The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Conservation of Charge

When we worked out Ampères law in the case of magnetostatics, we used a certain identity:

\displaystyle\nabla\cdot J+\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}=0

which we often write as

\displaystyle\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}=-\nabla\cdot J

That is, the rate at which the charge at a point is increasing is the negative of the divergence of the current at that point, which measures how much current is “flowing out” from that point. This may be clearer if we integrate this equation over some macroscopic region V:

\displaystyle\begin{aligned}\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\int\limits_V\rho\,dV&=\int\limits_V\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\rho\,dV\\&=\int\limits_V-\nabla\cdot J\,dV\\&=-\int\limits_{\partial V}J\,dA\\&=\int\limits_{-\partial V}J\,dA\end{aligned}

The rate of change of the total amount of the charge within V is equal to the amount of current flowing inwards across the boundary of V, so this flow of current is the only way that the charge in a region can change. This is another physical law, borne out by experiment, and we take it as another axiom.

But we might note something interesting if we couple this with Gauss’ law:

\displaystyle0=\nabla\cdot J+\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}=\nabla\cdot J+\epsilon_0\frac{\partial}{\partial t}(\nabla\cdot E)

Or, to put it slightly differently:

\displaystyle\nabla\cdot\left(J+\epsilon_0\frac{\partial E}{\partial t}\right)=0

Recall that in deriving Ampère’s law we had to assume that J was divergence-free; when things are not static, the above equation shows that the composite quantity

\displaystyle J+\epsilon_0\frac{\partial E}{\partial t}

is always divergence-free. The derivative term isn’t associated with any electric charge moving around, and yet it still behaves like a current for all intents and purposes. We call it the “displacement current”, and we add it into Ampère’s law to see how things work without the magnetostatic assumption:

\displaystyle\nabla\times B=\mu_0J+\epsilon_0\mu_0\frac{\partial E}{\partial t}

This additional term is known as Maxwell’s correction to Ampère’s law.

February 1, 2012 - Posted by | Electromagnetism, Mathematical Physics


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