Displacement Current

One of Maxwell’s equations, Ampere’s circuit law, tells us that there are two sources of magnetic fields: conduction currents and displacement currents. Conduction current is very familiar to most people: it is flow of electrons through a conductor due to an applied electric field. The electrons hop from atom to atom within the conductor and rate at which this happens is termed displacement current.

The differential form of the equation also shows another source of magnetic field: displacement current. For a static field (not time varying/DC), there is no displacement current and the Ampere equation is


However for time varying fields, the right hand side contains an extra term, which is displacement current density.


“J” is the conduction current density which is equivalent to conductivity multiplied to E field (also known as Ohm’s Law in point form). Taking the surface integral of the second term on the right hand side yields displacement current.

The important distinction here is that displacement current is not due to the flow of electrons directly, but rather a time varying electric field. A common example is that of a capacitor with an AC voltage source applied to the device. While there is no conduction current flowing through the dielectric which separates the plates, there is still a current through the capacitor (displacement current) .


The following image shows two surfaces about a capacitor with an AC voltage applied. If Ampere’s law is applied to surface one, the right hand side is equal to the conduction current flowing in the wire. However, if the law is applied to surface two it demonstrates that no conduction flows through the capacitor. The same closed path is used in the integration (L) and therefore the right hand side cannot be zero. This means a new term for displacement current must be inserted to satisfy the equation. This is demonstrated in the equation below the figure.



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