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Vectors in curvilinear coordinates

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in Curvilinear Coordinates

Although cartesian orthogonal coordinates are very intuitive and easy to use, it is often found

more convenient to work with other coordinate systems. Being able to change all variables and

expression involved in a given problem, when a dierent coordinate system is chosen, is one of

those skills a physicist, and even more a theoretical physicist, needs to possess.

In this lecture a general method to express any variable and expression in an arbitrary curvilinear

coordinate system will be introduced and explained. We will be mainly interested to nd out gen-

eral expressions for the gradient, the divergence and the curl of scalar and vector elds. Specic

applications to the widely used cylindrical and spherical systems will conclude this lecture.

1 The concept of orthogonal curvilinear coordinates

The cartesian orthogonal coordinate system is very intuitive and easy to handle. Once an origin

has been xed in space and three orthogonal scaled axis are anchored to this origin, any point

in space is uniquely determined by three real numbers, its cartesian coordinates. A curvilinear

coordinate system can be dened starting from the orthogonal cartesian one. If x, y, z are the

cartesian coordinates, the curvilinear ones, u, v, w, can be expressed as smooth functions of x,

y, z, according to:

u = u(x, y, z)

v = v(x, y, z)

w = w(x, y, z)

(1)

These functions can be inverted to give x, y, z-dependency on u, v, w:

x = x(u, v, w)

y = y(u, v, w)

z = z(u, v, w)

(2)

There are innitely many curvilinear systems that can be dened using equations (1) and (2).

We are mostly interested in the so-called orthogonal curvilinear coordinate systems, dened as

follows. Any point in space is determined by the intersection of three warped planes:

u = const , v = const , w = const

We could call these surfaces as coordinate surfaces. Three curves, called coordinate curves, are

formed by the intersection of pairs of these surfaces. Accordingly, three straight lines can be

calculated as tangent lines to each coordinate curve at the space point. In an orthogonal curved

system these three tangents will be orthogonal for all points in space (see Figure 1).

In order to express dierential operators, like the gradient or the divergence, in curvilinear

coordinates it is convenient to start from the innitesimal increment in cartesian coordinates,

1

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

Figure 1: In this generic orthogonal curved coordinate system three coordinate surfaces meet at

each point P in space. Their mutual intersection gives rise to three coordinate curves which are

themselves perpendicular in P.

dr (dx, dy, dz). By considering equations (2) and expanding the dierential dr, the following

equation can be obtained:

dr =

r

u

du +

r

v

dv +

r

w

dw (3)

r/u, r/v and r/w are vectors tangent, respectively, to coordinate curves along u, v

and w, in P. These vectors are mutually orthogonal, because we are working with orthogonal

curvilinear coordinates. Let us call e

u

, e

v

and e

w

, unit-lenght vectors along r/u, r/v and

r/w, respectively. If we dene by h

u

, h

v

and h

w

as:

h

u

r

u

, h

v

r

v

, h

w

r

w

(4)

then the innitesimal increment (3) can be re-written as:

dr = h

u

due

u

+ h

v

dve

v

+ h

w

dwe

w

(5)

Equation (5), and associated defnitions (4), are instrumental in the derivation of many funda-

mental quantities used in dierential calculus, when passing from a cartesian to a curvilinear

coordinate system. Let us consider, for example, polar coordinates, (r, ), in the plane. x and y

are functions of r and according to:

_

x = r cos()

y = r sin()

To derive the correct expression for dr (dx, dy) we need rst to compute h

r

and h

. From (4)

we get:

h

r

=

_

x

r

,

y

r

_

=

_

cos

2

() + sin

2

() = 1

h

_

x

,

y

=

_

[r sin()]

2

+ [r cos()]

2

= r

Thus, dr is given by:

dr = dre

r

+ rde

2

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

With this result we are able to derive the form of several quantities in polar coordinates. For

example, the line element is given by:

d

dr dr =

_

(dr)

2

+ r

2

(d)

2

while the area element is:

dS = h

r

h

drd = rdrd

For the general, 3D, case the line element is given by:

d

dr dr = (h

u

du)

2

+ (h

v

dv)

2

+ (h

w

dw)

