Separation of variables

In mathematics, separation of variables (also known as the Fourier method) is any of several methods for solving ordinary and partial differential equations, in which algebra allows one to rewrite an equation so that each of two variables occurs on a different side of the equation.

Proportional first order differential equation
Linear first order differential equation

Ordinary differential equations (ODE)Edit

Suppose a differential equation can be written in the form


which we can write more simply by letting  :


As long as h(y) ≠ 0, we can rearrange terms to obtain:


so that the two variables x and y have been separated. dx (and dy) can be viewed, at a simple level, as just a convenient notation, which provides a handy mnemonic aid for assisting with manipulations. A formal definition of dx as a differential (infinitesimal) is somewhat advanced.

Alternative notationEdit

Those who dislike Leibniz's notation may prefer to write this as


but that fails to make it quite as obvious why this is called "separation of variables". Integrating both sides of the equation with respect to  , we have


or equivalently,


because of the substitution rule for integrals.

If one can evaluate the two integrals, one can find a solution to the differential equation. Observe that this process effectively allows us to treat the derivative   as a fraction which can be separated. This allows us to solve separable differential equations more conveniently, as demonstrated in the example below.

(Note that we do not need to use two constants of integration, in equation (1) as in


because a single constant   is equivalent.)


Population growth is often modeled by the differential equation


where   is the population with respect to time  ,   is the rate of growth, and   is the carrying capacity of the environment.

Separation of variables may be used to solve this differential equation.


To evaluate the integral on the left side, we simplify the fraction


and then, we decompose the fraction into partial fractions


Thus we have


Therefore, the solution to the logistic equation is


To find  , let   and  . Then we have


Noting that  , and solving for A we get


Generalization of separable ODEs to the nth orderEdit

Much like one can speak of a separable first-order ODE, one can speak of a separable second-order, third-order or nth-order ODE. Consider the separable first-order ODE:

The derivative can alternatively be written the following way to underscore that it is an operator working on the unknown function, y:
Thus, when one separates variables for first-order equations, one in fact moves the dx denominator of the operator to the side with the x variable, and the d(y) is left on the side with the y variable. The second-derivative operator, by analogy, breaks down as follows:
The third-, fourth- and nth-derivative operators break down in the same way. Thus, much like a first-order separable ODE is reducible to the form
a separable second-order ODE is reducible to the form
and an nth-order separable ODE is reducible to


Consider the simple nonlinear second-order differential equation:

This equation is an equation only of y'' and y', meaning it is reducible to the general form described above and is, therefore, separable. Since it is a second-order separable equation, collect all x variables on one side and all y' variables on the other to get:
Now, integrate the right side with respect to x and the left with respect to y':
This gives
which simplifies to:
This is now a simple integral problem that gives the final answer:

Partial differential equationsEdit

The method of separation of variables is also used to solve a wide range of linear partial differential equations with boundary and initial conditions, such as the heat equation, wave equation, Laplace equation, Helmholtz equation and biharmonic equation.

The analytical method of separation of variables for solving partial differential equations has also been generalized into a computational method of decomposition in invariant structures that can be used to solve systems of partial differential equations.[1]

Example: homogeneous caseEdit

Consider the one-dimensional heat equation. The equation is







The variable u denotes temperature. The boundary condition is homogeneous, that is







Let us attempt to find a solution which is not identically zero satisfying the boundary conditions but with the following property: u is a product in which the dependence of u on x, t is separated, that is:







Substituting u back into equation (1) and using the product rule,







Since the right hand side depends only on x and the left hand side only on t, both sides are equal to some constant value − λ. Thus:














− λ here is the eigenvalue for both differential operators, and T(t) and X(x) are corresponding eigenfunctions.

We will now show that solutions for X(x) for values of λ ≤ 0 cannot occur:

Suppose that λ < 0. Then there exist real numbers B, C such that


From (2) we get







and therefore B = 0 = C which implies u is identically 0.

Suppose that λ = 0. Then there exist real numbers B, C such that


From (7) we conclude in the same manner as in 1 that u is identically 0.

Therefore, it must be the case that λ > 0. Then there exist real numbers A, B, C such that




From (7) we get C = 0 and that for some positive integer n,


This solves the heat equation in the special case that the dependence of u has the special form of (3).

