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Potential vs. Voltage

  1. Oct 5, 2005 #1
    Can someone explain to me what the difference between a potential and a voltage are. My understanding as of now is that a potential occurs when two elements of different charge density are compared but not connected to each other. Therefore the potential indicates the possible voltage that may occur if the two elements were to be connected to complete a circuit. I'm sure it is flawed, thanks for the help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2005 #2
    To my knowledge, voltage and potential are the same thing (but voltage is specifically about electric potential, at least in usual parlance if not always).
  4. Oct 5, 2005 #3
    voltage is either the electromotive force or the potential difference. Electrical potential energy is simply something used to explain cases like.....a positive charge when attracted to a negative charge gains kinetic energy (as it accelerates towards the negative charge), where did that energy come from?

    Like different points on the Earth, say, your house and the nearby mountain. Your house (assuming it is at sea level) has a lower gravitational potential than the tip of the nearby mountain (a unit mass has less grav. potential energy in your house than on the mountaintop). A ball can only drop from your mountain to your house because of the difference in height.

    More specifically, the ball drops due to the difference in gravitational potential.

    Similarly, charges in circuits flow (like the ball dropping) due to potential Difference and not potential itself.
  5. Oct 7, 2005 #4
    Electrically speaking, potential and voltage are the same. The only difference is the way each "term" is used to discribe a given scenerio. When you talk about voltage, you're generally talking about doing work with it. When you talk about potential, you're generally talking about relating one reference to another.
    One example using potential would be talking about two systems that are seperately grounded. Grounded, by definition, means this is the zero point of reference in your system. Sometimes, if you take a voltage reading between two seperately grounded systems, you'll find that you have some "potential" between them. This is the correct way to use the term "potential".
  6. Oct 7, 2005 #5


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    NO! MetallicBeing listens to sloppy speakers ...
    after making sloppy ground connections, they SHOULD

    Electrically speaking, Electric Potential and Voltage
    are measured in the same units ... but not the same.
    Temperature and Temperature difference are both
    measured in Kelvin, but I would say they are different.

    If two subtracted quantities are not different than
    either quantity, why do they it a DIFFERENCE?
  7. Oct 8, 2005 #6

    Chill out man, it's not the end of the universe. You're right. "Potential DIFFERENCE (relative)" isn't the same as "Potential (absolute)"; just like "Temperature DIFFERENCE (relative)" isn't like "Temperature (absolute)".

    I was using "potential" in the "absolute" context in my sentence (was I not?) even though the measurement itself, implies a difference between the two "sloppy" grounds. I was merely saying that there was a "potential" between them.

    You're playing semantics. The poor guy just wanted to know how he should view diferrences between "Potential" and "Voltage". What he said in his opening statement is essentially right. He just needs to be able to view each term in its correct context.
  8. Oct 14, 2009 #7
    To Metallicbeing and to Quasi426,

    Metallicbeing, I agree with you 100%. And the following contains additional information that others might find useful. In the first few paragraphs, I have used your words and I have applied a few grammatical changes to present our ideas in third person, to correct a couple misspellings, and to expand on your ideas.

    Quasi, see my responses to you at the end.

    Electrically speaking, potential and voltage are the same. The only difference is the way each "term" is used to describe a given scenario.

    When one speaks about voltage, one is generally referring to doing work with the Value (ie., modifying the circuit, presenting a load, measuring the voltage for meaningful calculations to be considered, or to check the results of calculations or modifications made to the circuit, etc.).

    However, when one speaks about potential, one is generally speaking about relating one reference to another.

    An example for using the word "potential" would be to speak about two systems that are separately grounded.

    "Grounded", by definition, means that the system has a zero point of reference.

    Yes. And there are different types of zero references. Earth-grounding is used in most cases to provide a safe shunt-to-earth ground for currents that have "strayed" out of their normal operating scenarios. Supposedly, if the massive chassis of an electromotor or turbine-powered generator becomes energized because of an internal fault, the massive grounding straps will shunt the current to earth so that humans or other machines in the area do not become conductors to ground.
    The "Earth-ground" conductor, to which the Neutral conductor is connected, has also the possibility of conducting part of the current returning from the load.
    But there are also "Ground-planes" that have nothing to do with Earth-ground. These Ground-planes provide local power supplies and components of a particular system or PCB (printed circuit board) its own point of reference. Many times, these Ground-planes will have significant differences in potential compared to Earth-ground or even compared to other system's ground planes. It is best to leave such Ground-planes floating and its associated system totally isolated.

