When an EM wave travels inside a conductor , we find that there is a phase difference between the Electric and magnetic fields within the conductor. The magnetic field lags behind the E field and this lag is roughly equal to 45 degrees within a good conductor (all from Griffiths chp 9.4). What is the cause of this phase difference though? If an EM wave is incident on a lossless dielectric and then travels within that dielectric, the transmitted electric and magnetic waves are in phase with each other as they travel through/inside the dielectric medium. But if an EM wave is incident on a conductor, the transmitted wave travelling within that conductor ends up having a phase difference between its electric and magnetic fields.

I know that in a driven LR circuit there is a phase difference ($\phi_o $) between the driving voltage and the current through the inductor. Since the magnetic field produced by an inductor is proportional to the current, we know that there is an equal phase ($\phi_o$) difference between the driving voltage and the magnetic field produced by the circuit. Is this phase difference in any way related to the phase difference we get when an EM wave travels in a conductor?

I can account for the phase difference in a driven LR circuit easily: The non-zero inductance of the inductor creates a back emf which "fights" against a change in current which ultimately leads to the current lagging behind the voltage. For large inductances and/or high frequencies and/or low resistance (ie good conductance), the phase lag approaches 90 degrees though. Not the 45 degrees we get for a good conductor when a EM wave travels within it. I can't seem to account for these seemingly conflicting behaviours. Is the phase delay between the electric and magnetic components of an EM wave in a conductor even caused by a back emf at all or does it arise because of a different reason entirely?

Any help on this issue would be most appreciated as it has been driving me mad recently.

  • $\begingroup$ Did you have another bountied question? I thought so, maybe two more.. but looking dont see it $\endgroup$
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ So you are asking what is the physical reason underlying the phase lag between $E$ and $B$? I don't think any textbook gives an exposition on this. It is interesting that the $B$ lags $E$, instead of the opposite case though. $\endgroup$
    – Kksen
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ Salah. Bounty is set, but I just changed the notation anyway cuz I liked this, and I owe that. Notation was way more galloping than I had remembered. My fault. At the very end I even had “replace 𝐸 with 𝐸:=−1𝜇𝐸𝑥.” Same letter! 🤦🏻‍♂️, But more than that. All better now. Also expanded couple equation solvings. Technically it was all there and just added time and care to a reading, but too much so... I guess I was wide awake when i first did it 😳. My mistake. Be well God bless. Hope makes sense now. And see comments below answer if that link helps. $\endgroup$
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 27, 2021 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


The inductance is essentially zero, so not that same mechanism.

But since it’s not an inductor, that removes both aspects of your statement - i.e. does not just eliminate the 90-deg phase difference, but also the fact that magnetic field is proportional to current.

So what causes the field? We can go to Maxwell’s equations for electric and magnetic fields, $E$ and $H$. First note that for a good conductor that follows Ohm’s law: $$\vec{I}=\sigma \vec{E}\text{ , }\sigma :=1/r\text{ , } \sigma>>\epsilon_0 \omega$$

Assume axes with the conductor along $z$, and assume $E$ is polarized along $x$. For $\frac{\partial E_x}{\partial t}, ~ \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial t} $, Maxwell’s equations are: $$\epsilon_0 \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial t} = \frac{\partial H_z}{\partial y} - \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial z} -I_x $$ $$ \epsilon_0 \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial t} + \sigma E_x = \frac{\partial H_z}{\partial y} - \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial z}$$ $$\implies \epsilon_0 \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial t} + \sigma E_x = - \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial z}$$ And: $$ \mu_0 \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial t} = \frac{\partial E_z}{\partial x}- \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial z}$$ $$\implies \mu_0 \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial t}= - \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial z}$$

With $\sigma >>\epsilon_0 \omega $, this is governed by: $$E_x = -\frac{1}{\sigma} \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial z}$$

$$ \frac{\partial H_y}{\partial t} = -\frac{1}{\mu_0} \frac{\partial E_x}{\partial z} $$

Which is solved by, $k:= -\tfrac{\sqrt{2}}{2}\mu_0 \omega$ $$ E_x= E_0 e^k\text{ } cos(\omega t+k)$$ $$ H_y= E_0 e^k\sqrt{\frac{\sigma }{\mu_0 \omega}} \text{ } cos(\omega t+ k -\frac{\pi}{4})$$

Re-summarized and strengthening of intuition:

Remember that because of high conductance ($\sigma=\frac{1}{r}$ so $\sigma / \omega >>\epsilon_0$), we ignored the effect of $\frac{\partial E_x}{\partial t}$.

To make clearer, rewrite the system (listed above, just above “Which is solved”). To get rid of extraneous characters for a second and focus, use: $E’:= -\frac{1}{\mu_0} E_x ~,~ H’:= H_z ~,~ k:= \mu_0 \sigma$

$$\frac{\partial H’}{\partial z}= k E’ $$ $$ \frac{\partial H’}{\partial t} = \frac{\partial E’}{\partial z} $$

  • $\begingroup$ There are many analogies between $(V,I)$ and $(E,B)$. You have one yourself in your first equation where $g$ is the analog of conductance. Can you formulate an argument using an analog of inductance? $\endgroup$
    – garyp
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ @garyp Thats not a simple relationship, or question. Ac dc, fields and charges... You probably understand better than I do. Coincidentally, have been looking at some of that a lot lately. Middle third of this answer is quite related to one aspect of that analogy: physics.stackexchange.com/a/661329/307354 $\endgroup$
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 7:38
  • $\begingroup$ Starting this paragraph and next ——————- lines. This much of it certainly relates to that “ Electric charges attract/repel. We can call the would-be force per unit-charge from them, the “electric field”. Currents also attract/repel. We can call the would-be force from a current on another current if it was present, the “magnetic field”. $\endgroup$
    – Al Brown
    Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AlBrown Thanks for the response! Sorry for taking ages to respond. Just been busy with test week. It's a little tricky for me to follow your reasoning cause of your notation (I'm used to $\sigma$ instead of $g$ and capital letters for the fields etc) but I think I get the just of the maths. It pretty much comes down to the fact that we can neglect the effect of $\frac{\partial E}{\partial t}$ on $\vec{H}$. It still isn't intuitive to me at all though, but then again I suppose it just comes straight from Maxwell's equations $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 26, 2021 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ determined the complex impedance of the circuit. The current can lag or lead the voltage, depending on whether the capacitance or the inductance dominates. By the same token, the phase difference between $\boldsymbol{E}$ and $\boldsymbol{B}$ depends on magnetic permeability and dielectric permittivity. This is just my rusty reasoning at this moment, your statement will be taken into consideration when I research this more in the future. $\endgroup$
    – Kksen
    Commented Aug 28, 2021 at 3:48

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