What is Electric Potential?

There are three different concepts in the field of classical mechanics. These three concepts are energy, force, and potential.

These can be further discussed in Electrostatics. However, in this article, We will discuss what is electric potential.

What is Electric Potential (EP)

Electric potential, often denoted as V or φ (phi), is a scalar quantity that represents the electric potential energy per unit charge at a specific point in an electric field. It is a fundamental concept in the study of electricity and electromagnetism. Electric potential is a measure of the electric potential energy that a unitary positive charge would have at a specific point in the electric field.

Mathematically, electric potential is defined as the amount of work needed to move a unit positive charge from a reference point to a specific point within an electric field, divided by the magnitude of the charge. In other words, it is the work done per unit charge.

The SI unit of electric potential is the volt (V), named after the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. One volt is equivalent to one joule per coulomb, where a joule is the unit of work or energy, and a coulomb is the unit of charge.

Electric potential plays a significant role in various electrical applications and devices, including capacitors, batteries, and electrical circuits. Understanding electric potential is crucial for comprehending the behavior of charges in an electric field and for analyzing the distribution of charges in various electrical systems.

We can determine the potential from the capacity of the charged body for a single point. The electrical potential can be measured in the unit of volt. And we can derive the formula from Ohm’s law as :

V = I*R


  • V is the potential difference i.e Voltage in volts (V).
  • I is the current drawn by the load in Amperes (A).
  • R is the resistance of the load in Ohm (Ω).

Why is the potential difference important?

The potential difference, also known as voltage, is a crucial concept in understanding and analyzing electrical circuits and systems. It is important for several reasons:

  1. Driving Force for Current: The potential difference is the driving force that pushes electric charges through a conductor, creating an electric current. In a circuit, the potential difference is what motivates the flow of electrons from a higher potential to a lower potential, enabling the transfer of electrical energy to various components.

  2. Power Generation and Distribution: In power generation and distribution systems, a potential difference is essential for transmitting electrical energy from power plants to consumers. High-voltage transmission lines are used to minimize energy losses during long-distance transmission, and the potential difference is a key factor in determining the efficiency and effectiveness of these systems.

  3. Component Functioning: Different components in an electrical circuit, such as resistors, capacitors, and diodes, have specific voltage requirements for proper functioning. Understanding and maintaining the appropriate potential difference across these components are crucial for ensuring their optimal performance and preventing damage.

  4. Safety Considerations: Understanding potential differences is essential for ensuring the safety of electrical systems and preventing hazards such as electric shocks, fires, or damage to equipment. By maintaining the appropriate voltage levels and adhering to safety standards, the risk of accidents can be significantly reduced.

  5. Circuit Analysis and Design: Potential difference is a fundamental parameter in circuit analysis and design. It helps engineers and designers determine the behavior of electrical components, calculate power consumption, and optimize circuit performance. Understanding potential differences is essential for designing efficient and reliable electrical systems.

Overall, the concept of potential difference is fundamental to the understanding, analysis, and application of electricity in various fields, including electronics, power systems, telecommunications, and many other areas of technology and engineering.

How is a potential difference created?

There are many ways to create a potential difference.

Let us start with a relatively newer and a little more fascinating technology known as solar power. Solar voltage/ potential differences generated by the solar cells or photovoltaic cells. The method of creation of potential difference is as:

  • The sunlight energizes the electrons of a silicon atom.
  • This energy can be used by the electrons to either move up to a higher energy level shell or just leave the atom and flow in the metal. In both cases, the energy of these electrons (potential) is increased.
  • The potential of the energized electron is more than the other electrons. So, the potential difference is created

Another way to create the potential difference is by using a cell or a battery. A cell is a singular item while a battery may consist of multiple cells.

The chemical reaction happening inside the cell creates the potential difference at the terminals of that cell.

Certain types of materials such as silk, wool wax, hair with a comb, and others, when rubbed with each other, create a potential difference.

When we rub two such bodies against each other the energy used in rubbing the objects energizes the objects.

This increases the potential of the objects. So, the other objects have a lower potential which creates a potential difference.

Unit of measurement

  As we know work can be measured in joules and the charge in coulomb. Therefore, the unit can be determined as Joules per Coulomb. And we also know that Joule per coulomb is the unit of Volt. So another unit of electric potential is a volt.

What is Volt? The electric potential will be one volt if One joule of work is done for charging a body for one coulomb.

In the above topic, we discussed EP for one point. Now let’s discuss it in two points. When we discuss two points we call it potential difference. And can be defined as the amount of work required to bring one unit of positive charge from one point to another point.

When a body is charged, the two positively charged can attract each other. Similarly, if the bodies are charged with a similar charge it will repulse each other.

When we connect two electrically charged bodies via an electrical conductor, the current flows. The current flows from high potential to Low Potential. And depending upon the resistance of the conductor and the potential difference between it.

Potential difference Formula in AC & DC circuits

DC and AC circuits consist of a power source, electrical conductor, and load. The power source in DC circuits is either a DC generator or a battery. In AC circuits the power source is the AC generator (As we all know the AC power can’t be stored for later usage).

