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4.

Gauss’ Law

A) Overview

We will now use Gauss’ law to calculate the electric fields produced by a variety of charge distributions. The distinguishing feature of these examples is that in each case the charge distributions exhibit one of the three special spatial symmetries — spherical, cylindrical or planar.

We will first investigate the electric field produced by a uniformly charged solid spherical insulator. We will then determine the electric field produced by an infinite solid cylindrical conductor that carries a uniform charge density. Finally, we will investigate the electric field produced by an infinite sheet that is uniformly charged.

We will conclude with a special example — two infinite sheets of charge that have equal but opposite signed uniform charge densities. Even though this example does not possess total planar symmetry, we can use the principle of superposition in conjunction with Gauss’ law to make the calculation.

B) Gauss’ Law and Symmetry

Last time we introduced Gauss’ law which states that the total flux that passes through any closed surface is proportional to the electric charge enclosed by that surface. It is common to refer to this closed surface through which the flux is calculated as the Gaussian surface. We demonstrated the validity of Gauss’ law by explicitly calculating the flux through some Gaussian surfaces and seeing it is proportional to the charge enclosed.

We now will use Gauss’ law to calculate the electric fields produced by some special charge distributions. In general, these calculations would be extremely difficult because the electric field term occurs inside the integral in the Gauss’ law equation. However, in cases that have a high degree of symmetry, it is possible to choose a Gaussian surface such that the electric field term can be moved outside of the integral. For example, if we can choose a surface such that the electric field has a constant magnitude at all points on the surface and is always perpendicular to the surface, then we can move the constant electric field term outside the integral and solve for it.

There are three such symmetries for which this procedure is possible, corresponding to our three spatial dimensions. We have the full three-dimensional symmetry of the sphere, the two-dimensional symmetry of the infinite cylinder, and the one-dimensional symmetry of the infinite plane. In each of these cases, we can construct Gaussian surfaces that allow us to solve for the electric field by moving its term outside of the integral in the Gauss’ law equation.

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C) Example: Spherical Symmetry

For our first example, we consider a solid insulating sphere that has a radius a and a uniform volume charge density centered at the origin (Figure 4.1). In other words, inside the sphere the charge per unit volume (Q /V) is a constant and outside the sphere the charge density is zero.

This charge distribution possesses spherical symmetry. That is, the charge distribution itself is only a function of r, the distance from the center of the insulator. Because the charge distribution is spherically symmetric, the electric field produced by this charge distribution must also be spherically symmetric. And, the field’s magnitude can only depend on the distance from the center of the insulator and its direction must be radial.

We’ll first determine the electric field outside the insulator, or the field in a region where r > a. We choose our Gaussian surface to be a concentric spherical shell of radius r. We know the direction of the field at all points on this Gaussian surface must be radial and therefore perpendicular to the surface.

Consequently, the scalar product E dA

becomes the simple product (E dA). Furthermore, because all points on the Gaussian surface are equidistant from the origin, we know the magnitude of the electric field at all points on this surface must be the same. Hence, the electric field at the surface is a constant and its term can be moved integral in the Gauss’s law equation.

a a
a a

Figure 4.1: Gaussian surface for determining

Figure 4.1: Gaussian surface for determining

field produced by a solid insulating sphere at

field produced by a solid insulating sphere at

a a

distance r from center.

distance r from center.

outside the

i

just

The Gauss’ law equation then becomes:

E

surface

dA =

Q

enclosed

0

The integral of dA is just the area of the Gaussian surface; therefore, the expression on the left-hand side of the Gauss’ law equation simply reduces to 4 r 2 E. The charge enclosed by the Gaussian surface is just the total charge Q of the insulator which is equal to V, where V is the volume of the insulator (4/3 a 3 ). Therefore, we obtain the result:

(

E r

)

=

3

a

3

0 r

2

4-2

r

>

a

This result can be rewritten in terms of Q, the total charge of the insulator

(Q = 4/3 a 3 ) and we obtain a form that looks like the Coulomb field produced by a point charge Q located at the center of the spherical insulator.

(

E r

)

=

Q

4

2

0 r

r

>

a

We’ll now calculate the field inside the insulator (r < a). We can follow the same procedure as we did for the field outside the insulator. Namely, we can apply Gauss’ law using a spherical Gaussian surface centered on the origin. Because the charge is uniformly distributed throughout the insulator, we know that the magnitude of the field must have the same value at all points on the spherical surface and the direction of the field is perpendicular to this Gaussian surface everywhere.

The only change to our calculation is that the charge enclosed by the Gaussian surface is no longer the total charge of the insulator. In fact, the total charge enclosed by the surface is just V, where V is the volume the spherical surface encloses which is equal to 4/3 r 3 . Consequently, we obtain the result:

(

E r

)

=

3

0

r

r

a

We now can plot the radial dependence of the

field for all values of r, as shown in Figure 4.2.

increases linearly from zero to a maximum value at the

surface of the sphere and then decreases as 1/r 2 .

