Fine structure

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Interference fringes, showing fine structure (splitting) of a cooled deuterium source, viewed through a Fabry-Pérot étalon.

In atomic physics, the fine structure describes the splitting of the spectral lines of atoms due to electron spin and relativistic corrections to the non-relativistic Schrödinger equation.


Gross structure[edit]

The gross structure of line spectra is the line spectra predicted by the quantum mechanics of non-relativistic electrons with no spin. For a hydrogenic atom, the gross structure energy levels only depend on the principal quantum number n. However, a more accurate model takes into account relativistic and spin effects, which break the degeneracy of the energy levels and split the spectral lines. The scale of the fine structure splitting relative to the gross structure energies is on the order of ()2, where Z is the atomic number and α is the fine-structure constant, a dimensionless number equal to approximately .

Relativistic corrections[edit]

The fine structure energy corrections can be obtained by using perturbation theory. To do this one adds three corrective terms to the Hamiltonian: the leading order relativistic correction to the kinetic energy, the correction due to the spin-orbit coupling, and the Darwinian term[clarification needed].

These corrections can also be obtained from the non-relativistic limit of the Dirac equation, since Dirac's theory naturally incorporates relativity and spin interactions.

Kinetic energy relativistic correction[edit]

Classically, the kinetic energy term of the Hamiltonian is

where is the momentum and is the mass of the electron.

However, when considering a more accurate theory of nature via. special relativity, we must use a relativistic form of the kinetic energy,

where the first term is the total relativistic energy, and the second term is the rest energy of the electron. ( is the speed of light) Expanding this in a Taylor series ( specifically a binomial series ), we find

Then, the first order correction to the Hamiltonian is

Using this as a perturbation, we can calculate the first order energy corrections due to relativistic effects.

where is the unperturbed wave function. Recalling the unperturbed Hamiltonian, we see

We can use this result to further calculate the relativistic correction:

For the hydrogen atom, , , and where is the Bohr Radius, is the principal quantum number and is the azimuthal quantum number. Therefore, the first order relativistic correction for the hydrogen atom is

where we have used:

On final calculation, the order of magnitude for the relativistic correction to the ground state is .

Spin-orbit coupling[edit]

For a hydrogen-like atom with protons, orbital momentum and electron spin , the spin-orbit term is given by:

is the electron mass, is the vacuum permittivity and is the spin g-factor. is the distance of the electron from the nucleus.

The spin-orbit correction can be understood by shifting from the standard frame of reference (where the electron orbits the nucleus) into one where the electron is stationary and the nucleus instead orbits it. In this case the orbiting nucleus functions as an effective current loop, which in turn will generate a magnetic field. However, the electron itself has a magnetic moment due to its intrinsic angular momentum. The two magnetic vectors, and couple together so that there is a certain energy cost depending on their relative orientation. This gives rise to the energy correction of the form

Notice that there is a factor of 2, called the Thomas precession, which comes from the relativistic calculation that changes back to the electron's frame from the nucleus frame.


the expectation value for the Hamiltonian is:

Thus the order of magnitude for the spin-orbital coupling is .

Darwin term[edit]

There is one last term in the non-relativistic expansion of the Dirac equation. Because it was first derived by Charles Galton Darwin it is referred to as the Darwin term, and is given by:

The Darwin term affects only the s-orbit. This is because the wave function of an electron with vanishes at the origin, hence the delta function has no effect. For example, it gives the 2s-orbit the same energy as the 2p-orbit by raising the 2s-state by 9.057×10−5 eV.

The Darwin term changes the effective potential at the nucleus. It can be interpreted as a smearing out of the electrostatic interaction between the electron and nucleus due to zitterbewegung, or rapid quantum oscillations, of the electron. This can be demonstrated by a short calculation[1]

Quantum fluctuations allow for the creation of virtual electron-positron pairs with a lifetime estimated by the uncertainty principle . The distance the particles can move during this time is , the Compton wavelength. The electrons of the atom interact with those pairs. This yields a fluctuating electron position . Using a Taylor expansion, the effect on the potential can be estimated:

Averaging over the fluctuations

gives the average potential

Approximating , this yields the perturbation of the potential due to fluctuations:

To compare with the expression above, plug in the Coulomb potential:

This is only slightly different.

Another mechanism that affects only the s-state is the Lamb shift, a further, smaller correction that arises in quantum electrodynamics that should not be confused with the Darwin term. The Darwin term gives the s-state and p-state the same energy, but the Lamb shift makes the s-state higher in energy than the p-state.

Total effect[edit]

The full Hamiltonian is given by

where is the Hamiltonian from the Coulomb interaction.

The total effect, obtained by summing the three components up, is given by the following expression:[2]

where is the total angular momentum ( if and otherwise). It is worth noting that this expression was first obtained by A. Sommerfeld based on the old Bohr theory; i.e., before the modern quantum mechanics was formulated.

The total effect can also be obtained by using the Dirac equation. In this case, the electron is treated as non-relativistic. The exact energies are given by[3]

This expression, which contains all higher order terms that were left out in the other calculations, expands to first order to give the energy corrections derived from perturbation theory. However, this equation does not contain the hyperfine structure corrections, which are due to interactions with the nuclear spin. Other corrections from quantum field theory such as the Lamb shift and the anomalous magnetic dipole moment of the electron are not included.

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[clarification needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zelevinsky, Vladimir (2011), Quantum Physics Volume 1: From Basics to Symmetries and Perturbations, WILEY-VCH, ISBN 978-3-527-40979-2  p. 551
  2. ^ Berestetskii, V. B.; E. M. Lifshitz; L. P. Pitaevskii (1982). Quantum electrodynamics. Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-3371-0. 
  3. ^ Sommerfeld, Arnold (1919). Atombau und Spektrallinien'. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn. ISBN 3-87144-484-7.  German English

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