In general, the sum of solutions to (1) which satisfy the boundary conditions (2) also satisfies (1) and (3). Hence a complete solution can be given as


where Dn are coefficients determined by initial condition.

Given the initial condition


we can get


This is the sine series expansion of f(x). Multiplying both sides with   and integrating over [0,L] result in


This method requires that the eigenfunctions of x, here  , are orthogonal and complete. In general this is guaranteed by Sturm-Liouville theory.

Example: nonhomogeneous caseEdit

Suppose the equation is nonhomogeneous,







with the boundary condition the same as (2).

Expand h(x,t), u(x,t) and f(x) into



















where hn(t) and bn can be calculated by integration, while un(t) is to be determined.

Substitute (9) and (10) back to (8) and considering the orthogonality of sine functions we get


which are a sequence of linear differential equations that can be readily solved with, for instance, Laplace transform, or Integrating factor. Finally, we can get


If the boundary condition is nonhomogeneous, then the expansion of (9) and (10) is no longer valid. One has to find a function v that satisfies the boundary condition only, and subtract it from u. The function u-v then satisfies homogeneous boundary condition, and can be solved with the above method.

Example: mixed derivativesEdit

For some equations involving mixed derivatives, the equation does not separate as easily as the heat equation did in the first example above, but nonetheless separation of variables may still be applied. Consider the two-dimensional biharmonic equation


Proceeding in the usual manner, we look for solutions of the form


and we obtain the equation


Writing this equation in the form


we see that the derivative with respect to x and y eliminates the first and last terms, so that


i.e. either F(x) or G(y) must be a constant, say -λ. This further implies that either   or   are constant. Returning to the equation for X and Y, we have two cases




which can each be solved by considering the separate cases for   and noting that  .

Curvilinear coordinatesEdit

In orthogonal curvilinear coordinates, separation of variables can still be used, but in some details different from that in Cartesian coordinates. For instance, regularity or periodic condition may determine the eigenvalues in place of boundary conditions. See spherical harmonics for example.


Partial differential equations

For many PDEs, such as the wave equation, Helmholtz equation and Schrodinger equation, the applicability of separation of variables is a result of the spectral theorem. In some cases, separation of variables may not be possible. Separation of variables may be possible in some coordinate systems but not others,[2] and which coordinate systems allow for separation depends on the symmetry properties of the equation.[3] Below is an outline of an argument demonstrating the applicability of the method to certain linear equations, although the precise method may differ in individual cases (for instance in the biharmonic equation above).

Consider an initial boundary value problem for a function   on   in two variables:


where   is a differential operator with respect to   and   is a differential operator with respect to   with boundary data:


where   is a known function.

We look for solutions of the form  . Dividing the PDE through by   gives


The right hand side depends only on   and the left hand side only on   so both must be equal to a constant  , which gives two ordinary differential equations


which we can recognize as eigenvalue problems for the operators for   and  . If   is a compact, self-adjoint operator on the space   along with the relevant boundary conditions, then by the Spectral theorem there exists a basis for   consisting of eigenfunctions for  . Let the spectrum of   be   and let   be an eigenfunction with eigenvalue  . Then for any function which at each time   is square-integrable with respect to  , we can write this function as a linear combination of the  . In particular, we know the solution   can be written as


For some functions  . In the separation of variables, these functions are given by solutions to  

Hence, the spectral theorem ensures that the separation of variables will (when it is possible) find all the solutions.

For many differential operators, such as  , we can show that they are self-adjoint by integration by parts. While these operators may not be compact, their inverses (when they exist) may be, as in the case of the wave equation, and these inverses have the same eigenfunctions and eigenvalues as the original operator (with the possible exception of zero).[4]


The matrix form of the separation of variables is the Kronecker sum.

As an example we consider the 2D discrete Laplacian on a regular grid:


where   and   are 1D discrete Laplacians in the x- and y-directions, correspondingly, and   are the identities of appropriate sizes. See the main article Kronecker sum of discrete Laplacians for details.


Some mathematical programs are able to do separation of variables: Xcas[5] among others.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ John Renze, Eric W. Weisstein, Separation of variables
  3. ^ Willard Miller(1984) Symmetry and Separation of Variables, Cambridge University Press
  4. ^ David Benson (2007) Music: A Mathematical Offering, Cambridge University Press, Appendix W
  5. ^ "Symbolic algebra and Mathematics with Xcas" (PDF).


External linksEdit