    Sometimes, if one takes a voltage reading between two separately grounded systems, one will find that there is some "potential" between them. This is the correct way to use the term "potential".

    Yes. Now, if one wishes to somehow make some kind of inter-connection between the two systems, simply determining that a potential exists is NOT the end of the story. If the potential exists between the two Zero-point references, care must be taken to consider the effects of connecting the two together, especially if the two systems are powered by different PHASES.
    Other considerations:
    Is the potential difference the result of some cross-talk from the phase line? Or from some other "leakage" from other in-system component. Does the potential contain some AC characteristic like 50/60 Hz, or does it contain a characteristic from RF radiation, such as a microwave antenna or radio station in the area? Generally, such AC problems can and should be corrected using decoupling capacitors of appropriate values and sufficient numbers to reduce the AC component to within reasonable or workable limits. Now, I know what you are thinking. We were first talking about DC, not AC potentials.

    DC potentials can also exist between two separate systems for some very similar reasons. In-system components can influence the local Zero-reference. The reason you can measure a potential (or voltage difference) between the two systems' Zero-reference is that there may be a great distance(electrically) between the two "ground planes", or the Neutral conductor may be insufficient in size(diameter) to eliminate the difference. Even the copper- Neutral conductor and Earth-ground conductor present "some" resistance to current flow. (Remember what happens to your power saw when you power it using a 50 meter power cord? It runs slower because the cord itself is "dropping" some of the voltage.)

    Additionally, if a connection is to be made between TWO SEPARATELY GROUNDED BUILDINGS, consider that there could be some difference in the way the buildings are themselves grounded. Could there also be a difference in the materials used to build the foundations that could be creating some kind of dis-similar materials reaction with the earth itself. Could there be different types of ground-rods used? (Copper-rod?, copper-plated?, copper pipes?, iron pipes?, steel pipes?, aluminum?, Insulating materials used somewhere in the pipe or conductor train to earth-ground?, improper binding, hence a resistance?, dissimilar metals used in the grounding circuit, hence a voltage potential created?.) Might one foundation grounding be saturated with water, and the other high and dry, virtually insulated and "floating"? It's all connected somehow, and altogether, there could be numerous combinations of little µVoltages running throughout. True, Building and Electrical Codes exist to standardize this, but... we are speaking about Reality.).

    Yes, one could simply connect the two "ground-planes" together with a conductor large enough or short enough to present virtually no resistance. But take care. What effect will there be to the power supplies or to the delicate semiconductor circuits of a system if the Zero reference is suddenly raised or lowered by an arbitrary 0.5 Volt or 2.3 Volts compared to its input phase or compared to its ability to relate to the signals received from yet a third system. This potential must be considered, measured and the direction of current flow determined. By eliminating the resistance previously existing in the Neutral conductor, you are now introducing to each system the full effect of the voltage difference, basically adding a battery or two between them. Current will flow.

    But, better that this current flows in the Neutral conductor than through your data lines. (Data lines should be isolated anyway by use of isolation transformers, or optoelectronics.)

    To Quasi426, who had begun this string. I understand your frustration over this question. This discussion has occurred more than once at our BerufsSchule (Trade School). You had written:

    "Can someone explain to me what the difference between a potential and a voltage are. My understanding as of now is that a potential occurs when two elements of different charge density are compared but not connected to each other. Therefore the potential indicates the possible voltage that may occur if the two elements were to be connected to complete a circuit. I'm sure it is flawed, thanks for the help."

    I agree with your original understanding in general except for a one word. Where you had written, "Therefore the potential indicates the possible "voltage" that may occur if the two elements were to be connected....". I respond, that you probably meant to say that, "potential indicates the possibility that "current" would occur if the two were connected. If the voltage difference (the potential) exists, then, absolutely yes, ...if the two are connected, current will definitely flow. Voltage does not flow; current flows. Voltage exists, or lies on ..., or is applied to.... Current flows through...

