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Ampère’s Law


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how Ampère’s law relates the magnetic field produced by a current to the value of the current
  • Calculate the magnetic field from a long straight wire, either thin or thick, by Ampère’s law

A fundamental property of a static magnetic field is that, unlike an electrostatic field, it is not conservative. A conservative field is one that does the same amount of work on a particle moving between two different points regardless of the path chosen. Magnetic fields do not have such a property. Instead, there is a relationship between the magnetic field and its source, electric current. It is expressed in terms of the line integral of

and is known as Ampère’s law. This law can also be derived directly from the Biot-Savart law. We now consider that derivation for the special case of an infinite, straight wire.

Figure 9.5.1 shows an arbitrary plane perpendicular to an infinite, straight wire whose current

is directed out of the page. The magnetic field lines are circles directed counterclockwise and centered on the wire. To begin, let’s consider

over the closed paths


. Notice that one path (

) encloses the wire, whereas the other (

) does not. Since the field lines are circular,

is the product of

and the projection of

onto the circle passing through

. If the radius of this particular circle is

, the projection is

, and

(Figure 9.5.1)

Figure 9.5.1 The current


of a long, straight wire is directed out of the page. The integral

\oint d\theta





, respectively, for paths






given by Equation 9.3.1,


For path

, which circulates around the wire,




, on the other hand, circulates through both positive (counterclockwise) and negative (clockwise)

(see Figure 9.5.1), and since it is closed,

. Thus for path



The extension of this result to the general case is Ampère’s law.


Over an arbitrary closed path,



is the total current passing through any open surface

whose perimeter is the path of integration. Only currents inside the path of integration need be considered.

To determine whether a specific current

is positive or negative, curl the fingers of your right hand in the direction of the path of integration, as shown in Figure 9.5.1. If

passes through

in the same direction as your extended thumb,

is positive; if

passes through

in the direction opposite to your extended thumb, it is negative.

Problem-Solving Strategy: Ampère’s Law

To calculate the magnetic field created from current in wire(s), use the following steps:

  1. Identify the symmetry of the current in the wire(s). If there is no symmetry, use the Biot-Savart law to determine the magnetic field.
  2. Determine the direction of the magnetic field created by the wire(s) by right-hand rule 2.
  3. Chose a path loop where the magnetic field is either constant or zero.
  4. Calculate the current inside the loop.
  5. Calculate the line integral around the closed loop.
  6. Equate with and solve for .


Using Ampère’s Law to Calculate the Magnetic Field Due to a Wire

Use Ampère’s law to calculate the magnetic field due to a steady current

in an infinitely long, thin, straight wire as shown in Figure 9.5.2.

(Figure 9.5.2)

Figure 9.5.2 The possible components of the magnetic field B due to a current I, which is directed out of the page. The radial component is zero because the angle between the magnetic field and the path is at a right angle.


Consider an arbitrary plane perpendicular to the wire, with the current directed out of the page. The possible magnetic field components in this plane,


, are shown at arbitrary points on a circle of radius

centred on the wire. Since the field is cylindrically symmetric, neither


varies with the position on this circle. Also from symmetry, the radial lines, if they exist, must be directed either all inward or all outward from the wire. This means, however, that there must be a net magnetic flux across an arbitrary cylinder concentric with the wire. The radial component of the magnetic field must be zero because

. Therefore, we can apply Ampère’s law to the circular path as shown.


Over this path

is constant and parallel to

, so

Thus Ampère’s law reduces to

Finally, since

is the only component of

we can drop the subscript and write

This agrees with the Biot-Savart calculation above.


Ampère’s law works well if you have a path to integrate over which

has results that are easy to simplify. For the infinite wire, this works easily with a path that is circular around the wire so that the magnetic field factors out of the integration. If the path dependence looks complicated, you can always go back to the Biot-Savart law and use that to find the magnetic field.


Calculating the Magnetic Field of a Thick Wire with Ampère’s Law

The radius of the long, straight wire of Figure 9.5.3 is

, and the wire carries a current

that is distributed uniformly over its cross-section. Find the magnetic field both inside and outside the wire.

Figure 9.5.3 (a) A model of a current-carrying wire of radius a and current


. (b) A cross-section of the same wire showing the radius a and the Ampère’s loop of radius




This problem has the same geometry as Example 9.5.1, but the enclosed current changes as we move the integration path from outside the wire to inside the wire, where it doesn’t capture the entire current enclosed (see Figure 9.5.3).


For any circular path of radius

that is centered on the wire,

From Ampère’s law, this equals the total current passing through any surface bounded by the path of integration.

Consider first a circular path that is inside the wire

such as that shown in part (a) of Figure 9.5.3. We need the current

passing through the area enclosed by the path. It’s equal to the current density

times the area enclosed. Since the current is uniform, the current density inside the path equals the current density in the whole wire, which is

. Therefore the current

passing through the area enclosed by the path is

We can consider this ratio because the current density

is constant over the area of the wire. Therefore, the current density of a part of the wire is equal to the current density in the whole area. Using Ampère’s law, we obtain

and the magnetic field inside the wire is

Outside the wire, the situation is identical to that of the infinite thin wire of the previous example; that is,

The variation of


is shown in Figure 9.5.4.

Figure 9.5.4 Variation of the magnetic field produced by a current

in a long, straight wire of radius




The results show that as the radial distance increases inside the thick wire, the magnetic field increases from zero to a familiar value of the magnetic field of a thin wire. Outside the wire, the field drops off regardless of whether it was a thick or thin wire.

This result is similar to how Gauss’s law for electrical charges behaves inside a uniform charge distribution, except that Gauss’s law for electrical charges has a uniform volume distribution of charge, whereas Ampère’s law here has a uniform area of current distribution. Also, the drop-off outside the thick wire is similar to how an electric field drops off outside of a linear charge distribution, since the two cases have the same geometry and neither case depends on the configuration of charges or currents once the loop is outside the distribution.


Using Ampère’s Law with Arbitrary Paths

Use Ampère’s law to evaluate

for the current configurations and paths in Figure 9.5.5.

(Figure 9.5.5)

Figure 9.5.5 Current configurations and paths for Example 12.8.


Ampère’s law states that


is the total current passing through the enclosed loop. The quickest way to evaluate the integral is to calculate

by finding the net current through the loop. Positive currents flow with your right-hand thumb if your fingers wrap around in the direction of the loop. This will tell us the sign of the answer.


(a) The current going downward through the loop equals the current going out of the loop, so the net current is zero. Thus,

.(b) The only current to consider in this problem is

because it is the only current inside the loop. The right-hand rule shows us the current going downward through the loop is in the positive direction. Therefore, the answer is

.(c) The right-hand rule shows us the current going downward through the loop is in the positive direction. There are

of current going downward and

going upward. Therefore, the total current is




If the currents all wrapped around so that the same current went into the loop and out of the loop, the net current would be zero and no magnetic field would be present. This is why wires are very close to each other in an electrical cord. The currents flowing toward a device and away from a device in a wire equal zero total current flow through an Ampère loop around these wires. Therefore, no stray magnetic fields can be present from cords carrying current.


Consider using Ampère’s law to calculate the magnetic fields of a finite straight wire and of a circular loop of wire. Why is it not useful for these calculations?

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