2

(6)

and the volume element is:

dV [(e

u

dr)e

u

] {[(e

v

dr)e

v

] [(e

w

dr)e

w

]} = h

u

h

v

h

w

dudvdw (7)

For the curl computation it is also important to have ready expressions for the surface elements

perpendicular to each coordinate curve. These elements are simply given as:

dS

u

= h

v

h

w

dvdw , dS

v

= h

u

h

w

dudw , dS

w

= h

u

h

v

dudv (8)

2 Gradient in curvilinear coordinates

Given a function f(u, v, w) in a curvilinear coordinate system, we would like to nd a form for

the gradient operator. In order to do so it is convenient to start from the expression for the

function dierential. We have either,

df = f dr (9)

or, expanding df using curvilinear coordinates,

df =

f

u

du +

f

v

dv +

f

w

dw

Let us now multiply and divide each term in the summation by three dierent functions:

df =

1

h

u

f

u

h

u

du +

1

h

v

f

v

h

v

dv +

1

h

w

f

w

h

w

dw

Using (5) the following identities can immediately be derived:

e

u

dr = h

u

du , e

v

dr = h

v

dv , e

w

dr = h

w

dw

Thus, we can re-write df as:

df =

1

h

u

f

u

e

u

dr +

1

h

v

f

v

e

v

dr +

1

h

w

f

w

e

w

dr =

_

1

h

u

f

u

e

u

+

1

h

v

f

v

e

v

+

1

h

w

f

w

e

w

_

dr

Comparing this last result with (9) we nally get:

f =

1

h

u

f

u

e

u

+

1

h

v

f

v

e

v

+

1

h

w

f

w

e

w

(10)

which is the general form for the gradient in curvilinear coordinates, we were looking for.

3

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

Figure 2: Volume element in curvilinear coordinates. The sides of the small parallelepiped are

given by the components of dr in equation (5). Vector v is decomposed into its u-, v- and

w-components.

3 Divergence and laplacian in curvilinear coordinates

Consider a volume element around a point P with curvilinear coordinates (u, v, w). The diver-

gence of a vector eld v at P is dened as:

lim

V 0

1

V

_

S

v ndS (11)

where S is the closed surface surrounding the volume element whose volume is V , and n is

the outward-pointing normal associated to the closed surface S (see Figure 2). To compute

the surface integral in equation (11) we simply have to project vector v along its u-, v- and

w-components, and multiply the result by each perpendicular area element, in turn. In Figure 2

point P is hidden in the centre of the parallelepiped. This means that P is placed at coordinates

(u, v, w), and it is half-way between u du/2 and u + du/2 along u, half-way between v dv/2

and v + dv/2 along v, and half-way between w dw/2 and w + dw/2 along w. Let us compute

the contribution to the integral from v

u

rst. This is equivalent to

v

u

h

v

h

w

dvdw

where v

u

, h

v

and h

w

are computed at u du/2, summed to

v

u

h

v

h

w

dvdw

where v

u

, h

v

and h

w

are computed at u + du/2. Using Taylor expansion yields the following

contribution for the v

u

component of the eld:

_

surf to u

v ndS =

(v

u

h

v

h

w

)

u

dudvdw (12)

4

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

Analogous expressions are obtained considering those contribution to the integral along v and w:

_

surf to v

v ndS =

(h

u

v

v

h

w

)

v

dudvdw (13)

_

surf to w

v ndS =

(h

u

h

v

v

w

)

w

dudvdw (14)

Thus, the closed-surface integral is given by adding up (12), (13) and (14):

_

S

v ndS =

_

(v

u

h

v

h

w

)

u

+

(h

u

v

v

h

w

)

v

+

(h

u

h

v

v

w

)

w

_

dudvdw

Using dV = h

u

h

v

h

w

dudvdw, we arrive, eventually, at the nal expression for the divergence in

curvilinear coordinates replacing last quantity into formula (11):

v =

1

h

u

h

v

h

w

_

(v

u

h

v

h

w

)

u

+

(h

u

v

v

h

w

)

v

+

(h

u

h

v

v

w

)

w

_

(15)

From this last equation is also very immediate to derive the expression for the laplacian of a

scalar eld . This is dened as:

2

()

