I have built a capacitor for a biology experiment, but I need to measure the potential gradient between the plates. Mainly I am going to apply an AC current between the capacitor plates to have an oscillating electric field, but I would also like to be able to measure the potential gradient given a DC current/constant electric field.

I am wondering: How do I probe the potential gradient?

Obviously, I need to put a piece of metal in the air between the capacitors, but I am wondering how I would connect it.

  • Do I put a solenoid between the capacitor and measure the current?

  • Do I place a small metal plate, have it attached to true ground and measure the voltage?

  • Do I have the plate hovering between the capacitors connected to one of the capacitor plates, and measure the voltage?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Typically you'd model it, not measure it. What's the source of your uncertainty about what you would find? That would need to be taken into account in practical measurements, too. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 5:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton Between the capacitors are growing cells, so having a record of the potential field through the dish gives us insight on their growth and can show us variation in the E field between the places because there is a lot of material. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tsangares
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 5:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ What's between the cells and the plates? Air? Water? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 5:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton agar, cells, plastic, air, and small amounts of water \$\endgroup\$
    – Tsangares
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 5:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ChrisStratton Any suggestion on simply how to measure the potential gradient between a capacitor? I just cant seem to figure out how \$\endgroup\$
    – Tsangares
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 5:42

2 Answers 2


Or maybe do I place a small metal plate, have it attached to true ground and measure the voltage?

That's somewhat close. Remember that all voltages are relative, so there is no "true ground" so to speak. Make the measurement relative to one of the capacitor plates.

You can buy an electrostatic field meter to measure the field gradient between the plates.

Another option, if you want to build a setup yourself is to place a metal probe between the plates and measure the voltage between the probe and one of the capacitor plates.

  1. An ordinary volt meter is going to draw a few nano-amps to do the measurement. Over time the measurement current is going to charge your probe to a different voltage. Therefore you need a way to connect the volt meter and make a measurement quickly before the voltage drifts.
  2. To extend the measurement time, the probe should have some capacitance relative to the plate. The easy way to achieve this is to attach it to one of the plates through a low leakage capacitor. Probably a plastic film type.
  3. You need a way to connect and disconnect the probe without touching it because the mere act of touching the probe may change its voltage level.
  4. The whole probe must be electrically isolated except for at the measurement point. Possibly coated in rubber or some other good insulator.
  5. With the probe relay open the tip must remain in the field for along time until the probe charges up.
  6. Close the relay and make the measurement before the reading drifts.
  7. You may consider buffering the measurement with an ultra low leakage op amp such as...

I have built a capacitor for a biology experiment, but I need to measure the potential gradient between the plates.

The potential gradient will vary depending upon the things between the plates. In commercial capacitors, the material between the plates is uniform, such as ceramic, mica, a think layer of some oxide etc. However, if the material between the plates is not uniform, the electric field will not be uniform.

For example, if you have a plant between the plates, and you put a device to measure the electric field in the air between the plates, what you are measuring will not be the same as what the plant "experiences". This is because the plant's dialetric constant and electrical resistance differs from the air's. (A dialectric constant refers to how "easily" an electric field passes through a material).

You will encounter the same problem if you have micro-organisms on a drop of water on a slide. The slide and the water will may have different electrical properties from that surrounding your measuring device, although in this case.

With some ingenuity, it may be possible to make the environment of your measuring device similar to that "experienced" by your biological specimen. However, without some thought about this, your readings will likely be wrong.

As for what you can use to measure the the electric field, the answer depends upon whether the field is static or fluctuating. You can sense a fluctuating electric field with another capacitor, i.e. two conductive plates, attached by leads to some measurement device. Static electric fields are more difficult to measure. The classic way is for large electric fields. Large electric fields cause like charged fields to repel. For example your hair standing on end. I don't know of any small instruments or devices that will measure small static electric fields. That doesn't mean there aren't some, and the world has made some pretty small devices lately. It just means I am ignorant of them, and you may get help from other sources.

One work around is to measure the field as you set it up, and assume it remains relatively constant if the voltage between the plates remains constant. That is, sense the change in a capacitor as the voltage across your experimental plates is raised from 0V to your experimental voltage. You will temporarily get a voltage spike across your sense capacitor which you can measure at the time. Or you can measure the current generated by the capacitor as you raise your experimental value and integrate this current over time.


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