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  • List the three properties of a conductor in electrostatic equilibrium.
  • Explain the effect of an electric field on free charges in a conductor.
  • Explain why no electric field may exist inside a conductor.
  • Describe the electric field surrounding Earth.
  • Explain what happens to an electric field applied to an irregular conductor.
  • Describe how a lightning rod works.
  • Explain how a metal car may protect passengers inside from the dangerous electric fields caused by a downed line touching the car.

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    .

[link] shows the effect of an electric field on free charges in a conductor. The free charges move until the field is perpendicular to the conductor’s surface. There can be no component of the field parallel to the surface in electrostatic equilibrium, since, if there were, it would produce further movement of charge. A positive free charge is shown, but free charges can be either positive or negative and are, in fact, negative in metals. The motion of a positive charge is equivalent to the motion of a negative charge in the opposite direction.

In part a, an electric field E exists at some angle with the horizontal applied on a conductor. One component of this field E parallel is along x axis represented by a vector arrow and other E perpendicular, is along y axis represented by a vector arrow. Charge inside the conductor moves along x axis so the force acting on it is F parallel, which is equal to q multiplied by E parallel. In part b, a charge is shown inside the conductor and electric field is represented by a vector arrow pointing upward starting from the surface of the conductor.
When an electric field E size 12{E} {} is applied to a conductor, free charges inside the conductor move until the field is perpendicular to the surface. (a) The electric field is a vector quantity, with both parallel and perpendicular components. The parallel component ( E size 12{E rSub { size 8{ \rdline } } } {} ) exerts a force ( F size 12{F rSub { size 8{ \rdline } } } {} ) on the free charge q size 12{q} {} , which moves the charge until F = 0 size 12{F rSub { size 8{ \rdline } } =0} {} . (b) The resulting field is perpendicular to the surface. The free charge has been brought to the conductor’s surface, leaving electrostatic forces in equilibrium.

A conductor placed in an electric field    will be polarized    . [link] shows the result of placing a neutral conductor in an originally uniform electric field. The field becomes stronger near the conductor but entirely disappears inside it.

A spherical conductor is placed in the external electric field. The field lines are shown running from left to right. The field lines enter and leave the conductor at right angles. Negative charges accumulate on the left surface of the conductor and positive charges accumulate on the right surface of the conductor.
This illustration shows a spherical conductor in static equilibrium with an originally uniform electric field. Free charges move within the conductor, polarizing it, until the electric field lines are perpendicular to the surface. The field lines end on excess negative charge on one section of the surface and begin again on excess positive charge on the opposite side. No electric field exists inside the conductor, since free charges in the conductor would continue moving in response to any field until it was neutralized.

Misconception alert: electric field inside a conductor

Excess charges placed on a spherical conductor repel and move until they are evenly distributed, as shown in [link] . Excess charge is forced to the surface until the field inside the conductor is zero. Outside the conductor, the field is exactly the same as if the conductor were replaced by a point charge at its center equal to the excess charge.

A positively charged sphere is shown and positive charges are distributed all over the surface. Electric field lines emanate from the sphere in the space shown by the vector arrow pointing outward.
The mutual repulsion of excess positive charges on a spherical conductor distributes them uniformly on its surface. The resulting electric field is perpendicular to the surface and zero inside. Outside the conductor, the field is identical to that of a point charge at the center equal to the excess charge.

Questions & Answers

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Practice Key Terms 6

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Source:  OpenStax, College physics. OpenStax CNX. Jul 27, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11406/1.9
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