The interaction between charged objects is a non-contact force that acts over some distance of separation. Charge, charge and distance. Every electrical interaction involves a force that highlights the importance of these three variables. Whether it is a plastic golf tube attracting paper bits, two like-charged balloons repelling or a charged Styrofoam plate interacting with electrons in a piece of aluminum, there is always two charges and a distance between them as the three critical variables that influence the strength of the interaction. In this section of Lesson, we will explore the importance of these three variables.
Force as a Vector Quantity
The electrical force, like all forces, is typically expressed using the unit Newton. Being a force, the strength of the electrical interaction is a vector quantity that has both magnitude and direction. The direction of the electrical force is dependent upon whether the charged objects are charged with like charge or opposite charge and upon their spatial orientation. By knowing the type of charge on the two objects, the direction of the force on either one of them can be determined with a little reasoning. In the diagram below, objects A and B have like charge causing them to repel each other. Thus, the force on object A is directed leftward (away from B) and the force on object B is directed rightward (away from A). On the other hand, objects C and D have opposite charge causing them to attract each other. Thus, the force on object C is directed rightward (toward object D) and the force on object D is directed leftward (toward object C). When it comes to the electrical force vector, perhaps the best way to determine the direction of it is to apply the fundamental rules of charge interaction (opposites attract and likes repel) using a little reasoning.
Electrical force also has a magnitude or strength. Like most types of forces, there are a variety of factors that influence the magnitude of the electrical force. Two like-charged balloons will repel each other and the strength of their repulsive force can be altered by changing three variables. First, the quantity of charge on one of the balloons will affect the strength of the repulsive force. The more charged a balloon is, the greater the repulsive force. Second, the quantity of charge on the second balloon will affect the strength of the repulsive force. Gently rub two balloons with animal fur and they repel a little. Rub the two balloons vigorously to impart more charge to both of them, and they repel a lot. Finally, the distance between the two balloons will have a significant and noticeable effect upon the repulsive force. The electrical force is strongest when the balloons are closest together. Decreasing the separation distance increases the force. The magnitude of the force and the distance between the two balloons is said to be inversely related.
Coulomb’s Law Equation
The quantitative expression for the effect of these three variables on electric force is known as Coulomb’s law. Coulomb’s law states that the electrical force between two charged objects is directly proportional to the product of the quantity of charge on the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the separation distance between the two objects. In equation form, Coulomb’s law can be stated as
where Q1 represents the quantity of charge on object 1 (in Coulombs), Q2 represents the quantity of charge on object 2 (in Coulombs), and d represents the distance of separation between the two objects (in meters). The symbol k is a proportionality constant known as the Coulomb’s law constant. The value of this constant is dependent upon the medium that the charged objects are immersed in. In the case of air, the value is approximately 9.0 x 109 N • m2 / C2. If the charged objects are present in water, the value of k can be reduced by as much as a factor of 80. It is worthwhile to point out that the units on k are such that when substituted into the equation the units on charge (Coulombs) and the units on distance (meters) will be canceled, leaving a Newton as the unit of force.
The Coulomb’s law equation provides an accurate description of the force between two objects whenever the objects act as point charges. A charged conducting sphere interacts with other charged objects as though all of its charge were located at its center.