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Additional Sheet 3


Force and potential energy

This sheet shows how to find the change in electrostatic potential energy in an inversesquare-law field. Figure 3.1 shows a positive charge +q (eg an alpha particle) approaching another positive charge +Q (eg a gold nucleus). There is an electrostatic repulsive force between the two particles, as described by Coulombs law: kqQ F = r2
r q


Figure 3.1 Two positive charges

F has a positive sign. This indicates that the force is repulsive. As the separation is reduced, work (W ) is done against the repulsive force and there is an increase in electrostatic potential energy (Ee) at the expense of the kinetic energy of the moving particle: W = Ee (2) If the force remained constant, then the change in electrostatic potential energy in moving through a distance r could be found using: Ee = W = Fr
Ee = W = F r

(3) (4)
Study note
The symbol is generally used to denote a small change.

In this example, force varies with separation, but we can still write: where r is so small that F remains near enough constant over that distance. Ee is then equal to the area of a narrow strip under the force-separation graph in Figure 3.2.



Figure 3.2 Force between two positive charges

To find the overall work done in moving from r1 to r2, we need to sum all the areas of the narrow strips to find the total area under the graph between r1 and r2. In other words, we need to make r so small that it becomes dr, and substitute the expression for F from Coulombs law (Equation 1):

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Additional Sheet 3
kqQdr dW = r2

and then integrate between r1 and r2: dr dW = r kqQ r2


(5) (6)

W = kqQ 1 1 r2 r1
1 2

( ) 1 1 = kqQ ( ) r r ( )

Since Ee = W: 1 1 Ee = kqQ r2 r1 (7)

and as r2 > r1, Equation 6 confirms that Ee is negative. So far we have referred only to changes in energy Ee. If we think of the actual energy values Ee(r1) and Ee(r2) (Ee at r1 and at r2) we can write: Ee = Ee(r2) Ee(r1) and so from Equation 7 we have: 1 1 kqQ = Ee(r2) Ee(r1) r2 r1 (8)

1 If we now allow q to move out to infinity, so that becomes zero, then the left-hand r2 kqQ side of Equation 9 becomes . r1 It is customary to define Ee = 0 when r = . Then we can use Equation 9 to write:
= Ee(r1)


kqQ r1

or, cancelling the negative signs and dealing with a general value of r: kqQ Ee(r) = r (10)

Note that we do not have to define an infinite distance as the zero of Ee, but it is convenient as it does make the equations much simpler. Further points to think about: Suppose one of the changes was negative. How would this affect any of Equations 1 to 8? Ee can also be defined as Ee = qV, where V is potential difference. From Equation 7, derive an expression for the potential difference between two points at distance r1 and r2 from Q. How might this lead to a definition of the potential at a point in the electric field due to Q?


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