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5.11: Energy Stored in an Electric Field

• • Contributed by Jeremy Tatum
• Emeritus Professor (Physics & Astronomy) at University of Victoria

Recall that we are assuming that the separation between the plates is small compared with their linear dimensions and that therefore the electric field is uniform between the plates.

The capacitance is $$C=\epsilon A/d$$, and the potential differnece between the plates is $$Ed$$, where $$E$$ is the electric field and $$d$$ is the distance between the plates. Thus the energy stored in the capacitor is $$\frac{1}{2}\epsilon E^2$$. The volume of the dielectric (insulating) material between the plates is $$Ad$$, and therefore we find the following expression for the energy stored per unit volume in a dielectric material in which there is an electric field:

$\dfrac{1}{2}\epsilon E^2$

Verify that this has the correct dimensions for energy per unit volume.

If the space between the plates is a vacuum, we have the following expression for the energy stored per unit volume in the electric field

$\dfrac{1}{2}\epsilon_0E^2$

- even though there is absolutely nothing other than energy in the space. Think about that!

I mentioned in Section 1.7 that in an anisotropic medium $$\textbf{D}$$ and $$\textbf{E}$$ are not parallel, the permittivity then being a tensor quantity. In that case the correct expression for the energy per unit volume in an electric field is $$\frac{1}{2}\textbf{D}\cdot \textbf{E}$$.