The field

of the sphere and then decreases as 1/ r 2 . The field Figure 4.2: Radial

Figure 4.2: Radial dependence

Figure 4.2: Radial dependence

of electric field from solid

of electric field from solid

insulating sphere of radius a.

insulating sphere of radius a.

D) Charges on Conductors

In our last example, the charged object, the sphere, is an insulator. Because charges cannot move in an insulator, the charge distribution has to be specified, namely that it is uniform throughout the volume of the spherical insulator.

If the sphere had instead been a solid spherical conductor, any charge we put on it would be free to move. Before we can apply Gauss’ law to this conductor (or any other

charged conductor), we must first determine how the charge will be distributed.

answer this question, we first need to recall that charges are free to move in a conductor. If there is an electric field inside the conductor, the charges will experience a net force and move. Therefore, if the system is in static equilibrium the electric field inside the conductor must be zero.

To

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Because the field is zero inside the conductor, we can apply Gauss’ law to show that there can be no charge inside the conductor. Consider a Gaussian surface whose center coincides with the center of a spherical conductor and whose radius is just slightly smaller than the radius of the sphere (Figure 4.3). We know the electric field is zero everywhere on this surface so that the term (the flux ) on the left-hand side of the

Gauss’ law equation is zero. Therefore, the term (the enclosed charge or Q enclosed ) on the right-hand side of the equation must also be zero, and all of the charge must reside on the surface of the spherical conductor. This result is a totally general one; it applies to all conductors independent of their shape.

it applies to all conductors independent of their shape. Figure 4.3: Applying Gauss’ law to Figure

Figure 4.3: Applying Gauss’ law to

Figure 4.3: Applying Gauss’ law to

a a

charged spherical conductor, we

charged spherical conductor, we

see E = 0 inside Q = 0 inside.

see E = 0 inside Q = 0 inside.

E) Example: Solid Infinite Cylindrical Conductor

For our next example, we consider a solid infinite cylindrical conductor that has a radius a and uniform linear charge density .

We can use Gauss’ law to determine the electric field outside this cylindrical conductor. Because the charge must be distributed uniformly on the surface of the cylinder, we know the magnitude of the field produced by this charge can only depend on

r, the two-dimensional distance from the axis of the cylinder and its direction must

always be perpendicular to this axis.

To find the value of the

be perpendicular to this axis. To find the value of the Figure 4.4: Gaussian surface for

Figure 4.4: Gaussian surface for determining field produced by a solid cylindrical conductor at a distance r from the axis.

field that is a distance r from the axis of the cylinder, we consider a Gaussian cylinder that has a length

L and a radius r and is centered on

the axis of the conductor (Figure 4.4). For the two endcap surfaces,

E is parallel to the surface and

therefore perpendicular to dA.

Consequently, E dA

endcaps is zero.

i

over the

Therefore, the only contribution to the flux

cylinder comes from the barrel surface. We know the direction of

the field must be perpendicular to this surface and the magnitude of the field must be the same at all points on this surface.

over the

Consequently, the scalar product E dA

can once again move the electric field term E outside the integral in the Gauss’s law equation. The expression on the left-hand side of the Gauss’ law equation then becomes

i

just becomes the arithmetic product EA and we

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just EA, where A is the surface area of the barrel (A = 2 rL). The expression on the right- hand side of the Gauss’ law equation is as always Q, the charge enclosed by this cylinder, divided by 0 . In this case, the charge enclosed is just the linear charge density multiplied by the length L of the Gaussian cylinder. Therefore, the electric field outside the charged cylindrical conductor is just given by:

(

E r

)

=

2

0 r

r

>

a

We see then that the electric field outside a charged infinite cylindrical conductor is identical to the field produced by an infinite line of charge that has the same linear charge density. This result is not a coincidence. Because both of these charge distributions have cylindrical symmetry, the field at a distance r from the axis of symmetry is totally determined by the charge enclosed by a cylinder of radius r. The same charge enclosed, the same field!

Because the electric field inside the conductor is zero, we now can plot the radial dependence of the field for all values of r, as shown in Figure 4.5. The field is zero inside the conductor, has its maximum value at the surface and then decreases as 1/r.

F) Infinite Sheet of Charge

For our next example, we consider an infinite sheet of charge that has a uniform surface charge density .

of charge that has a uniform surface charge density . Figure 4.5: Radial dependence of Figure

Figure 4.5: Radial dependence of

Figure 4.5: Radial dependence of

electric field from solid

electric field from solid

cylindrical conductor of radius a.

cylindrical conductor of radius a.

Here the charge density has planar symmetry, namely charge is uniformly distributed over a single plane. Consequently, we know that the direction of the electric field must be perpendicular to the surface. To determine the electric field at any point, we need to choose a Gaussian cylinder whose surfaces are either parallel or perpendicular

to the plane so that E dA

able to move the electric field term outside the integral in the Gauss’s law equation and solve for it.

i

will be either zero or just EA. With such a choice, we will be

Let’s choose a cylinder that cuts through the plane as shown in Figure 4.6. Here, the electric field is parallel to the barrel surface and perpendicular to the two endcap surfaces of the cylinder. Because the field may depend on the distance from the plane, we’ll position our cylinder so that the two endcaps are equidistant from the plane.

