Multipole expansion of electric field

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In physics, the electric potential Φ, caused by—and outside—a non-central-symmetric charge distribution ρ(r), can be expanded in a series, the multipole expansion of Φ. This expansion is in terms of powers of 1/R, where R is the distance of a field point R to a point inside ρ.

A static three-dimensional electric charge distributions ρ(r) creates an electric potential in the space surrounding it—with the exception of a neutral, spherically symmetric, charge distribution, like a noble gas atom, which does not create an electric field in its environment. Take a Cartesian coordinate system somewhere inside ρ. The potential Φ in a point outside the charge distribution can be expanded in powers of 1/R, where R = |R| is the length of R, the position vector of the field point expressed with respect to the Cartesian system.

In this expansion the powers of 1/R are multiplied by angular functions depending on the spherical polar angles of R and also by coefficients with physical meaning. The latter, known as the static multipoles of the charge distribution, are completely determined by the shape and total charge of the charge distribution. The occurrence of multipoles explains the name of the expansion of Φ. The best known example of a multipole is the permanent electric dipole of a charge distribution.

Two different ways of deriving and presenting the multipole expansion can be found in the literature; both will be given below. The first is a Taylor series in Cartesian coordinates, while the second is in terms of spherical harmonics, functions which depend on spherical polar coordinates. The Cartesian approach has the advantage that no prerequisite knowledge of Legendre functions, spherical harmonics, etc., is assumed. Its disadvantage is that the derivations are fairly cumbersome, in fact a large part of it is the implicit rederivation of the Legendre expansion of 1/|r-R|, which was first done by Legendre in the 1780s. Also it is difficult to give closed expressions for general terms of the multipole expansion—usually only the first few terms are given followed by some dots.

Expansion in Cartesian coordinates

For the sake of argument we consider a continuous charge distribution ρ(r), where r indicates the coordinate vector of a point inside the charge distribution. The case of a discrete distribution consisting of N charges q i follows easily by substituting

where r i is the position vector of particle i and δ is the 3-dimensional Dirac delta function. Since an electric potential is additive, the potential at the point R outside ρ(r) is given by the integral

where V is a volume that encompasses all of ρ(r) and ε0 is the electric constant (formerly known as the permittivity of the vacuum).

The Taylor expansion of a function v(r-R) around the origin r = 0 is,


Note that the function v must be sufficiently often differentiable, otherwise it is arbitrary. In the special case that v(r-R) satisfies the Laplace equation

the expansion can be rewritten in terms of the components of a traceless Cartesian second rank tensor,

where δαβ is the Kronecker delta and r2 ≡ |r|2. Removing the trace is common and useful, because it takes the rotational invariant r2 out of the second rank tensor.

So far we considered an arbitrary function, let us take now the following,

then by direct differentiation it follows that

Define a monopole, dipole and (traceless) quadrupole by, respectively,

and we obtain finally the first few terms of the multipole expansion of the total potential,

This expansion of the potential of a charge distribution is very similar to the one in real solid harmonics given below. The main difference is that the present one is in terms of linear dependent quantities, for


If the charge distribution consists of two charges of opposite sign which are an infinitesimal distance d apart, so that d/R >> (d/R)2, it is easily shown that the only non-vanishing term in the multipole expansion is


the electric dipolar potential field. Since the non-unit vector R appears in the numerator, the dependence of the field on distance is 1/R2, not 1/R3 as it may seem on first sight. A charge distribution is called a point dipole if it consists of two charges of opposite sign and same absolute value at an infinitesimal distance apart. It can be shown that an electrically neutral distribution of four charges at an infinitesimal distance apart (a point quadrupole) gives only a term in the external field proportional to 1/R3. A point octupole requires 8 charges, and so on. This explains the name multipole.

Spherical form

Since the charge distribution is enclosed in a finite volume V, there is a maximum rmax to r; this is the largest value of r for which the charge density is non-zero. The potential Φ(R) at a point R outside the volume V, i.e., |R| > rmax, can be expanded by the Laplace expansion,

where is an irregular solid harmonics (which is a spherical harmonic function depending on the polar angles of R and divided by Rl+1) and is a regular solid harmonics (a spherical harmonics times r l). Both functions are not normalized to unity, but according to Racah (also known as Schmidt's semi-normalization). We define the spherical multipole moment of the charge distribution as follows

Note that a multipole moment is solely determined by the charge distribution ρ(r).

A unit normalized spherical harmonic function Yml depends on the unit vector . (A unit vector is determined by two spherical polar angles and conversely.) Thus, by definition, the irregular solid harmonics can be written as

so that the multipole expansion of the electric potential field V(R) at the point R outside the charge distribution can be written in two equivalent ways,

This expansion is completely general in that it gives a closed form for all terms, not just for the first few. It shows that the spherical multipole moments appear as coefficients in the 1/R expansion of the potential.

It is of interest to consider the first few terms in real form, which are the only terms commonly found in undergraduate textbooks. Since the expression containing the summation over m is invariant under a unitary transformation of both factors simultaneously and since transformation of complex spherical harmonics to real form is by a unitary transformation, we can simply substitute real irregular solid harmonics and real multipole moments. The l = 0 term becomes

This is in fact Coulomb's law again. For the l = 1 term we introduce


This term is identical to the one found above in Cartesian form.

In order to write the l=2 term, we have to introduce short-hand notations for the five real components of the quadrupole moment and the real spherical harmonics. Notations of the type

can be found in the literature. Clearly the real notation becomes awkward very soon, exhibiting the usefulness of the complex notation.