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Divergence of a Vector Field and its Sources and Sinks

Point at which a Vector Field is Fivergence-Free (Source-Free)
Level 3 (with higher mathematics)
Level 3 requires the basics of vector calculus, differential and integral calculus. Suitable for undergraduates and high school students.
Updated by Alexander Fufaev on
Table of contents
  1. Positive divergence - source of a vector field Here you learn when the vector field in the considered point is a source.
  2. Negative divergence - sink of a vector field Here you learn when the vector field at the considered location is a sink.
  3. Divergence is zero - divergence-free vector field Here you learn when the vector field at the considered location is divergence-free.

Divergence \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F} \) of a vector field \( \boldsymbol{F} \) is defined as the scalar product between the nabla operator \( \nabla \) and the vector field \( \boldsymbol{F} \):

Definition: Divergence of a vector field
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Here \( F_{\text x} \) is the first, \( F_{\text y} \) second and \( F_{\text z} \) the third component of the following three-dimensional vector field \( \boldsymbol{F}(x,y,z) \):

Three dimensional vector field
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As discussed in the lesson on Maxwell's equations, the vector field \( \boldsymbol{F} \) can represent, for example, the electric field \( \boldsymbol{E} \) or the magnetic field \( \boldsymbol{B} \).

The result \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}\) of the divergence in Eq. 1 is a scalar function (no vector quantity anymore)! So, if a concrete place is inserted for \((x,y,z)\), then the scalar function results in a usual number: \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(x,y,z)\). This number is a measure for the divergence of the vector field at the considered location \((x,y,z)\). It can be a positive or negative number or even zero. Depending on whether the number is positive, negative or zero, it has a different physical meaning.

Positive divergence - source of a vector field

We assume that we have inserted a concrete location \((x,y,z)\) into the divergence field \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(x,y,z)\) and obtained a positive number:

Divergence is positive
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Then the considered point \((x,y,z)\) in space is a source of the vector field \(\boldsymbol{F}\). If this location is enclosed with an arbitrary surface (e.g. with a cube surface), then the flux of the vector field through this surface is also positive. The vector field points out of the surface.

Punkt mit positiver Divergenz als Quelle eines Vektorfeldes
Positive Divergenz am Ort \((x,y,z)\) ist die Quelle des Vektorfeldes.
Example: Source of the vector field

What is the divergence at the point \(1, 0, 0\) of the following vector field:

Example vector field with components 2x squared and y and 4
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The divergence \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}\) of this vector field is calculated by forming the three partial derivatives of the vector field as in Eq. 1 and adding them together:

Divergence of vector field with components 2x squared and y and 4
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Thus we have determined the divergence field in the whole space. But we want to determine the divergence at the location \((x,y,z)=(1,0,0)\) and therefore set \(x=1\), \(y=0\) and \(z=0\):

Divergence at location 1-0-0
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The vector field \( \boldsymbol{F} \) has a positive divergence \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F} = 5 \) at the considered location. Physically this location represents a source of vector field \(\boldsymbol{F}\). If it were an electric field \( \boldsymbol{F} = \boldsymbol{E} \), then a positive divergence would mean that there is a positive electric charge sitting at the location \((1,0,0)\).

Negative divergence - sink of a vector field

Now assume that we have obtained a negative number after inserting a concrete location into the divergence field:

Divergence is negative
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Then the considered location \((x,y,z)\) is a sink of the vector field \(\boldsymbol{F}\). If this place is enclosed with an arbitrary surface, then the flux of the vector field through this surface is also negative. The vector field goes into the surface.

Punkt mit negativer Divergenz als Senke eines Vektorfeldes
Negative Divergenz am Ort \((x,y,z)\) ist die Senke des Vektorfeldes.
Example: sink of a vector field

Given is the following vector field:

Vector field with components -2x and y and 4
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The divergence \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}\) of this vector field is:

Divergence field of the vector field with components -2x and y and 4
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The considered vector field has at each location \((x,y,z)\) a constant negative divergence. That means, no matter which location is used for \((x,y,z)\), every location has a negative divergence with the value -1. Each location represents a sink of the vector field \(\boldsymbol{F}\). If the vector field \(\boldsymbol{F}\) were an electric field, then this result would mean that a negative electric charge sits at each location.

Divergence is zero - divergence-free vector field

Now assume that we have obtained zero after inserting a concrete location into the divergence field:

Divergence is zero
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Punkt an dem das Vektorfeld divergenzfrei (quellfrei) ist
Divergenzfreies Vektorfeld am Ort \((x,y,z)\).

Then at the location \((x,y,z)\) the considered vector field is divergence-free. That means: If this point is enclosed with any surface, then the flux of the vector field through this surface is also zero. The vector field does not point into this surface, but also does not point out. Or there is just as much vector field pointing into the surface as out, so that the two opposite contributions cancel each other out and the divergence is net zero.

Example: Divergence-free vector field

Calculate the divergence at the \(1, 1, 1)\) location of the following vector field:

Vector field with components -2x and 0.5y^2 and 0.5z^2
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The divergence \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}\) of this vector field is:

Divergence field of a vector field with components -2x and 0.5y^2 and 0.5z^2
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Insert the point \((x,y,z) = (1,1,1)\):

Divergence at location 1-1-1 is zero
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The divergence of the considered vector field at this location is zero. For example, the second Maxwell equation of electrodynamics states that divergence of the magnetic field \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{B} \) is zero. Physically this means: There are no magnetic monopoles! Magnetic north pole always occurs together with a magnetic south pole.

In the examples of negative divergence and divergence-free fields, we got out a constant divergence that is independent of the location. But the divergence field \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}\) must not necessarily result in a constant! They were just simple examples. In general the divergence field depends on all three coordinates: \(\nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(x,y,z)\).

Example: Variable divergence

Given is the following vector field:

Vector field with components xy and y^2 and 5
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As shown in Eq. 1, calculate the partial derivatives of the vector field to determine the divergence field:

DIvergence field y + 2xy
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In this case we get a divergence depending on \(x\) and \(y\): \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(x, y) ~=~ y + 2x\, y \).

  • At the location \((1,2,0)\) the divergence is positive: \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(1,2,0) ~=~ 4 \).

  • At the location \((1,-2,0)\), however, the divergence is negative: \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(1,-2,0) ~=~ -4 \).

  • At the location \((-0.5,2,1)\) the divergence disappears: \( \nabla \cdot \boldsymbol{F}(-0.5,2,1) ~=~ 0 \).

Now you should know how divergence of a vector field is calculated and physically interpreted. This knowledge will help you grasp the Gauss integral theorem, which is incredibly important for understanding Maxwell's equations.