Poynting's theorem

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In electrodynamics, Poynting's theorem is a statement of conservation of energy for the electromagnetic field, in the form of a partial differential equation, due to the British physicist John Henry Poynting.[1] Poynting's theorem is analogous to the work-energy theorem in classical mechanics, and mathematically similar to the continuity equation, because it relates the energy stored in the electromagnetic field to the work done on a charge distribution (i.e. an electrically charged object), through energy flux.



In words, the theorem is an energy balance:[2]

The rate of energy transfer (per unit volume) from a region of space equals the rate of work done on a charge distribution plus the energy flux leaving that region.

Mathematically, this is summarised in differential form as:

where ∇•S is the divergence of the Poynting vector (energy flow) and JE is the rate at which the fields do work on a charged object (J is the free current density corresponding to the motion of charge, E is the electric field, and • is the dot product). The energy density u is given by:[3]

in which D is the electric displacement field, B is the magnetic flux density and H the magnetic field strength, ε0 is the electric constant and μ0 is the magnetic constant. Since the charges are free to move, and the D and H fields bypass any bound charges and currents in the charge distribution (by their definition), J is the free current density, not the total.

Using the divergence theorem, Poynting's theorem can be rewritten in integral form:


where is the boundary of a volume V. The shape of the volume is arbitrary but fixed for the calculation.

Electrical engineering

In electrical engineering context the theorem is usually written with the energy density term u expanded in the following way, which resembles the continuity equation:



While conservation of energy and the Lorentz force law can derive the general form of the theorem, Maxwell's equations are additionally required to derive the expression for the Poynting vector and hence complete the statement.

Poynting's theorem

Considering the statement in words above - there are three elements to the theorem, which involve writing energy transfer (per unit time) as volume integrals:[2]

Template:Ordered list

So by conservation of energy, the balance equation for the energy flow per unit time is the integral form of the theorem:

and since the volume V is arbitrary, this is true for all volumes, implying

which is Poynting's theorem in differential form.

Poynting vector


From the theorem, the actual form of the Poynting vector S can be found. The time derivative of the energy density (using the product rule for vector dot products) is

using the constitutive relations

The partial time derivatives suggest using two of Maxwell's Equations. Taking the dot product of the Maxwell–Faraday equation with H:

next taking the dot product of the Maxwell–Ampère equation with E:

Collecting the results so far gives:

then, using the vector calculus identity:

gives an expression for the Poynting vector:

which physically means the energy transfer due to time-varying electric and magnetic fields is perpendicular to the fields.

Alternative forms

It is possible to derive alternative versions of Poynting's theorem.[4] Instead of the flux vector E × B as above, it is possible to follow the same style of derivation, but instead choose the Abraham form E × H, the Minkowski form D × B, or perhaps D × H. Each choice represents the response of the propagation medium in its own way: the E × B form above has the property that the response happens only due to electric currents, while the D × H form uses only (fictitious) magnetic monopole currents. The other two forms (Abraham and Minkowski) use complementary combinations of electric and magnetic currents to represent the polarization and magnetization responses of the medium.


The mechanical energy counterpart of the above theorem for the electromagnetic energy continuity equation is

where um is the (mechanical) kinetic energy density in the system. It can be described as the sum of kinetic energies of particles α (e.g., electrons in a wire), whose trajectory is given by rα(t):

where Sm is the flux of their energies, or a "mechanical Poynting vector":

Both can be combined via the Lorentz force, which the electromagnetic fields exert on the moving charged particles (see above), to the following energy continuity equation or energy conservation law:[5]

covering both types of energy and the conversion of one into the other.


  1. {{#invoke:Citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=journal }}
  2. 2.0 2.1 Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd Edition), D.J. Griffiths, Pearson Education, Dorling Kindersley, 2007, p.364, ISBN 81-7758-293-3
  3. Electromagnetism (2nd Edition), I.S. Grant, W.R. Phillips, Manchester Physics, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, chapters 2 and 6, ISBN 9-780471-927129
  4. {{#invoke:Citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=journal }}
  5. {{#invoke:Citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=journal }}

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