Ion acoustic wave

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In plasma physics, an ion acoustic wave is one type of longitudinal oscillation of the ions and electrons in a plasma, much like acoustic waves traveling in neutral gas. However, because the waves propagate through positively charged ions, ion acoustic waves can interact with their electromagnetic fields, as well as simple collisions. In plasmas, ion acoustic waves are frequently referred to as acoustic waves or even just sound waves. They commonly govern the evolution of mass density, for instance due to pressure gradients, on time scales longer than the frequency corresponding to the relevant length scale. Ion acoustic waves can occur in an unmagnetized plasma or in a magnetized plasma parallel to the magnetic field. For a single ion species plasma and in the long wavelength limit, the waves are dispersionless (\omega=v_sk) with a speed given by (see derivation below)

v_s = \sqrt{\frac{\gamma_{e}ZK_{B}T_e+\gamma_{i}K_{B}T_i}{M}}

where K_{B} is Boltzmann's constant, M is the mass of the ion, Z is its charge, T_e is the temperature of the electrons and T_i is the temperature of the ions. Normally γe is taken to be unity, on the grounds that the thermal conductivity of electrons is large enough to keep them isothermal on the time scale of ion acoustic waves, and γi is taken to be 3, corresponding to one-dimensional motion. In collisionless plasmas, the electrons are often much hotter than the ions, in which case the second term in the numerator can be ignored.


We derive the ion acoustic wave dispersion relation for a linearized fluid description of a plasma with multiple ion species. A subscript 0 denotes constant equilibrium quantities, and 1 denotes first-order perturbations. We assume the pressure perturbations for each species (electrons and ions) are a Polytropic_process, namely p_{s1} = \gamma_s T_{s0} n_{s1} for species s. Using the ion continuity equation, the ion momentum equation becomes

(-m_i\partial_{tt}+\gamma_iT_i\nabla^2)n_{i1} = Z_ien_{i0}\nabla\cdot\vec E

We relate the electric field \vec E_1 to the electron density by the electron momentum equation:

n_{e0}m_e\partial_t\vec v_{e1} = -n_{e0}e\vec E_1 - \gamma_eT_e\nabla n_{e1}

We now neglect the left-hand side, which is due to electron inertia. This is valid for waves with frequencies much less than the electron plasma frequency. The resulting electric field is

\vec E_1  = - {\gamma_eT_e \over n_{e0}e}\nabla n_{e1}

Since we have already solved for the electric field, we cannot also find it from Poisson's equation. The ion momentum equation now relates n_{i1} for each species to n_{e1}:

(-m_i\partial_{tt}+\gamma_iT_i\nabla^2)n_{i1} = -\gamma_e T_e \nabla^2 n_{e1}

We arrive at a dispersion relation via Poisson's equation:

 {\epsilon_0 \over e}\nabla\cdot\vec E = [\sum_i n_{i0}Z_i - n_{ne0}] + [\sum_in_{i1}Z_i - n_{e1}]

The first bracketed term on the right is zero by assumption (charge-neutral equilibrium). We substitute for the electric field and rearrange to find

 (1-\gamma_e \lambda_{De}^2\nabla^2)n_{e1} = \sum_iZ_in_{i1} .

\lambda_{De}^2 \equiv \epsilon_0T_e/(n_{e0}e^2) defines the electron Debye length. The second term on the left arises from the \nabla\cdot\vec E term, and reflects the degree to which the perturbation is not charge-neutral. If k\lambda_{De} is small we may drop this term. This approximation is sometimes called the plasma approximation.

We now work in Fourier space, and find

 n_{i1} = \gamma_eT_eZ_i {n_{i0} \over n_{e0}} [m_iv_s^2-\gamma_iT_i]^{-1} n_{e1}

v_s=\omega/k is the wave phase velocity. Substituting this into Poisson's equation gives us an expression where each term is proportional to n_{e1}. To find the dispersion relation for natural modes, we look for solutions for n_{e1} nonzero and find:

 \gamma_eT_e \sum_i Z_i^2f_i[m_iv_s^2-\gamma_iT_i]^{-1} = \bar Z(1+\gamma_ek^2\lambda_{De}^2)






n_{i1}=f_in_{I1} where n_{I1}=\Sigma_i n_{i1}, and \bar Z = \Sigma_i Z_if_i . A unitless version of this equation is

 \sum_i {F_i \over u^2 - \tau_i} = 1+\gamma_e k^2\lambda_{De}^2

with A_i=m_i/m_u, m_u is the atomic mass unit, u^2=m_uv_s^2/T_e, and

 F_i = {Z_i^2 f_i \gamma_e \over A_i \bar Z}, \quad \tau_i = {\gamma_i T_i \over A_i T_e}

If k\lambda_{De} is small (the plasma approximation), we can neglect the second term on the right-hand side, and the wave is dispersionless \omega = v_sk with v_s independent of k.

Specific Examples[edit]

To illustrate some features of ion acoustic waves, we can consider some specific examples of the general dispersion relation given above. First, for a single ion species, we find

v_s^2 = {\gamma_eZ_iT_e \over m_i}[{1 \over 1+\gamma_e(k\lambda_{De})^2} + {\gamma_iT_{i} \over \gamma_eZ_iT_{e}}]

For any number of ion species, all of which are cold (\gamma_iT_{i} \ll m_iv_s^2), we obtain

v_s^2 = {\gamma_eT_e \over 1+\gamma_e(k\lambda_{De})^2} \sum_i {Z_i^2f_i \over \bar Z m_i}






A case of interest to nuclear fusion is an equimolar mixture of deuterium and tritium ions (f_D=f_T=1/2). Let us specialize to full ionization (Z_D=Z_T=1), equal temperatures (T_e=T_i\equiv T_0), polytrope exponents \gamma_e=1, \gamma_i=3, and neglect the (k\lambda_{De})^2 contribution. The dispersion relation becomes a quadratic in v_s^2, namely:

2A_DA_Tu^4 - 7(A_D+A_T)u^2 + 24=0

Using (A_D,A_T)=(2.01,3.02) we find the two roots are u^2=(1.10,1.81).

Two Ion Species: Fast and Slow Modes[edit]

As seen in Eq. coldTi above, for cold ions there is a single root to the ion acoustic wave dispersion relation (with + and - vs corresponding to right and left moving waves). In the general dispersion relation Eq. dispgen, each ion species contributes a term on the left-hand side, and gives an additional root. This applies, for instance, to the D-T example considered above. Another case of interest is one with two ion species of very different masses. An example is a mixture of gold (A=197) and boron (A=10.8), which is currently of interest in hohlraums for laser-driven inertial fusion research. For a concrete example, consider \gamma_e=1 and  \gamma_i=3, T_i=T_e/2 for both ion species, and charge states Z=5 for boron and Z=50 for gold. We leave the boron atomic fraction f_B unspecified (note f_{Au}=1-f_B). Thus, \bar Z=50-45 f_B, \tau_B=0.139, \tau_{Au}=0.00761, F_B=2.31 f_B/\bar Z, and  F_{Au}=12.69(1-f_B)/\bar Z.


Ion acoustic waves are damped both by Coulomb collisions and collisionless Landau damping. The Landau damping occurs on both electrons and ions, with the relative importance depending on parameters.

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