Fine Art

The physical constant ε0, commonly called the vacuum permittivity, permittivity of free space or electric constant, is an ideal, (baseline) physical constant, which is the value of the absolute dielectric permittivity of classical vacuum. Its value is

\( \varepsilon_0 \) = 8.854 187 817... × 10−12 F/m (farads per metre).

It is the capability of the vacuum to permit electric field lines. This constant relates the units for electric charge to mechanical quantities such as length and force.[1] For example, the force between two separated electric charges (in the vacuum of classical electromagnetism) is given by Coulomb's law:

\( \ F_C = \frac{1} {4 \pi \varepsilon_0} \frac{q_1 q_2} {r^2} \)

where q1 and q2 are the charges, and r is the distance between them. Likewise, ε0 appears in Maxwell's equations, which describe the properties of electric and magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation, and relate them to their sources.


The value of \( \varepsilon_0 \) is currently defined by the formula[2]

\( \varepsilon_0 =\frac {1}{\mu_0 c^2} \)

where c is the defined value for the speed of light in classical vacuum in SI units,[3] and μ0 is the parameter that international Standards Organizations call the "magnetic constant" (commonly called vacuum permeability). Since μ0 has the defined value 4π × 10−7 H⋅m−1,[4] and c has the defined value 299792458 m⋅s−1,[5] it follows that ε0 has a defined value given approximately by

ε0 ≈ 8.854187817620... × 10−12 F⋅m−1 (or A2⋅s4⋅kg−1⋅m−3 in SI base units, or C2⋅N−1⋅m−2 or C⋅−1⋅m−1 using other SI coherent units).[6][7]

The historical origins of the electric constant ε0, and its value, are explained in more detail below.

Redefinition of the SI units
Main article: New SI definitions

Under the proposals to redefine the ampere as a fixed number of elementary charges per second,[8] the electric constant would no longer have an exact fixed value. The value of the electron charge would become a defined number, not measured, making μ0 a measured quantity. Consequently, ε0 also would not be exact. As before, it would be defined by the equation ε0 = 1/(μ0c2), but now with a measurement error related to the error related to that in μ0, the magnetic constant. This measurement error can be related to that in the fine-structure constant α:

\( \varepsilon_0 = \frac {1}{\mu_0 c^2} = \frac {e^2}{2\alpha h c}\ , \)

with e the exact elementary charge, h the exact Planck constant, and c the exact speed of light in vacuum. Here use is made of the relation for the fine-structure constant:

\( \alpha=\frac {\mu_0 c e^2}{2 h } \ . \)

The relative uncertainty in the value of ε0 therefore would be the same as that for the fine-structure constant, currently 6.8×10−10.[6]


Historically, the parameter ε0 has been known by many different names. The terms "vacuum permittivity" or its variants, such as "permittivity in/of vacuum",[9][10] "permittivity of empty space",[11] or "permittivity of free space"[12] are widespread. Standards Organizations worldwide now use "electric constant" as a uniform term for this quantity,[6] and official standards documents have adopted the term (although they continue to list the older terms as synonyms).[13][14]

Another historical synonym was "dielectric constant of vacuum", as "dielectric constant" was sometimes used in the past for the absolute permittivity.[15][16] However, in modern usage "dielectric constant" typically refers exclusively to a relative permittivity ε/ε0 and even this usage is considered "obsolete" by some standards bodies in favor of relative static permittivity.[14][17] Hence, the term "dielectric constant of vacuum" for the electric constant ε0 is considered obsolete by most modern authors, although occasional examples of continuing usage can be found.

As for notation, the constant can be denoted by either \(\varepsilon_0\, \) or \(\epsilon_0\, \), using either of the common glyphs for the letter epsilon.

Historical origin of the parameter ε0

As indicated above, the parameter ε0 is a measurement-system constant. Its presence in the equations now used to define electromagnetic quantities is the result of the so-called "rationalization" process described below. But the method of allocating a value to it is a consequence of the result that Maxwell's equations predict that, in free space, electromagnetic waves move with the speed of light. Understanding why ε0 has the value it does requires a brief understanding of the history.

Rationalization of units

The experiments of Coulomb and others showed that the force F between two equal point-like "amounts" of electricity, situated a distance r apart in free space, should be given by a formula that has the form

\( F = \; k_{\mathrm{e}} \frac{Q^2}{r^2}, \)

where Q is a quantity that represents the amount of electricity present at each of the two points, and ke is Coulomb's constant. If one is starting with no constraints, then the value of ke may be chosen arbitrarily.[18] For each different choice of ke there is a different "interpretation" of Q: to avoid confusion, each different "interpretation" has to be allocated a distinctive name and symbol.

