In the previous section we saw that if we knew that the
vector field was conservative then was independent of path. This in turn means that we can easily
evaluate this line integral provided we can find a potential function for .
In this section we want to look at two questions. First, given a vector field is there any way of determining if it is a
conservative vector field? Secondly, if
we know that is a conservative vector field how do we go
about finding a potential function for the vector field?
The first question is easy to answer at this point if we
have a twodimensional vector field. For
higher dimensional vector fields we’ll need to wait until the final section in
this chapter to answer this question.
With that being said let’s see how we do it for twodimensional vector
fields.
Theorem
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
Example 1 Determine
if the following vector fields are conservative or not.
(a) [Solution]
(b) [Solution]
Solution
Okay, there really isn’t too much to these. All we do is identify P and Q then take a
couple of derivatives and compare the results.
(a)
In this case here is P
and Q and the appropriate partial
derivatives.
So, since the two partial derivatives are not the same
this vector field is NOT conservative.
[Return to Problems]
(b)
Here is P and Q as well as the appropriate
derivatives.
The two partial derivatives are equal and so this is a
conservative vector field.
[Return to Problems]

Now that we know how to identify if a twodimensional vector
field is conservative we need to address how to find a potential function for
the vector field. This is actually a
fairly simple process. First, let’s
assume that the vector field is conservative and so we know that a potential
function, exists.
We can then say that,
Or by setting components equal we have,
By integrating each of these with respect to the appropriate
variable we can arrive at the following two equations.
We saw this kind of integral briefly at the end of the
section on iterated integrals in
the previous chapter.
It is usually best to see how we use these two facts to find
a potential function in an example or two.
Example 2 Determine
if the following vector fields are conservative and find a potential function
for the vector field if it is conservative.
(a) [Solution]
(b) [Solution]
Solution
(a)
Let’s first identify P
and Q and then check that the
vector field is conservative..
So, the vector field is conservative. Now let’s find the potential function. From the first fact above we know that,
From these we can see that
We can use either of these to get the process
started. Recall that we are going to have
to be careful with the “constant of integration” which ever integral we
choose to use. For this example let’s
work with the first integral and so that means that we are asking what
function did we differentiate with respect to x to get the integrand.
This means that the “constant of integration” is going to have to be a
function of y since any function
consisting only of y and/or
constants will differentiate to zero when taking the partial derivative with
respect to x.
Here is the first integral.
where is the “constant of integration”.
We now need to determine . This is easier that it might at first
appear to be. To get to this point
we’ve used the fact that we knew P,
but we will also need to use the fact that we know Q to complete the problem.
Recall that Q is really the
derivative of f with respect to y.
So, if we differentiate our function with respect to y we know what it should be.
So, let’s differentiate f (including the ) with respect to y and set it equal to Q since that is what the derivative is
supposed to be.
From this we can see that,
Notice that since is a function only of y so if there are any x’s
in the equation at this point we will know that we’ve made a mistake. At this point finding is simple.
So, putting this all together we can see that a potential
function for the vector field is,
Note that we can always check our work by verifying that . Also note that because the c can be anything there are an
infinite number of possible potential functions, although they will only vary
by an additive constant.
[Return to Problems]
(b)
Okay, this one will go a lot faster since we don’t need to
go through as much explanation. We’ve
already verified that this vector field is conservative in the first set of
examples so we won’t bother redoing that.
Let’s start with the following,
This means that we can do either of the following
integrals,
While we can do either of these the first integral would
be somewhat unpleasant as we would need to do integration by parts on each
portion. On the other hand the second
integral is fairly simple since the second term only involves y’s and the first term can be done
with the substitution . So, from the second integral we get,
Notice that this time the “constant of integration” will
be a function of x. If we differentiate this with respect to x and set equal to P we get,
So, in this case it looks like,
So, in this case the “constant of integration” really was
a constant. Sometimes this will happen
and sometimes it won’t.
Here is the potential function for this vector field.
[Return to Problems]

Now, as noted above we don’t have a way (yet) of determining
if a threedimensional vector field is conservative or not. However, if we are given that a
threedimensional vector field is conservative finding a potential function is
similar to the above process, although the work will be a little more involved.
In this case we will use the fact that,
Let’s take a quick look at an example.
Example 3 Find
a potential function for the vector field,
Solution
Okay, we’ll start off with the following equalities.
To get started we can integrate the first one with respect
to x, the second one with respect
to y, or the third one with respect
to z. Let’s integrate the first one with respect
to x.
Note that this time the “constant of integration” will be
a function of both y and z since differentiating anything of
that form with respect to x will
differentiate to zero.
Now, we can differentiate this with respect to y and set it equal to Q.
Doing this gives,
Of course we’ll need to take the partial derivative of the
constant of integration since it is a function of two variables. It looks like we’ve now got the following,
Since differentiating with respect to y gives zero then could at most be a function of z.
This means that we now know the potential function must be in the
following form.
To finish this out all we need to do is differentiate with
respect to z and set the result
equal to R.
So,
The potential function for this vector field is then,

Note that to keep the work to a minimum we used a fairly
simple potential function for this example.
It might have been possible to guess what the potential function was
based simply on the vector field.
However, we should be careful to remember that this usually won’t be the
case and often this process is required.
Also, there were several other paths that we could have
taken to find the potential function.
Each would have gotten us the same result.
Let’s work one more slightly (and only slightly) more
complicated example.
Example 4 Find
a potential function for the vector field,
Solution
Here are the equalities for this vector field.
For this example let’s integrate the third one with
respect to z.
The “constant of integration” for this integration will be
a function of both x and y.
Now, we can differentiate this with respect to x and set it equal to P.
Doing this gives,
So, it looks like we’ve now got the following,
The potential function for this problem is then,
To finish this out all we need to do is differentiate with
respect to y and set the result
equal to Q.
So,
The potential function for this vector field is then,

So, a little more complicated than the others and there are
again many different paths that we could have taken to get the answer.
We need to work one final example in this section.
Example 5 Evaluate
where and C
is given by ,
.
Solution
Now, we could use the techniques we discussed when we
first looked at line integrals of
vector fields however that would be particularly unpleasant solution.
Instead, let’s take advantage of the fact that we know
from Example 2a above this vector field is conservative and that a potential
function for the vector field is,
Using this we know that integral must be independent of
path and so all we need to do is use the theorem from the previous section to do the evaluation.
where,
So, the integral is,
