Electric potential

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In classical electromagnetism, the electric potential (denoted by φ, φE or V; also called the electrostatic potential) at a point in space is the electrical potential energy divided by charge associated with a static (time-invariant) electric field. Typically measured in volts, the electric potential is a scalar quantity equal to a joule per coloumb.

There is also a generalized electric scalar potential that is used in electrodynamics when time-varying electromagnetic fields are present. This generalized electric potential cannot be simply interpreted as the ratio of potential energy to charge, however.



Objects may possess a property known as electric charge. An electric field exerts a force on charged objects, accelerating them in the direction of the force, in either the same or the opposite direction of the electric field. If the charged object has a positive charge, the force and acceleration will be in the direction of the field. This force has the same direction as the electric field vector, and its magnitude is given by the size of the charge multiplied with the magnitude of the electric field. Classical mechanics explores the concepts such as force, energy, potential etc. in more detail.

Force and potential energy are directly related. As an object moves in the direction that the force accelerates it, its potential energy decreases. For example, the gravitational potential energy of a cannonball at the top of a hill is greater than at the base of the hill. As the object falls, that potential energy decreases and is translated to motion, or inertial (kinetic) energy.

For certain forces, it is possible to define the "potential" of a field such that the potential energy of an object due to a field is dependent only on the position of the object with respect to the field. Those forces must affect objects depending only on the intrinsic properties of the object and the position of the object, and obey certain other mathematical rules.

Two such forces are the gravitational force (gravity) and the electric force in the absence of time-varying magnetic fields. The potential of an electric field is called the electric potential. The synonymous term "electrostatic potential" is also in common use.

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.

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