‘Isn’t it ionic?’: Showing the circular motion of charged particles in magnetic fields in the school laboratory

Charged particles which are stationary within a magnetic field do not experience a magnetic force; however, charged particles which are moving within a magnetic field most definitely do. And, what is more, this magnetic force or Lorentz force always makes them move on circular paths or semicircular paths. (Note: for simplicity we’re only going to look at particles whose velocity is perpendicular to the magnetic field lines in this post.) The direction of the Lorentz force can be predicted using Fleming’s Left Hand Rule.

An understanding of this type of interaction is essential for A-level Physics as far the physics of particle accelerators and cyclotrons are concerned. It is, of course, desirable to be able to demonstrate this to our students in the school laboratory. Your school may be lucky enough to own an electron beam tube and a pair of Helmholtz coils that is the usual way of displaying this phenomenon.

Bob Worley (@UncleBo80053383) recently made me aware of a low cost, microscale chemistry demonstration that I believe shows this phenomenon to good effect. If the electrolysis of sodium sulfate is carried out over a strong neodymium magnet then the interaction between the electric and magnetic fields creates clear patterns of circulation that are consistent with the directions predicted by the movement of the ions within the electric field produced by the electrodes and the Fleming’s Left Hand Rule force on the ions produced by the external magnetic field.

Please note that in the following post, any errors, omissions or misconceptions are my own (especially with the chemistry ‘bits’).

Why do charged particles move on circular paths when they travel through magnetic fields?

An electron beam tube. The electron beam is being made to move on a circular path by an external magnetic field.

In the diagram below, the green area represents a region of uniform magnetic flux density B. The field lines are directed into the plane of the diagram. Let’s consider an electron (1) fired at a horizontal velocity v from an electron gun as shown.

Fleming’s Left Hand Rule predicts that an upward force F will be produced on the electron. (Remember that the current in FLHR is conventional current so the ‘I’ finger should be pointed in the opposite direction to v because electron have a negative charge!) This will alter the direction of v so that the electron moves to position (2). Note that the magnitude of v is unaltered since F is acting at right angle to it. In position (2), FLHR again predicts a force F will act on the moving electron, and this force will again be at right angles to v resulting in the electron moving to position (3). Since the magnitude of v remains unaltered and F is always perpendicular to it, this means that F acts as a centripetal force which means that the electron travels at uniform speed around a circular orbit of radius r.

It can be shown that r = mv/Bq where m is the mass of the particle and q is its charge.

Setting up the electrolysis of sodium sulfate in a magnetic field

Electrolysis of sodium sulfate influenced by a magnet (side view)

The equipment is set up as shown in the diagram above. This can be seen from 0:00 to 0:10 seconds on the video. The magnetic field produced by the magnet can be thought of as a uniform vertical field through the volume of the drop.

Next, a few drops of red litmus are added. Since the sodium sulfate solution is neutral, the red litmus does not change colour.

At 0:15 seconds, the electrodes are introduced to the solution. Note that the anode is on the left and the cathode is on the right.

Observing the circular motion of charged particles in a magnetic field (part 1)

Almost immediately, we see indicator change colour next to the cathode. Since sodium sulfate is a salt produced using a reactive metal and an acid containing oxygen, the electrolysis will result in hydrogen gas at the cathode and oxygen at the anode. In other words, water will be electrolysed.

At the cathode, water molecules will be reduced to form H2 and OH.

It is the OH ions that produce the colour change to purple.

From 0:23 to 0:27 we can clearly an anticlockwise circulation pattern in the purple coloured region.

This can be explained by considering the forces on an OH ion as shown on the diagram below.

Electrolysis of sodium sulfate under the influence of a magnetic field (plan view)

As soon as it is created, the OH ion will be repelled away from the cathode along an electric field line (blue dotted lines). This means that it will be moving at a velocity v at the instant shown. However, due to the external magnetic field B it will also be subject to a Lorentz force F as shown (and whose direction can be predicted using Fleming’s Left Hand Rule) which will make it move on an anticlockwise circular path.

Because of the action of the electric field, the magnitude of v will increase meaning that that radius of circulation r of the OH ion will increase. This means that OH ion will travel on an anticlockwise spiral path of gradually increasing radius, as observed. This is analogous to paths followed by charged particles in a cyclotron.

Observing the circular motion of charged particles in a magnetic field (part 2)

At 0:29 seconds, we observe a second circulation pattern. We see the purple coloured solution begin a clockwise circulation around the anode.

This is because the OH ions gradually move towards the anode and eventually will begin moving at a radial velocity v towards it as shown. Fleming’s Left Hand Rule predicts a Lorentz force F will act on the ion as shown which means that it will move on a clockwise circular path.

The video from 0:30 to 0:35 shows at least some the ions moving on clockwise spiral path of decreasing radius. This is most likely because the magnitude of v of a number of ions is decreasing. The mechanism which produces this decrease of v is unknown (at least to me) but it seems plausible to suppose that a large number of OH ions arriving in the smaller region around the anode might produce a ‘traffic jam’ that would reduce the mean velocity of the ions here.


I hope physics teachers find this demonstration as useful and intriguing as I do. Please leave a comment if you decide to use it in your physics classroom. Many thanks to Bob Worley for posting the fascinating video!

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