Van der Pol oscillator

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Phase portrait of the unforced Van der Pol oscillator, showing a limit cycle and the direction field
Evolution of the limit cycle in the phase plane. The limit cycle begins as circle and, with varying μ, become increasingly sharp. An example of a Relaxation oscillator.

In dynamics, the Van der Pol oscillator is a non-conservative oscillator with non-linear damping. It evolves in time according to the second-order differential equation:

{d^2x \over dt^2}-\mu(1-x^2){dx \over dt}+x= 0

where x is the position coordinate—which is a function of the time t, and μ is a scalar parameter indicating the nonlinearity and the strength of the damping.


The Van der Pol oscillator was originally proposed by the Dutch electrical engineer and physicist Balthasar van der Pol while he was working at Philips.[1] Van der Pol found stable oscillations, which he called relaxation-oscillations[2] and are now known as limit cycles, in electrical circuits employing vacuum tubes. When these circuits were driven near the limit cycle they become entrained, i.e. the driving signal pulls the current along with it. Van der Pol and his colleague, van der Mark, reported in the September 1927 issue of Nature [3] that at certain drive frequencies an irregular noise was heard. This irregular noise was always heard near the natural entrainment frequencies. This was one of the first discovered instances of deterministic chaos.[4]

The Van der Pol equation has a long history of being used in both the physical and biological sciences. For instance, in biology, Fitzhugh[5] and Nagumo[6] extended the equation in a planar field as a model for action potentials of neurons. The equation has also been utilised in seismology to model the two plates in a geological fault.[7]

Two-dimensional form[edit]

Liénard's theorem can be used to prove that the system has a limit cycle. Applying the Liénard transformation y = x - x^3/3 - \dot x/\mu, where the dot indicates the time derivative, the Van der Pol oscillator can be written in its two-dimensional form:[8]

\dot x = \mu \left(x-\frac{1}{3}x^3-y\right)
\dot y = \frac{1}{\mu} x.

Another commonly used form based on the transformation y = \dot x is leading to

\dot x = y
\dot y = \mu(1-x^2) y-x.

Results for the unforced oscillator[edit]

Relaxation oscillation in the Van der Pol oscillator without external forcing. The nonlinear damping parameter is equal to μ = 5.

Two interesting regimes for the characteristics of the unforced oscillator are:[9]

  • When μ = 0, i.e. there is no damping function, the equation becomes:
{d^2x \over dt^2}+x= 0.
This is a form of the simple harmonic oscillator and there is always conservation of energy.
  • When μ > 0, the system will enter a limit cycle. Near the origin x = dx/dt = 0 the system is unstable, and far from the origin the system is damped.

Forced Van der Pol oscillator[edit]

Chaotic behaviour in the Van der Pol oscillator with sinusoidal forcing. The nonlinear damping parameter is equal to μ = 8.53, while the forcing has amplitude A = 1.2 and angular frequency ω = 2π / 10.

The forced, or driven, Van der Pol oscillator takes the 'original' function and adds a driving function Asin(ωt) to give a differential equation of the form:

{d^2x \over dt^2}-\mu(1-x^2){dx \over dt}+x-A \sin(\omega t)= 0,

where A is the amplitude, or displacement, of the wave function and ω is its angular velocity.

Popular culture[edit]

Electrical circuit involving a triode, resulting in a forced Van der Pol oscillator.[10] The circuit contains: a triode, a resistor R, a capacitor C, a coupled inductor-set with self inductance L and mutual inductance M. In the serial RLC circuit there is a current i, and towards the triode anode ("plate") a current ia, while there is a voltage ug on the triode control grid. The Van der Pol oscillator is forced by an AC voltage source Es.

Author James Gleick described a vacuum-tube Van der Pol oscillator in his book Chaos: Making a New Science.[11] According to a New York Times article,[12] Gleick received a modern electronic Van der Pol oscillator from a reader in 1988.

See also[edit]

  • Mary Cartwright, British mathematician, one of the first to study the theory of deterministic chaos, particularly as applied to this oscillator


  1. ^ Cartwright, M.L., "Balthazar van der Pol", J. London Math. Soc., 35, 367-376, (1960).
  2. ^ Van der Pol, B., "On relaxation-oscillations", The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Phil. Mag. & J. of Sci., 2(7), 978-992 (1926).
  3. ^ Van der Pol, B. and Van der Mark, J., “Frequency demultiplication”, Nature, 120, 363-364, (1927).
  4. ^ Kanamaru, T., "Van der Pol oscillator", Scholarpedia, 2(1), 2202, (2007).
  5. ^ FitzHugh, R., “Impulses and physiological states in theoretical models of nerve membranes”, Biophysics J, 1, 445-466, (1961).
  6. ^ Nagumo, J., Arimoto, S. and Yoshizawa, S. "An active pulse transmission line simulating nerve axon", Proc. IRE, 50, 2061-2070, (1962).
  7. ^ Cartwright, J., Eguiluz, V., Hernandez-Garcia, E. and Piro, O., "Dynamics of elastic excitable media", Internat. J. Bifur. Chaos Appl. Sci. Engrg., 9, 2197–2202, (1999).
  8. ^ Kaplan, D. and Glass, L., Understanding Nonlinear Dynamics, Springer, 240–244, (1995).
  9. ^ Grimshaw, R., Nonlinear ordinary differential equations, CRC Press, 153–163, (1993), ISBN 0-8493-8607-1.
  10. ^ K. Tomita (1986): "Periodically forced nonlinear oscillators". In: Chaos, Ed. Arun V. Holden. Manchester University Press, ISBN 0719018110, pp. 213–214.
  11. ^ Gleick, James (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 41–43. ISBN 0-14-009250-1. 
  12. ^ Colman, David (11 July 2011). "There's No Quiet Without Noise". New York Times. Retrieved 11 July 2011. 

External links[edit]