Thus we only need to link formulas (10) and (15) together

2

=

1

h

u

h

v

h

w

_

u

_

1

h

u

u

h

v

h

w

_

+

v

_

h

u

1

h

v

v

h

w

_

+

w

_

h

u

h

v

1

h

w

w

__

to yield, eventually,

2

=

1

h

u

h

v

h

w

_

u

_

h

v

h

w

h

u

u

_

+

v

_

h

u

h

w

h

v

v

_

+

w

_

h

u

h

v

h

w

w

__

(16)

4 Curl in curvilinear coordinates

The curl of a vector eld is another vector eld. Its component along an arbitrary vector n is

given by the following expression:

[v]

n

lim

S0

1

S

_

v dr (17)

where is a curve encircling the small area element S, and n is perpendicular to S. Let us

start with the w-component. We need to select a surface element perpendicular to e

w

. This is

given in Figure 3. The contribution to the line integral coming from segments 1 and 3 are

v

u

h

u

du

computed at v dv/2, and

v

u

h

u

du

computed at v + dv/2. These, added together, gives:

(h

u

v

u

)

v

dudv (18)

The contribution from segments 2 and 4 gives, on the other hand,

v

v

h

v

dv

5

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

Figure 3: Surface element for the determination of curls component along w, in curvilinear

coordinates.

computed at u + du/2, and

v

v

h

v

dv

computed at u du/2. Adding them together yields

(h

v

v

v

)

u

dudv (19)

From the partial results (18) and (19) we obtain the contribution to the curl we were looking for:

[v]

ew

=

1

h

u

h

v

dudv

_

(h

v

v

v

)

u

(h

u

v

u

)

v

_

dudv =

1

h

u

h

v

_

(h

v

v

v

)

u

(h

u

v

u

)

v

_

The other two components can be derived from the previous expression with the cyclic permuta-

tion u v w u. To extract all three components the following compressed determinantal

form can be used:

v =

1

h

u

h

v

h

w

e

u

e

v

e

w

/u /v /w

h

u

v

u

h

v

v

v

h

w

v

w

(20)

In the nal section we will derive expressions for the laplacian in cylindrical and spherical coor-

dinates, given the importance played by Laplaces equation in Mathematical Physics.

5 Laplacian in cylindrical and spherical coordinates

a) CYLINDRICAL COORDINATES

Cylindrical coordinates, (r, , z), are related to cartesian ones through the following transforma-

tion: _

_

x = r cos()

y = r sin()

z = z

(21)

Using denition (4) we get:

h

r

=

_

(x/r)

2

+ (y/r)

2

+ (z/r)

2

=

_

cos

2

() + sin

2

() = 1

6

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

h

=

_

(x/)

2

+ (y/)

2

+ (z/)

2

=

_

r

2

cos

2

() + r

2

sin

2

() = r

h

z

=

_

(x/z)

2

+ (y/z)

2

+ (z/z)

2

=

1 = 1

Replacing these values in expression (16), yields:

2

=

1

r

_

r

_

r

r

_

+

_

1

r

_

+

z

_

r

z

__

or, simplifying:

2

=

1

r

r

_

r

r

_

+

1

r

2

2

+

2

z

2

(22)

b) SPHERICAL COORDINATES

Spherical coordinates, (r, , ), are related to cartesian coordinates through:

_

_

x = r sin() cos()

y = r cos() sin()

z = r cos()

(23)

Using denition (4) we get:

h

r

=

_

(x/r)

2

+ (y/r)

2

+ (z/r)

2

=

_

sin

2

() cos

2

() + sin

2

() cos

2

() + cos

2

() = 1

h

=

_

(x/)

2

+ (y/)

2

+ (z/)

2

=

_

r

2

cos

2

() cos

2

() + r

2

cos

2

() cos

2

() + r

2

sin

2

() = r

h

=

_

(x/)

2

+ (y/)

2

+ (z/)

2

=

_

r

2

sin

2

() sin

2

() + r

2

sin

2

() cos

2

() = r sin()

Replacing these values in expression (16), yields:

2

=

1

r

2

sin()

_

r

_

r

2

sin()

r

_

+

_

sin()

_

+

_

1

sin()

__

or, simplifying:

2

=

1

r

2

r

_

r

2

r

_

+

1

r

2

sin()

_

sin()

_

+

1

r

2

sin

2

()

2

(24)

7

James Foadi - Oxford 2011

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