Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Quantization of Charge

Proving that atoms actually existed was a big accomplishment, but demonstrating their existence was different from understanding their properties. Note that the Brown-Einstein observations had nothing at all to do with electricity, and yet we know that matter is inherently electrical, and we have been successful in interpreting certain electrical phenomena in terms of mobile positively and negatively charged particles. Are these particles atoms? Parts of atoms? Particles that are entirely separate from atoms? It is perhaps premature to attempt to answer these questions without any conclusive evidence in favor of the charged-particle model of electricity.

Strong support for the charged-particle model came from a 1911 experiment by physicist Robert Millikan at the University of Chicago. Consider a jet of droplets of perfume or some other liquid made by blowing it through a tiny pinhole. The droplets emerging from the pinhole must be smaller than the pinhole, and in fact most of them are even more microscopic than that, since the turbulent flow of air tends to break them up. Millikan reasoned that the droplets would acquire a little bit of electric charge as they rubbed against the channel through which they emerged, and if the charged-particle model of electricity was right, the charge might be split up among so many minuscule liquid drops that a single drop might have a total charge amounting to an excess of only a few charged particles - perhaps an excess of one positive particle on a certain drop, or an excess of two negative ones on another.

A simplified diagram of Millikan's apparatus.

Millikan's ingenious apparatus, shown in the figure, consisted of two metal plates, which could be electrically charged as needed. He sprayed a cloud of oil droplets into the space between the plates, and selected one drop through a microscope for study. First, with no charge on the plates, he would determine the drop's mass by letting it fall through the air and measuring its terminal velocity, i.e. the velocity at which the force of air friction canceled out the force of gravity. The force of air drag on a slowly moving sphere was known to be bvr2, where b was a constant. Setting the total force equal to zero when the drop is at terminal velocity gives

bvr2 - mg =0 ,

and setting the known density of oil equal to the drop's mass divided by its volume gives a second equation,

Everything in these equations can be measured directly except for m and r, so these are two equations in two unknowns, which can be solved in order to determine how big the drop is.

Next Millikan charged the metal plates, adjusting the amount of charge so as to exactly counteract gravity and levitate the drop. If, for instance, the drop being examined happened to have a total charge that was negative, then positive charge put on the top plate would attract it, pulling it up, and negative charge on the bottom plate would repel it, pushing it up. (Theoretically only one plate would be necessary, but in practice a two-plate arrangement like this gave electrical forces that were more uniform in strength throughout the space where the oil drops were.) The amount of charge on the plates required to levitate the charged drop gave Millikan a handle on the amount of charge the drop carried. The more charge the drop had, the stronger the electrical forces on it would be, and the less charge would have to be put on the plates to do the trick. Unfortunately, expressing this relationship using Coulomb's law would have been impractical, because it would require a perfect knowledge of how the charge was distributed on each plate, plus the ability to perform vector addition of all the forces being exerted on the drop by all the charges on the plate. Instead, Millikan made use of the fact that the electrical force experienced by a pointlike charged object at a certain point in space is proportional to its charge,

With a given amount of charge on the plates, this constant could be determined for instance by discarding the oil drop, inserting between the plates a larger and more easily handled object with a known charge on it, and measuring the force with conventional methods. (Millikan actually used a slightly different set of techniques for determining the constant, but the concept is the same.) The amount of force on the actual oil drop had to equal mg, since it was just enough to levitate it, and once the calibration constant had been determined, the charge of the drop could then be found based on its previously determined mass.

The table above shows a few of the results from Millikan's 1911 paper. (Millikan took data on both negatively and positively charged drops, but in his paper he gave only a sample of his data on negatively charged drops, so these numbers are all negative.) Even a quick look at the data leads to the suspicion that the charges are not simply a series of random numbers. For instance, the second charge is almost exactly equal to half the first one. Millikan explained the observed charges as all being integer multiples of a single number, 1.64x10-19 C. In the second column, dividing by this constant gives numbers that are essentially integers, allowing for the random errors present in the experiment. Millikan states in his paper that these results were a

...direct and tangible demonstration...of the correctness of the view advanced many years ago and supported by evidence from many sources that all electrical charges, however produced, are exact multiples of one definite, elementary electrical charge, or in other words, that an electrical charge instead of being spread uniformly over the charged surface has a definite granular structure, consisting, in fact, of ... specks, or atoms of electricity, all precisely alike, peppered over the surface of the charged body.

Last Update: 2009-06-21