Voltage/Potential Difference
Electricity and Magnetism

Hill diagram as a model for potential difference

Teaching Guidance for 14-16 PRACTICAL PHYISCS

Scientists often speak of a coulomb ‘falling through so many volts' and 'transferring so much energy;. That is rather like a 1 kilogram rock falling through so many metres. More energy stored gravitationally is then kinetically if the rock falls down the side of a 100 metre cliff than if it falls only 10 metres.

In a similar way a 1 coulomb charge transfers more energy if it falls through an electrical potential difference of 100 volts than if it falls through 10 volts.

The rock falls through a gravitational potential difference and the charge falls through an electrical potential difference.

You can draw a hill diagram showing how the battery 'pushes a coulomb of charge up' so that it can then run down the various hills to the bottom on its way round the circuit. The coulomb does not really have joules like bottles in a rucksack. The coulomb is pushed by electric forces generated by the battery. Those forces grip it wherever it is in the circuit and drive it on round. Energy stored chemically is transferred to the components.

You might picture a 6 volt battery giving 6 joules to every coulomb with instructions ‘remember to spend all this energy on your way round the circuit and then you will get another load of 6 joules for the next round’.

In a way the battery is like a moving ramp such as the machine used to raise gravel to the top of the tower for sorting it, or like an escalator for people. It raises electric charge, measured in coulombs, uphill to a higher level of electrical potential. Then as the electric charge travels round the rest of the circuit it is running downhill, warming up the filament of the lamp as it makes collisions of some kind in the filament. The connecting wires are assumed to have almost no resistance and so the coulomb just rolls along without transferring any energy.

Limit Less Campaign

Support our manifesto for change

The IOP wants to support young people to fulfil their potential by doing physics. Please sign the manifesto today so that we can show our politicians there is widespread support for improving equity and inclusion across the education sector.

Sign today