We’ll now apply the Gauss’ law equation. The expression on the left-hand side of

the equation, E dA

electric field points away from the plane of charge, in the same direction as dA which

always points away from the inside of the volume. Therefore, the contributions from

i

will be non-zero only on the two endcaps. At each endcap, the

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each endcap are the same, leaving the total flux through the surfaces equal to 2EA, where A is the surface area of a single endcap.

Moving now to the right-hand side of the Gauss’ law equation, we need to determine the charge enclosed by our cylinder. The intersection of the plane with our cylinder is just a circle of area A. Consequently, the total charge enclosed is just A. Putting all this together, we obtain the final result:

E

=

2

0

all this together, we obtain the final result: E = 2 0 Figure 4.6: Gaussian surface

Figure 4.6: Gaussian surface (cylinder) for determining

field produced by an infinite sheet of charge.

Perhaps this result seems surprising to you. The electric field from an infinite sheet of charge does not depend on the distance from the sheet. We can actually understand this result if we think about the field lines produced by an infinite sheet of charge. Because the sheet is infinite, the direction of the field must be perpendicular to the sheet; therefore, the field lines must also be perpendicular to the sheet. The magnitude of the field is given by the density of these lines. The density of these lines must just stay constant; there is no place for them to expand into. Consequently, the magnitude of the field produced by an infinite sheet of charge must be constant.

G) Superposition

We’ve now covered the three symmetries — spherical, cylindrical and planar — for which we can use Gauss’ law to calculate the electric fields. We’ll conclude with an observation that the principle of superposition, which we have used a lot so far, comes in handy once again to let us use Gauss’ law to calculate electric fields for cases that do not possess one of these global symmetries. In particular, we will now consider an example in which we have two parallel infinite sheets of charge (Figure 4.7). One sheet has a uniform surface charge density + , while the other sheet has a uniform surface charge density – .

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Figure 4.7: Use of superposition to determine Figure 4.7: Use of superposition to determine electric

Figure 4.7: Use of superposition to determine

Figure 4.7: Use of superposition to determine

electric fields produced by two infinite sheets

electric fields produced by two infinite sheets

of charge having equal magnitude but

of charge having equal magnitude but

opposite signed charge densities.

opposite signed charge densities.

This charge distribution does not possess global planar symmetry, because there are two planes. However, because electric fields obey the law of superposition, the field produced by this combination of planes must be identical to vector sum of the fields produced by each sheet separately.

There are three regions of space to consider, (i) in between the plates, (ii) outside the positively charged sheet and (iii) outside the negatively charged sheet. We see the contributions from the two sheets exactly cancel in the two regions outside the

sheets. Consequently, the electric field in these regions is zero. In the region between the two sheets, the fields add to give a total field that is twice the field from either sheet. Consequently, the magnitude of the field in

this region is just equal to / 0 , and the direction of the field is toward the negatively charged sheet.

H) Summary

We began by observing that because we live in a world that has three spatial dimensions, there are three kinds of symmetric charge distributions (spherical, cylindrical, and planar) that produce fields which can be calculated directly from the Gauss’ law equation. We first considered a uniformly charged solid spherical insulator and found that the direction of the electric field is radial and the magnitude of the field increases linearly from zero while inside the insulator and then falls off as 1/r 2 while outside the insulator.

We then discussed a uniformly charged infinite solid cylindrical conductor. The electric field is zero inside the conductor which forces the charge to reside only on the outer surface. Once outside the conductor the direction of the field is always

perpendicular to the axis of the conductor and the magnitude of the field decreases as 1/r,

Finally, we found that the field produced

just as in the case of the infinite line of charge.

by an infinite sheet of charge is directed perpendicularly to the sheet and has the same

magnitude everywhere.

We also observed that this technique of using Gauss’ law to calculate electric fields can be extended to some examples that do not possess any of these three global symmetries through the use of the principle of superposition. Namely, we could calculate the field produced by two infinite sheets of charge that have equal but oppositely signed uniform charge densities by considering it to be the superposition of the fields produced by each sheet separately.

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We’ll end with an observation of the strong connection between symmetries and dimensions. The field lines produced by spherically-symmetric charge distributions expand fully into three dimensions; their density decreases as 1/(surface area of a sphere)

or 1/r 2 .

symmetric distribution, the field lines become perpendicular to the axis and can expand only into two dimensions; their density decreases as 1/ (surface area of a cylinder) or 1/r. If we further squeeze the cylindrically-symmetric charge distribution into a plane, the field lines become perpendicular to the plane but have no space to expand into.

Consequently, their density remains constant leading to a field that is constant over all space.

If we squeeze the spherically-symmetric charge distribution into a cylindrically-

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