A polarized dielectric material

A dielectric (or dielectric material) is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material as they do in an electrical conductor but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric polarization. Because of dielectric polarization, positive charges are displaced in the direction of the field and negative charges shift in the opposite direction. This creates an internal electric field that reduces the overall field within the dielectric itself.[1] If a dielectric is composed of weakly bonded molecules, those molecules not only become polarized, but also reorient so that their symmetry axes align to the field.[1]

The study of dielectric properties concerns storage and dissipation of electric and magnetic energy in materials.[2][3][4] Dielectrics are important for explaining various phenomena in electronics, optics, solid-state physics, and cell biophysics.


Although the term insulator implies low electrical conduction, dielectric typically means materials with a high polarizability. The latter is expressed by a number called the relative permittivity. The term insulator is generally used to indicate electrical obstruction while the term dielectric is used to indicate the energy storing capacity of the material (by means of polarization). A common example of a dielectric is the electrically insulating material between the metallic plates of a capacitor. The polarization of the dielectric by the applied electric field increases the capacitor's surface charge for the given electric field strength.[1]

The term dielectric was coined by William Whewell (from dia- + electric) in response to a request from Michael Faraday.[5][6] A perfect dielectric is a material with zero electrical conductivity (cf. perfect conductor infinite eletrical conductivity),[7] thus exhibiting only a displacement current; therefore it stores and returns electrical energy as if it were an ideal capacitor.

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