Can resistance be directional?


Solution 1

Definitely! Consider Ohm's law, $\vec j=\sigma\vec{E}$, where $\vec j$ is the current density, $\sigma$ is conductivity (the inverse of resistivity) and $\vec E$ is the electric field. Anisotropic conductivity corresponds to turning $\sigma$ into a tensor-valued quantity, a $3\times3$ matrix. Ohm's law is then given by


where $\sigma_{ij}$ is now the conductivity matrix, where different components $i,j\in x,y,z$ may have different entries, depending on the material in question. Note that restivity is now also a matrix, which can be acquired by inverting conductivity, i.e. $\rho_{ij}=\sigma_{ij}^{-1}$.

Physical systems with anisotropic restivities include various metals, crystals and the concept also plays a role in geophysics, in the analysis of sediments and oil fields. An example of a system that exhibits this property would be one consisting of layers of several materials, each with a different resistivity. Currents flowing along one specific layer will face different resistivity than those which flow perpendicularly.

Solution 2

To a degree this is matter of terminology. Resistance is a scalar quantity, but it is derived from the resistivity, which is a second rank tensor and is anisotropic in many materials.

For an isotropic material we have the usual formula:

$$ R = \rho\frac{\ell}{A} $$

and the usual:

$$ V = IR $$

where $\rho$ is the (isotropic) resistivity, $\ell$ is the length and $A$ the area of the conducting region. In an isotropic material life gets considerably more complicated as you need to treat the current density as a vector field, and multiplying this by the resistivity tensor gives the electric field:

$$ {\bf E}(\vec{r}) = {\bf \rho}(\vec{r}){\bf J}(\vec{r}) $$

where all the quantities are functions of the position $\vec{r}$. Resistance isn't a terribly useful concept in this case as the electric field and the current are not necessarily in the same direction so they can't simply be related by a scalar.

However we can often choose our axes so that the resistivity tensor can be written as a diagonal matrix:

$$ \rho = \left( \begin{matrix} \rho_x & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \rho_y & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & \rho_z \\ \end{matrix} \right) $$

And in that case the resistance for a current flowing along these axes can simply be written as:

$$ R_x = \rho_x\frac{\Delta x}{A_x} $$

and likewise for the $y$ and $z$ axes. So the resistance does depend on direction. However it is still a scalar - it's just that the value of that scalar depends on direction.


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Updated on September 07, 2020


  • Fraïssé
    Fraïssé about 3 years

    When we think of resistance, we always think of a scalar value associated with a piece of a material. After all, resistance is but resistivity times surface geometry.

    But can resistance be directional meaning that it is stronger in one direction but weaker in another?

    • lemon
      lemon about 9 years
    • CuriousOne
      CuriousOne about 9 years
      Do you mean like in a semiconductor diode?
    • jdr5ca
      jdr5ca about 9 years
      Does "material" allow for composites? If so, an extreme anisotropic material is z-conductive tape, widely used in electronics. The directional properties only exist at a certain scale, so may not be what you are thinking.
    • Beta
      Beta about 9 years
      Imagine a thick bundle of insulated copper wires, all running in the same direction.
  • André Chalella
    André Chalella about 9 years
    Great! I just failed to understand "i,j E x,y,z". I guess it makes more sense if it's "i,j E ('x', 'y', 'z')"... or doesn't it?
  • Frederic Brünner
    Frederic Brünner about 9 years
    The point is that $i$ and $j$ can be x,y or z. Maybe the way you wrote it makes it clearer.