In physics, a ponderomotive force is a nonlinear force that a charged particle experiences in an inhomogeneous oscillating electromagnetic field. It causes the particle to move towards the area of the weaker field strength, rather than oscillating around an initial point as happens in a homogeneous field. This occurs because the particle sees a greater magnitude of force during the half of the oscillation period while it is in the area with the stronger field. The net force during its period in the weaker area in the second half of the oscillation does not offset the net force of the first half, and so over a complete cycle this makes the particle move towards the area of lesser force.
The ponderomotive force Fp is expressed by
which has units of newtons (in SI units) and where e is the electrical charge of the particle, m is its mass, ω is the angular frequency of oscillation of the field, and E is the amplitude of the electric field. At low enough amplitudes the magnetic field exerts very little force.
This equation means that a charged particle in an inhomogeneous oscillating field not only oscillates at the frequency of ω of the field, but is also accelerated by Fp toward the weak field direction. This is a rare case where the sign of the charge on the particle does not change the direction of the force ((-e)2=(+e)2).
The derivation of the ponderomotive force expression proceeds as follows.
Consider a particle under the action of a non-uniform electric field oscillating at frequency in the x-direction. The equation of motion is given by:
neglecting the effect of the associated oscillating magnetic field.
If the length scale of variation of is large enough, then the particle trajectory can be divided into a slow time motion and a fast time motion:
where is the slow drift motion and represents fast oscillations. Now, let us also assume that . Under this assumption, we can use Taylor expansion on the force equation about , to get:
- , and because is small, , so
On the time scale on which oscillates, is essentially a constant. Thus, the above can be integrated to get:
Substituting this in the force equation and averaging over the timescale, we get,
Thus, we have obtained an expression for the drift motion of a charged particle under the effect of a non-uniform oscillating field.
Time averaged density
Instead of a single charged particle, there could be a gas of charged particles confined by the action of such a force. Such a gas of charged particles is called plasma. The distribution function and density of the plasma will fluctuate at the applied oscillating frequency and to obtain an exact solution, we need to solve the Vlasov Equation. But, it is usually assumed that the time averaged density of the plasma can be directly obtained from the expression for the force expression for the drift motion of individual charged particles:
where is the ponderomotive potential and is given by
Generalized ponderomotive force
Instead of just an oscillating field, a permanent field could also be present. In such a situation, the force equation of a charged particle becomes:
To solve the above equation, we can make a similar assumption as we did for the case when . This gives a generalized expression for the drift motion of the particle:
The idea of a ponderomotive description of particles under the action of a time-varying field has applications in areas like:
- Combined rf trap
- High harmonic generation
- Plasma acceleration of particles
- Plasma propulsion engine especially the Electrodeless plasma thruster
- Quadrupole ion trap
- Terahertz time-domain spectroscopy as a source of high energy THz radiation in laser-induced air plasmas
The ponderomotive force also plays an important role in laser induced plasmas as a major density lowering factor.
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