In one of the systems of equations and units agreed in the late 19th century, called the "centimetre–gram–second electrostatic system of units" (the cgs esu system), the constant ke was taken equal to 1, and a quantity now called "gaussian electric charge" qs was defined by the resulting equation

\( F = \frac{{q_{\text{s}}}^2}{r^2}. \)

The unit of gaussian charge, the statcoulomb, is such that two units, a distance of 1 centimetre apart, repel each other with a force equal to the cgs unit of force, the dyne. Thus the unit of gaussian charge can also be written 1 dyne1/2 cm. "Gaussian electric charge" is not the same mathematical quantity as modern (rmks) electric charge and is not measured in coulombs.

The idea subsequently developed that it would be better, in situations of spherical geometry, to include a factor 4π in equations like Coulomb's law, and write it in the form:

\( F = \; k'_{\mathrm{e}} \frac{{q'_{\text{s}}}^2}{4 \pi r^2}. \)

This idea is called "rationalization". The quantities qs' and ke' are not the same as those in the older convention. Putting ke'=1 generates a unit of electricity of different size, but it still has the same dimensions as the cgs esu system.

The next step was to treat the quantity representing "amount of electricity" as a fundamental quantity in its own right, denoted by the symbol q, and to write Coulomb's Law in its modern form:

\( \ F = \frac{1}{4 \pi \varepsilon_0} \frac{q^2}{r^2}. \)

The system of equations thus generated is known as the rationalized metre–kilogram–second (rmks) equation system, or "metre–kilogram–second–ampere (mksa)" equation system. This is the system used to define the SI units.[19] The new quantity q is given the name "rmks electric charge", or (nowadays) just "electric charge". Clearly, the quantity qs used in the old cgs esu system is related to the new quantity q by

\( \ q_{\text{s}} = \frac{q}{\sqrt{4 \pi \varepsilon_0}}. \)

Determination of a value for ε0

One now adds the requirement that one wants force to be measured in newtons, distance in metres, and charge to be measured in the engineers' practical unit, the coulomb, which is defined as the charge accumulated when a current of 1 ampere flows for one second. This shows that the parameter ε0 should be allocated the unit C2⋅N−1⋅m−2 (or equivalent units – in practice "farads per metre").

In order to establish the numerical value of ε0, one makes use of the fact that if one uses the rationalized forms of Coulomb's law and Ampère's force law (and other ideas) to develop Maxwell's equations, then the relationship stated above is found to exist between ε0, μ0 and c0. In principle, one has a choice of deciding whether to make the coulomb or the ampere the fundamental unit of electricity and magnetism. The decision was taken internationally to use the ampere. This means that the value of ε0 is determined by the values of c0 and μ0, as stated above. For a brief explanation of how the value of μ0 is decided, see the article about μ0.

Permittivity of real media

By convention, the electric constant ε0 appears in the relationship that defines the electric displacement field D in terms of the electric field E and classical electrical polarization density P of the medium. In general, this relationship has the form:

\( \mathbf{D} = \varepsilon_0 \mathbf{E} + \mathbf{P}. \)

For a linear dielectric, P is assumed to be proportional to E, but a delayed response is permitted and a spatially non-local response, so one has:[20]

\( \mathbf D (\mathbf r , \ t) = \int_{-\infty}^t dt' \int d^3\mathbf r' \ \varepsilon (\mathbf r, \ t ; \mathbf r' ,\ t') \mathbf E(\mathbf r', \ t'). \)

In the event that nonlocality and delay of response are not important, the result is:

\( \mathbf{D} = \varepsilon \mathbf{E} = \varepsilon_{\text{r}} \varepsilon_0 \mathbf{E} \)

where ε is the permittivity and εr the relative static permittivity. In the vacuum of classical electromagnetism, the polarization P = 0, so εr = 1 and ε = ε0.

See also

Casimir effect
Coulomb's law
Electromagnetic wave equation
ISO 31-5
Mathematical descriptions of the electromagnetic field
Sinusoidal plane-wave solutions of the electromagnetic wave equation
Wave impedance


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The exact numerical value is found at: "Electric constant, ε0". NIST reference on constants, units, and uncertainty: Fundamental physical constants. NIST. Retrieved 2012-01-22. This formula determining the exact value of ε0 is found in Table 1, p. 637 of PJ Mohr, BN Taylor, DB Newell (April–June 2008). "Table 1: Some exact quantities relevant to the 2006 adjustment in CODATA recommended values of the fundamental physical constants: 2006" (PDF). Rev Mod Phys 80 (2): 633–729. arXiv:0801.0028. Bibcode:2008RvMP...80..633M. doi:10.1103/RevModPhys.80.633.
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