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18: Electric Charge and Electric Field

This chapter begins the study of electromagnetic phenomena at a fundamental level. The next several chapters will cover static electricity, moving electricity, and magnetism—collectively known as electromagnetism. In this chapter, we begin with the study of electric phenomena due to charges that are at least temporarily stationary, called electrostatics, or static electricity.

  • 18.0: Prelude to Electric Charge and Electric Field
    Franklin demonstrated a connection between lightning and static electricity. Sparks were drawn from a key hung on a kite string during an electrical storm. These sparks were like those produced by static electricity, such as the spark that jumps from your finger to a metal doorknob after you walk across a wool carpet.
  • 18.1: Static Electricity and Charge - Conservation of Charge
    When various materials are rubbed together in controlled ways, certain combinations of materials always produce one type of charge on one material and the opposite type on the other. By convention, we call one type of charge “positive”, and the other type “negative.” E.g., when glass is rubbed with silk, the glass becomes positively charged and the silk negatively charged. Since the glass and silk have opposite charges, they attract one another like clothes that have rubbed together in a dryer.
  • 18.2: Conductors and Insulators
    Some substances, such as metals and salty water, allow charges to move through them with relative ease. Some of the electrons in metals and similar conductors are not bound to individual atoms or sites in the material. These free electrons can move through the material much as air moves through loose sand.
  • 18.3: Coulomb's Law
    Through the work of scientists in the late 18th century, the main features of the electrostatic force—the existence of two types of charge, the observation that like charges repel, unlike charges attract, and the decrease of force with distance—were eventually refined, and expressed as a mathematical formula. The mathematical formula for the electrostatic force is called Coulomb’s law after the French physicist Charles Coulomb.
  • 18.4: Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
    Contact forces, such as between a baseball and a bat, are explained on the small scale by the interaction of the charges in atoms and molecules in close proximity. They interact through forces that include the Coulomb force. Action at a distance is a force between objects that are not close enough for their atoms to “touch.” That is, they are separated by more than a few atomic diameters.
  • 18.5: Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
    Drawings using lines to represent electric fields around charged objects are very useful in visualizing field strength and direction. Since the electric field has both magnitude and direction, it is a vector. Like all vectors, the electric field can be represented by an arrow that has length proportional to its magnitude and that points in the correct direction. (We have used arrows extensively to represent force vectors, for example.)
  • 18.6: Electric Forces in Biology
    Classical electrostatics has an important role to play in modern molecular biology. Large molecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, and so on—so important to life—are usually electrically charged. DNA itself is highly charged; it is the electrostatic force that not only holds the molecule together but gives the molecule structure and strength.
  • 18.7: Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
    Conductors contain free charges that move easily. When excess charge is placed on a conductor or the conductor is put into a static electric field, charges in the conductor quickly respond to reach a steady state called electrostatic equilibrium.
  • 18.8: Applications of Electrostatics
    The study of electrostatics has proven useful in many areas. This module covers just a few of the many applications of electrostatics.
  • 18.E: Electric Charge and Electric Field (Exercises)

Thumbnail: This diagram describes the mechanisms of Coulomb's law; two equal (like) point charges repel each other, and two opposite charges attract each other, with an electrostatic force F which is directly proportional to the product of the magnitudes of each charge and inversely proportional to the square of the distance r between the charges. Regardless of attraction, repulsion, charges or distance, the magnitudes of the forces, |F| (absolute value), will always be equal. Image used with permission (CC-BY-3.0).


  • Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).