The main difference between DC and AC loads is the power factor. It is always unity in DC loads while in AC loads power factor should be taken into account.

Voltage formula For DC circuits:

From Ohm’s law VDC = P / I


  • I is current in Amp.
  • P is power in Watt.
  • V is the potential difference in Volt.

Voltage formula For AC circuits:

  • For AC single-phase circuits: VAC-1ø = P / (I*PF).


  1. V is the voltage (potential difference)
  2. P is the power
  3. PF is a power factor
  • For AC three-phase circuits VAC-3ø = P / (√3*I*PF).

Measurements in Circuits

Using a voltmeter we measure the voltage between any two points of the electrical circuits. The voltmeter is connected in parallel as in the below circuit image.

Potential difference measurement
Potential difference measurement

Important safety note: When using any Avometer to measure voltage make sure that the voltage range of the device is suitable for the circuit voltage.

If the circuit voltage is higher than that of the measurement device this will cause device damage and may cause human injuries.

Example of electric potential calculation

Assume we have an electrical AC circuit. In this circuit, we have a power source of voltage V, a single-phase induction motor of 10 KW, a current of 53.4A, and a power factor of 0.85 Calculate the voltage of the circuit.


using the formula of 1-phase voltage VAC-1ø = P / (I*PF)

V = 10000 / (53.4 * 0.85) = 220 V

Now if the same example is for a three-phase induction motor with a current of 16.9A, then, VAC-3ø = P / (√3*I*PF)

V = 10000/ (1.73*16.9*0.85) = 400V

Which one kills, Voltage (electric potential) or current?

Both voltage and current can be lethal under certain conditions. However, the specific effects of voltage and current on the human body are different.

Voltage, which is the potential difference in electric charge between two points, is often considered the driving force behind electric current. High voltage can cause an electric current to flow through the body, potentially leading to electric shock. In some cases, high-voltage electric shocks can cause severe burns, cardiac arrest, and even death.

On the other hand, the amount of current flowing through the body is also a crucial factor in determining the extent of the damage. Current is the flow of electric charge per unit of time, and it is the actual flow of electrons through a conductor.

Even low levels of current can disrupt the normal functioning of the body’s electrical systems, including the heart and nervous system. Ventricular fibrillation, muscle contractions, and tissue burns are some of the potential consequences of electric current passing through the body.

In summary, both voltage and current can be dangerous and potentially lethal. The specific effects depend on various factors, including the duration of exposure, the pathway of the current through the body, the current’s frequency, and the overall health of the individual. It is crucial to handle electricity with caution and to follow safety guidelines to prevent accidents and injuries.

What is the difference between Voltage and Potential difference?

Voltage and potential difference are closely related concepts in the field of electromagnetism, but they have some subtle differences.

  1. Voltage: Voltage is a specific term often used in practical applications, especially in the context of electrical circuits and power systems. It refers to the potential difference between two points in an electrical circuit. It is essentially the electric potential difference between two points, typically measured in volts (V). In simpler terms, voltage is the “pressure” or “force” that drives electric current through a circuit.

  2. Potential Difference: Potential difference is a broader term that encompasses the concept of voltage. It refers to the difference in electric potential between two points in an electric field. This difference can be calculated at any two points in the field, not necessarily just in the context of an electrical circuit. Potential difference is also measured in volts.

In summary, the main difference lies in their usage. Voltage is commonly used in the context of electrical circuits and systems, while potential difference is a more general term used in the broader study of electric fields. However, both terms are often used interchangeably in many contexts, and the distinction between them can sometimes be subtle.

Why is electric potential always positive?

In the context of a point charge in an electric field, electric potential is indeed always positive. This is a result of the definition of electric potential, which is the amount of work done to bring a unit positive charge from an infinitely far away reference point to a specific point in the electric field.

The work done is always positive because the force and the displacement are in the same direction, in accordance with the definition of work in physics. Thus, the electric potential at any point is always positive with respect to the reference point.

However, when dealing with a system of charges, the electric potential at a point can be positive or negative depending on the location of the point relative to the charges. The sign of the potential at a point signifies the direction of the force that a positive test charge would experience if placed at that point. If the force is attractive, the potential is negative, and if the force is repulsive, the potential is positive.

In summary, electric potential is always positive in the context of the specific definition, but when considering systems of charges, it can be positive or negative depending on the relative positions of the charges.

Why electric potential of Earth is taken as zero?

In the context of electrical circuits and calculations involving electrical potential, the Earth is often chosen as a reference point, and its electric potential is considered to be zero. This is done for practical convenience and simplification of calculations, and it is known as the choice of an arbitrary reference point.

Taking the electric potential of the Earth as zero provides a convenient reference point for understanding and analyzing electrical systems, especially in the case of grounded systems. By establishing the Earth as the reference point, it becomes easier to measure and compare the electric potentials of various points in a system.

In this context, the choice of the Earth as the reference point simplifies calculations and allows for a straightforward understanding of the behavior of electrical potentials within a system.

