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Chemistry LibreTexts

3.1: The Schrödinger Equation

Skills to Develop

  • To be introduced to the general properties of the Schrödinger equation and its solutions.

De Broglie’s doctoral thesis, defended at the end of 1924, created a lot of excitement in European physics circles. Shortly after it was published in the fall of 1925 Pieter Debye, a theorist in Zurich, suggested to Erwin Schrödinger that he give a seminar on de Broglie’s work. Schrödinger gave a polished presentation, but at the end Debye remarked that he considered the whole theory rather childish: why should a wave confine itself to a circle in space? It wasn’t as if the circle was a waving circular string, real waves in space diffracted and diffused, in fact they obeyed three-dimensional wave equations, and that was what was needed.  This was a direct challenge to Schrödinger, who spent some weeks in the Swiss mountains working on the problem, and constructing his equation. There is no rigorous derivation of Schrödinger’s equation from previously established theory, but it can be made very plausible by thinking about the connection between light waves and photons, and construction an analogous structure for de Broglie’s waves and electrons (and, later, other particles).

The Schrödinger Equation: A Better Quantum Approach

While the Bohr model is able to predict the allowed energies of any single-electron atom or cation, it by no means, a general approach. Moreover, it relies heavily on classical ideas, clumsily grafting quantization onto an essentially classical picture, and therefore, provides no real insights into the true quantum nature of the atom. Any rule that might be capable of predicting the allowed energies of a quantum system must also account for the wave-particle duality and implicitly include a wave-like description for particles.

In 1926, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger posited an equation that predicts both the allowed energies of a system as well as address the wave-particle duality of matter. Schrödinger equation for de Broglie's matter waves cannot be derived from some other principle since it constitutes a fundamental law of nature. Its correctness can be judged only by its subsequent agreement with observed phenomena (a posteriori proof). Nonetheless, we will attempt a heuristic argument to make the result at least plausible. In classical electromagnetic theory, it follows from Maxwell's equations that each component of the electric and magnetic fields in vacuum is a solution of the 3-D wave equation for electronmagnetic waves:

\[\nabla^2 \Psi(x,y,z,t) -\dfrac{1}{c^2}\dfrac{\partial ^2 \Psi(x,y,z,t) }{\partial t^2}=0\label{3.1.1}\]

The wave equation in Equation \(\ref{3.1.1}\) is the three-dimensional analog to the wave equation presented earlier (Equation 2.1.1) with the velocity fixed to the known speed of light: \(c\). Instead of a partial derivative \(\dfrac{\partial^2}{\partial t^2}\) in one dimension, the Laplacian (or "del-squared") operator is introduced:

\[\nabla^2=\dfrac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2}+\dfrac{\partial^2}{\partial y^2}+\dfrac{\partial^2}{\partial z^2}\label{3.1.2}\]

Corresponding, the solution to this 3D equation wave equation is a function of four independent variables: \(x\), \(y\),\(z\), and \(t\) and is generally called the wavefunction \(\psi\).

We will attempt now to create an analogous equation for de Broglie's matter waves. Accordingly, let us consider a only 1-dimensional wave motion propagating in the x-direction. At a given instant of time, the form of a wave might be represented by a function such as

\[\Psi(x)=f\left(\dfrac {2\pi x}{ \lambda}\right)\label{3.1.3}\]

where \(f(\theta)\) represents a sinusoidal function such as \(\sin\theta\), \(\cos\theta\), \(e^{i\theta}\), \(e^{-i\theta}\) or some linear combination of these. The most suggestive form will turn out to be the complex exponential, which is related to the sine and cosine by Euler's formula

\[e^{i\theta}=\cos\theta + i \sin\theta\label{3.1.4}\]

Each of the above is a periodic function, its value repeating every time its argument increases by \(2\pi\). This happens whenever \(x\) increases by one wavelength \(\lambda\). At a fixed point in space, the time-dependence of the wave has an analogous structure:

\[T(t)=f(2\pi\nu t)\label{3.1.5}\]

where \(\nu\) gives the number of cycles of the wave per unit time. Taking into account both \(x\) and \(t\) dependence, we consider a wavefunction of the form

\[\Psi(x,t)=exp\left[2\pi i\left(\dfrac{x}{\lambda}-\nu t\right)\right]\label{3.1.6}\]

representing waves traveling from left to right. Now we make use of the Planck formula (\(E=h\nu\)) and de Broglie formulas (\(p=\frac{h}{\lambda}\)) to replace \(\nu\) and \(\lambda\) by their particle analogs. This gives

\[\Psi(x,t)=\exp \left[\dfrac{i(px-Et)}{\hbar} \right] \label{3.1.7}\]


\[\hbar \equiv \dfrac{h}{2\pi}\label{3.1.8}\]

Since Planck's constant occurs in most formulas with the denominator \(2\pi\), this symbol was introduced by Peter Dirac. Equation \(\ref{3.1.5}\) represents in some way the wavelike nature of a particle with energy \(E\) and momentum \(p\). The time derivative of Equation \(\ref{3.1.7}\) gives

\[\dfrac{\partial\Psi}{\partial t} = -\left(\dfrac{iE}{\hbar} \right ) \exp \left[\dfrac{i(px-Et)}{\hbar} \right]\label{3.1.9}\]

