Parabolic cylindrical coordinates

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Coordinate surfaces of parabolic cylindrical coordinates. The red parabolic cylinder corresponds to σ=2, whereas the yellow parabolic cylinder corresponds to τ=1. The blue plane corresponds to z=2. These surfaces intersect at the point P (shown as a black sphere), which has Cartesian coordinates roughly (2, -1.5, 2).

In mathematics, parabolic cylindrical coordinates are a three-dimensional orthogonal coordinate system that results from projecting the two-dimensional parabolic coordinate system in the perpendicular z-direction. Hence, the coordinate surfaces are confocal parabolic cylinders. Parabolic cylindrical coordinates have found many applications, e.g., the potential theory of edges.

Basic definition[edit]

Parabolic coordinate system showing curves of constant σ and τ the horizontal and vertical axes are the x and y coordinates respectively. These coordinates are projected along the z-axis, and so this diagram will hold for any value of the z coordinate.

The parabolic cylindrical coordinates (\sigma, \tau, z) are defined in terms of the Cartesian coordinates (x,y,z)  by:

x = \sigma \tau\,
y = \frac{1}{2} \left( \tau^{2} - \sigma^{2} \right)
z = z\,

The surfaces of constant \sigma form confocal parabolic cylinders

2y = \frac{x^{2}}{\sigma^{2}} - \sigma^{2}

that open towards +y, whereas the surfaces of constant \tau form confocal parabolic cylinders

2y = -\frac{x^{2}}{\tau^{2}} + \tau^{2}

that open in the opposite direction, i.e., towards -y. The foci of all these parabolic cylinders are located along the line defined by x=y=0. The radius r has a simple formula as well

r = \sqrt{x^{2} + y^{2}} = \frac{1}{2} \left( \sigma^{2} + \tau^{2} \right)

that proves useful in solving the Hamilton-Jacobi equation in parabolic coordinates for the inverse-square central force problem of mechanics; for further details, see the Laplace–Runge–Lenz vector article.

Scale factors[edit]

The scale factors for the parabolic cylindrical coordinates \sigma and \tau are:

h_{\sigma} = h_{\tau} = \sqrt{\sigma^{2} + \tau^{2}}

The infinitesimal element of volume is

dV = h_\sigma h_\tau h_z=\left( \sigma^{2} + \tau^{2} \right) d\sigma d\tau dz

and the Laplacian equals

\nabla^{2} \Phi = \frac{1}{\sigma^{2} + \tau^{2}} 
\left(  \frac{\partial^{2} \Phi}{\partial \sigma^{2}} + 
\frac{\partial^{2} \Phi}{\partial \tau^{2}} \right) +
\frac{\partial^{2} \Phi}{\partial z^{2}}

Other differential operators such as \nabla \cdot \mathbf{F} and \nabla \times \mathbf{F} can be expressed in the coordinates (\sigma, \tau) by substituting the scale factors into the general formulae found in orthogonal coordinates.

Parabolic cylinder harmonics[edit]

Since all of the surfaces of constant σ, τ and z  are conicoid, Laplace's equation is separable in parabolic cylindrical coordinates. Using the technique of the separation of variables, a separated solution to Laplace's equation may be written:


and Laplace's equation, divided by V , is written:


Since the Z  equation is separate from the rest, we may write


where m  is constant. Z(z) has the solution:


Substituting -m^2 for \ddot{Z}/Z , Laplace's equation may now be written:


We may now separate the S  and T  functions and introduce another constant n^2 to obtain:

\ddot{S} - (m^2\sigma^2+n^2)S=0
\ddot{T} - (m^2\tau^2   -n^2)T=0

The solutions to these equations are the parabolic cylinder functions

S_{mn}(\sigma) = A_3\,y_1(n^2/2m,\sigma\sqrt{2m}) + A_4\,y_2(n^2/2m,\sigma\sqrt{2m})
T_{mn}(\tau)   = A_5\,y_1(n^2/2m,i\tau \sqrt{2m}) + A_6\,y_2(n^2/2m,i\tau \sqrt{2m})

The parabolic cylinder harmonics for (m,n) are now the product of the solutions. The combination will reduce the number of constants and the general solution to Laplace's equation may be written:

V(\sigma,\tau,z)=\sum_{m,n} A_{mn} S_{mn} T_{mn} Z_m\,


The classic applications of parabolic cylindrical coordinates are in solving partial differential equations, e.g., Laplace's equation or the Helmholtz equation, for which such coordinates allow a separation of variables. A typical example would be the electric field surrounding a flat semi-infinite conducting plate.

See also[edit]


  • Morse PM, Feshbach H (1953). Methods of Theoretical Physics, Part I. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 658. ISBN 0-07-043316-X. LCCN 52011515. 
  • Margenau H, Murphy GM (1956). The Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry. New York: D. van Nostrand. pp. 186–187. LCCN 55010911. 
  • Korn GA, Korn TM (1961). Mathematical Handbook for Scientists and Engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 181. LCCN 59014456. ASIN B0000CKZX7. 
  • Sauer R, Szabó I (1967). Mathematische Hilfsmittel des Ingenieurs. New York: Springer Verlag. p. 96. LCCN 67025285. 
  • Zwillinger D (1992). Handbook of Integration. Boston, MA: Jones and Bartlett. p. 114. ISBN 0-86720-293-9.  Same as Morse & Feshbach (1953), substituting uk for ξk.
  • Moon P, Spencer DE (1988). "Parabolic-Cylinder Coordinates (μ, ν, z)". Field Theory Handbook, Including Coordinate Systems, Differential Equations, and Their Solutions (corrected 2nd ed., 3rd print ed.). New York: Springer-Verlag. pp. 21–24 (Table 1.04). ISBN 978-0-387-18430-2. 

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