    Also, "Charge Density" is yet another subject for discussion we need not get into for the purpose of the discussion of "potential vs. voltage". Suffice it to say, if you have a difference in potentials(which is also referred to as "potential"), then it can be measured in units of Voltage, and there is the certainty for current flow if the two are connected with any conductance having any resistance less than Infinity.
  9. Oct 16, 2009 #8


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    It may be worth mentioning that Electric Potential (or gravitational) is, strictly, defined as the energy needed to take a unit charge (or unit mass, in the other case) from infinity to the point you are dealing with.
    The reason for taking infinity as your reference point is that you have to choose somewhere and if you choose zero distance, it introduces problems when you do
    1/r1 - 1/r2.
    You can have an object at any potential but yo can't use the energy unless the charge / mass goes to another potential.
  10. Oct 16, 2009 #9


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    I think that the descriptions here are reasonably correct, but a little overcomplicated. Here is how I think of potential and voltage:

    If you have any conservative force then the force can be described as the gradient of some scalar-valued function. This scalar-valued function is called the "potential". This defines the potential for arbitrary conservative forces. The electrostatic force is a conservative force and therefore it has a potential which is called "voltage".

    All of the above discussion about differences is due to the fact that if you have two scalar valued functions that are the same except for a constant offset between the two then their gradients will be the same. So the potential is only defined up to a constant and only potential differences have any physical significance.
    Last edited: Oct 16, 2009
  11. Oct 16, 2009 #10


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    Voltage is Potential Difference, surely?
    You have to connect both ends of your meter and you can't be sure that the potential of 'Earth' is actually zero. Did you count all the spare electrons on the Earth before you did the measurement of Volts?
  12. Oct 16, 2009 #11


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    Sound-bite :wink:

    electric potential is potential energy per charge​

    … and since potential energy is just another name for work done (by a conservative field), that also makes it electric field "dot" displacement per charge …

    which is voltage! :smile:
  13. Oct 16, 2009 #12
    voltage or volts is one unit of measure of electrostatic potential....

    Wikiepdia has a decent discussion with some basic math relationships....


    for most uses voltage is a measure of potential...and both measure differences rather than absolutes....in a fields and waves class for example you might be asked to determine the electrostic potential (formula) for a given charge distribution....thats not the terminology typically used in a circuit with batteries, resistors,etc...where voltage and current (amps) is the conventional terminology...
  14. Oct 16, 2009 #13


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    Both have the same units (JC-1, of course) but, if they weren't distinct quantities, why have a term 'potential difference'?
    The only realistic reference for electric potential must be 'infinity', surely.
  15. Oct 16, 2009 #14


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    You can arbitrarily define any point you want to be your zero reference.
  16. Oct 16, 2009 #15
    I think that there is no difference whatever between "potental" and "voltage". You can call it different names in different contexts if you want but that's up to you, if a voltage can be measured between two points there is potential between then, whether current is flowing or not.
    You can call it e.m.f. too, and other namesbut we're still talking about voltage = electrical pressure = emf = potential.
    (The voltage which exists in the term voltage is not voltage at all, the true voltage bites you when you mis-handle it.)
  17. Oct 16, 2009 #16
    Even "potential" without the word "difference" is really a potential difference, because then the reference is taken either at infinity or a ground. The potential at a point is the work per unit charge that is done to move a positive test charge from the reference point to the given point. The {potential difference between point A and B} is the difference {the potential difference between point A and the reference point} minus {the potential difference between point B and the reference point}.
  18. Oct 16, 2009 #17
    no, but that's how we define potential energy, like gravitational potential. I think it's convention lot's more than a "right" or "wrong"....
  19. Oct 16, 2009 #18


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    Another point here being that you can have systems where the potential is divergent, making the potential at infinity infinite.
  20. Oct 16, 2009 #19
    Electrical potential is measured in volts.

    'Voltage' is the common term for electrical potential; two syllables are shorter than seven.

    As far as we know, a unique zero of electrical potential does not exists; the laws of physics are unchanged when all electrical potentials in a system are replace with a value offset by a constant. Electrical potential is said to be globally gauge invariance.
  21. Oct 17, 2009 #20


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    I don't what the disagreement is about. My definition of potential merely comes from textbooks and I can see why that is the definition which is used.
    Infinity is the only realistic reference for good practical reasons.

    Of course we all use terms in a sloppy way but when asked for a definition I would try to provide the most bomb-proof one I can think of. In pretty well every situation I can thinmk of 'voltage' is synonymous with 'potential difference' because it is a complete description of the situation. A birdie on a power line is not concerned with his absolute electric potential. He is just happy that thaPD between his feet is a few pV.
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