a voltage (potential difference) between them; it is only an approximation because of boundary effects (near the edge of the planes, electric field is distorted because the plane does not continue). Assuming infinite planes, the magnitude of the electric field E is:
where ΔV is the potential difference between the plates and d is the distance separating the plates. The negative sign arises as positive charges repel, so a positive charge will experience a force away from the positively charged plate, in the opposite direction to that in which the voltage increases. In micro- and nano-applications, for instance in relation to semiconductors, a typical magnitude of an electric field is in the order of 106 V⋅m−1, achieved by applying a voltage of the order of 1 volt between conductors spaced 1 µm apart.
That is, both electric currents (i.e. charges in uniform motion) and the (partial) time derivative of the electric field directly contributes to the magnetic field. In addition, the Maxwell–Faraday equation states
These represent two of Maxwell's four equations and they intricately link the electric and magnetic fields together, resulting in the electromagnetic field. The equations represent a set of four coupled multi-dimensional partial differential equations which, when solved for a system, describe the combined behavior of the electromagnetic fields. In general, the force experienced by a test charge in an electromagnetic field is given by the Lorentz force law:
As E and B fields are coupled, it would be misleading to split this expression into "electric" and "magnetic" contributions. In particular, an electrostatic field in any given frame of reference in general transforms into a field with a magnetic component in a relatively moving frame. Accordingly, decomposing the electromagnetic field into an electric and magnetic component is frame-specific, and similarly for the associated energy.
The total energy UEM stored in the electromagnetic field in a given volume V is
In the presence of matter, it is helpful to extend the notion of the electric field into three vector fields:
where P is the electric polarization – the volume density of electric dipole moments, and D is the electric displacement field. Since E and P are defined separately, this equation can be used to define D. The physical interpretation of D is not as clear as E (effectively the field applied to the material) or P (induced field due to the dipoles in the material), but still serves as a convenient mathematical simplification, since Maxwell's equations can be simplified in terms of free charges and currents.
For inhomogeneous materials, there is a position dependence throughout the material:
For non-linear media, E and D are not proportional. Materials can have varying extents of linearity, homogeneity and isotropy.