Thus from a simple comparison of Equations \(\ref{3.1.7}\) and \(\ref{3.1.9}\)

\[i\hbar\dfrac{\partial\Psi}{\partial t} = E\Psi\label{3.1.10}\]

or analogously differentiation of Equation \(\ref{3.1.9}\) with respect to \(x\)

\[-i\hbar\dfrac{\partial\Psi}{\partial x} = p\Psi\label{3.1.11}\]

and then the second derivative

\[-\hbar^2\dfrac{\partial^2\Psi}{\partial x^2} = p^2\Psi\label{3.1.12}\]

The energy and momentum for a nonrelativistic free particle (i.e., all energy is kinetic with no potential energy involved) are related by


Substituting Equations \(\ref{3.1.12}\) and \(\ref{3.1.10}\) into Equation \(\ref{3.1.13}\) shows that \(\Psi(x,t)\) satisfies the following partial differential equation

\[i\hbar\dfrac{\partial\Psi}{\partial t}=-\dfrac{\hbar^2}{2m}\dfrac{\partial^2\Psi}{\partial x^2}\label{3.1.14}\]

Free Particles

Equation \(\ref{3.1.14}\) is the applicable differential equation describing the wavefunction of a free particle that is not bound by any external forces or equivalently not in a region where its potential energy \(V(x,t)\) varies.


Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A wavefunction that satisfies the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation with \(V = 0\), which corresponds to a particle traveling freely through empty space (a traveling wave). Only the real part of the complex wavefunction is plotted here.

For a particle with a non-zero potential energy  \(V(x)\), the total energy \(E\) is then a sum of kinetics and potential energies


we postulate that Equation \(\ref{3.1.3}\) for matter waves can be generalized to

\[i\hbar\dfrac{\partial\Psi(x,t)}{\partial t}=\left[-\dfrac{\hbar^2}{2m}\dfrac{\partial^2}{\partial x^2}+V(x)\right]\Psi(x,t)\label{3.1.16}\]

For waves in three dimensions, Equation \(\ref{3.1.6}\) is then expanded 

\[\textcolor{red}{ i\hbar\dfrac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi(\vec{r},t)=\left[-\dfrac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2+V(\vec{r})\right]\Psi(\vec{r},t)}\label{3.1.17}\]

Here the potential energy and the wavefunctions \(\Psi\) depend on the three space coordinates \(x\), \(y\), \(z\), which we write for brevity as \(\vec{r}\). Notice that the potential energy is assumed to depend on position only and not time (i.e., particle motion). This is applicable for conservative forces that a potential energy function \(V(\vec{r}\) can be formulated.

Equation \(\ref{3.1.17}\) is the time-dependent Schrödinger equation describing the wavefunction amplitude \(\Psi(\vec{r}, t)\) of matter waves associated with the particle within a specified potential \(V(\vec{r})\). Its formulation in 1926 represents the start of modern quantum mechanics (Heisenberg in 1925 proposed another version known as matrix mechanics).

For conservative systems, the energy is a constant, and the time-dependent factor from Equation \(\ref{3.1.7}\) can be separated from the space-only factor (via the Separation of Variables technique discussed in Section 2.2)

\[\Psi(\vec{r},t)=\psi(\vec{r})e^{-iEt / \hbar}\label{3.1.18}\]

where \(\psi(\vec{r})\) is a wavefunction dependent (or time-independent) wavefuction that only depends on space coordinates. Putting Equation \(\ref{3.1.18}\) into Equation \(\ref{3.1.17}\) and cancelling the exponential factors, we obtain the time-independent Schrödinger equation:

\[  \textcolor{red}{ \left[-\dfrac{\hbar^2}{2m}\nabla^2+V(\vec{r})\right]\psi(\vec{r})=E\psi(\vec{r})} \label{3.1.19}\]

The overall form of the Equation \(\ref{3.1.19}\) is not unusual or unexpected as it uses the principle of the conservation of energy. The terms of the Schrödinger equation can be interpreted as total energy of the system, equal to the system kinetic energy plus the system potential energy. In this respect, it is just the same as in classical physics.

Notice that the wavefunctions used with the time-independent Schrödinger equation do not have an explicit \(t\) dependences like the wavefunctions of time-dependent analog (Equation \(\ref{3.1.17}\)). That does not imply that there is not time dependence to the wavefunction as we will discussed alter. Most of our applications of quantum mechanics to chemistry will be based on this equation.

Before we embark on this, however, let us pause to comment on the validity of quantum mechanics. Despite its weirdness, its abstractness, and its strange view of the universe as a place of randomness and unpredictability, quantum theory has been subject to intense experimental scrutiny. It has been found to agree with experiments to better than \(10^{-10}\%\) for all cases studied so far. When the Schrödinger Equation is combined with a quantum description of the electromagnetic field, a theory known as quantum electrodynamics, the result is one of the most accurate theories of matter that has ever been put forth. Keeping this in mind, let us forge ahead in our discussion of the quantum universe and how to apply quantum theory to both model and real situations.