Lorentz force

From Citizendium, the Citizens' Compendium
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and not meant to be cited; by editing it you can help to improve it towards a future approved, citable version. These unapproved articles are subject to a disclaimer.

In physics, the Lorentz force is the force on an electrically charged particle that moves through a magnetic plus an electric field.

The Lorentz force has two vector components, one proportional to the magnetic field and one proportional to the electric field. These components must be added vectorially to obtain the total force.

1. The strength (absolute value) of the magnetic component is proportional to four factors: the charge q of the particle, the speed v of the particle, the intensity B of the magnetic induction, and the sine of the angle between the vectors v and B. The direction of the magnetic component is given by the right hand rule: put your right hand along v with fingers pointing in the direction of v and the open palm toward the vector B. Stretch the thumb of your right hand, then the Lorentz force is along it, pointing from your wrist to the tip of your thumb.

2. The electric component of the Lorentz force is equal to qE (charge of the particle times the electric field).

The force is named after the Dutch physicist Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, who gave its equation in 1892.[1]

Mathematical description

The Lorentz force F is given by the expression

where k is a constant depending on the units. In SI units k = 1; in Gaussian units k = 1/c, where c is the speed of light in vacuum (299 792 458 m s−1 exactly). The quantity q is the electric charge of the particle and v is its velocity. The vector B is the magnetic induction. The product v × B is the vector product.

As any vector field, the electric field E appearing in the Lorentz force F is the sum of a longitudinal (curl-free) component and a transverse (divergence-free) component. The following form holds when the Coulomb gauge A = 0 is chosen,

where V is a scalar (electric) potential and the (magnetic) vector potential A is connected to B via

The operator acting on V gives the gradient of V, while × A is the curl of A. Since × ( V) = 0 and A = 0, the components of E are indeed curl-free and divergence-free, respectively.

Note that the Lorentz force does not depend on the medium; the electric force does not contain the electric permittivity ε and the magnetic force does not the contain magnetic permeability μ.

If B is static (does not depend on time) then A is also static and

Non-relativistically, the electric field E may be absent (zero) while B is static and non-zero; the Lorentz force is then given by,

where k = 1 for SI units and 1/c for Gaussian units and α the angle between v and B. The italic, non-bold, quantities are the strengths (lengths) of the corresponding vectors

The Lorentz force as a vector (cross) product was given by Oliver Heaviside in 1889, three years before Lorentz.[2]

In special relativity the Lorentz force transforms as a four-vector under a Lorentz transformation. Because relativistically the fields E and B are components of the same second rank tensor, a Lorentz transformation gives a linear combination of E and B, and hence in relativity theory these two fields do not have an independent existence.[3]


  1. H. A. Lorentz, La théorie électromagnétique de Maxwell et son application aux corps mouvants [The electromagnetic theory of Maxwell and its application to moving bodies], Archives néerlandaises des Sciences exactes et naturelles, vol. 25 p. 363 (1892).
  2. E. Whittaker, A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity, vol. I, 2nd edition, Nelson, London (1951). Reprinted by the American Institute of Physics, (1987). p. 310. It is of interest to note that James Clerk Maxwell gave the expression for the Lorentz force already in his historic memoir of 1865. (J. Clerk Maxwell, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., vol. 155, pp. 459 - 512 (1865) online)
  3. J. D. Jackson, Classical Electrodynamics, John Wiley, New York, 2nd ed. (1975), p. 553