This practice is common in electrical engineering and is based on the practicality of establishing a standardized reference point for electrical measurements and analyses.

the potential difference in parallel and series combinations

In electrical circuits, the arrangement of components can significantly impact the potential difference across them. Understanding how potential differences behave in series and parallel combinations is essential for analyzing and designing complex circuits. Here’s how the potential difference varies in these configurations:

  1. Series Combination:

    • In a series circuit, components are connected sequentially, and the same current flows through each component. The total potential difference across the series is the sum of the individual potential differences.
    • So, if you have resistors R1, R2, and R3 in series with potential differences V1, V2, and V3 respectively, the total potential difference Vtotal is the sum of the individual potential differences: Vtotal=V1+V2+V3
  2. Parallel Combination:

    • In a parallel circuit, components are connected across the same two points, and the potential difference across each component is the same.
    • For resistors R1, R2, and R3 in parallel with potential differences V1, V2, and V3 respectively, the potential difference across each resistor is the same as the total potential difference across the combination: Vtotal=V1=V2=V3

In both configurations, the total potential difference across the combination depends on the specific arrangement of the components and the circuit layout. Understanding the potential differences is crucial for analyzing the behavior of circuits, calculating power dissipation, and ensuring that components operate within their specified voltage limits.

What is the relationship between current and potential differences?

The relationship between current and potential difference (voltage) is described by Ohm’s law, which applies to many conductive materials and components under certain conditions. Ohm’s law states that the current through a conductor between two points is directly proportional to the voltage across the two points, and the proportionality constant is the resistance of the conductor. Mathematically, Ohm’s law can be expressed as:



  • is the potential difference (voltage) across the two points,
  • is the current flowing through the conductor, and
  • is the resistance of the conductor.

According to Ohm’s law, for a given material and temperature, if the potential difference (voltage) across a conductor increases, the current flowing through the conductor will also increase, provided the resistance remains constant. Conversely, if the potential difference decreases, the current will decrease proportionally, assuming the resistance stays the same.

It’s important to note that Ohm’s law is applicable to conductors that have a constant resistance over the range of applied voltages and currents.

In some materials, the relationship between current and potential differences may not strictly follow Ohm’s law due to non-linear behavior or other complex phenomena, as observed in semiconductor devices, diodes, and other specialized components.

How the potential difference can be increased in a circuit?

The potential difference across a circuit can be increased through various methods and techniques, depending on the specific requirements and constraints of the circuit. Some common ways to increase the potential difference include:

  1. Using a Power Source with Higher Voltage: One of the most straightforward methods is to use a power source with a higher voltage rating. By connecting a higher voltage battery or power supply to the circuit, the potential difference across the circuit can be increased.

  2. Using Step-up Transformers: In some cases, where alternating current (AC) is involved, step-up transformers can be used to increase the voltage of the AC supply. This method is commonly employed in power transmission systems to increase the voltage for efficient long-distance power transmission.

  3. Series Connection of Batteries: Connecting batteries in series increases the overall potential difference across the circuit. By connecting the positive terminal of one battery to the negative terminal of another, the voltages of the batteries add up, leading to a higher overall potential difference across the circuit.

  4. Using Voltage Multipliers: Voltage multipliers, such as Cockcroft-Walton voltage multipliers or voltage doubler circuits, can be employed to increase the potential difference. These circuits use diodes and capacitors to generate a DC output voltage that is a multiple of the peak input voltage.

  5. Using Voltage Boosting Circuits: Various electronic circuits, such as boost converters, charge pumps, and voltage regulators, can be utilized to increase the potential difference in specific applications. These circuits are commonly used in electronic devices and systems where stable and regulated higher voltages are required.

It is crucial to ensure that the components and materials in the circuit can handle the increased potential difference without damage or failure. Additionally, safety considerations must be taken into account, especially when working with high voltages, to prevent electrical hazards or damage to equipment.

How does temperature affect the potential difference?

Temperature can influence the potential difference in various ways, depending on the specific context, materials involved, and the nature of the system. Here are some ways in which temperature can affect potential differences:

  1. Thermoelectric Effects: In certain materials, a temperature gradient can lead to a potential difference. This phenomenon, known as the Seebeck effect, is the basis of thermocouples, which are devices used to measure temperature differences.

  2. Electrolyte Conductivity: In electrochemical cells or systems involving electrolytes, the conductivity of the electrolyte can be affected by temperature. Changes in conductivity can impact the potential difference across the electrodes.

  3. Semiconductor Behavior: In semiconductor devices, the behavior of the material can be influenced by temperature. Changes in temperature can affect the energy levels of electrons and holes, altering the potential difference across the semiconductor junctions.

  4. Resistance Changes: In electrical circuits, the resistance of conductors can be temperature-dependent. As temperature changes, the resistance of the conductors can also change, leading to variations in the potential difference across the circuit components.

  5. Thermal Expansion: Temperature changes can cause thermal expansion or contraction of materials, which can affect the physical dimensions of components in electrical systems. Such changes can, in turn, affect the potential difference across these components.

It is important to note that the specific impact of temperature on potential difference can vary widely depending on the materials, the specific setup, and the environmental conditions.

Engineers and scientists must consider temperature effects in their designs and calculations to ensure the proper functioning and reliability of electrical systems, especially in situations where precise measurements or stable performance are critical.


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