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DERIVATION OF THE PLASMA DEBYE LENGTH

Kalman Knizhnik

The Debye length is one of the most important and fundamental length scales in plasma physics. It describes a screening distance, beyond which charges are unaware of other charges inside of the Debye length. A charge in a plasma will attract opposite charges and repel like charges to the point that its electric eld is screened by the charges it has attracted, so particles outside the screening charges are unaware of the presence of the interior charge. For this derivation, I will assume the ions and electrons have the same temperature and number density n prior to the addition of another, positive, point charge. The charge of ions will be e and the charge of electrons will be -e. We have a plasma with temperature and number density n, and we add a positive point charge. What happens to the number density? Well, the particles will move around until they reach thermal equilibrium, at which point their probability of being in a state of energy U is proportional to the Boltzmann factor P (U ) eU/ (1)

where is the temperature measured in electron volts. Now, the potential energy of a single particle from the new charge is U = qV , so the distribution function is given by f (u) = Ae(
mu2 +qV 2

)/

= n0

m ( mu2 +qV )/ 2 e 2

(2)

where n0 is the equilibrium particle density (i.e. before the arrival of the new charge). The integral of the distribution function is the total particle number density, so we have:

f (u)du = n

n = n0 eqV /

(3)

where m/2 has canceled out with the integral of exp(mu2 /2 ). Now that we have the number density, we can get the charge density via = ni e ne (e). In other words, the charge density is the number density of ions (times the charge of each ion) minus the number density of electrons (times the charge of the electron). Using equation 3 and substituting -e for q yields: = ni e ne (e) = e(ni + ne ) = en0 (eeV / eeV / ) = en0 sinh( This allows us to write down Poissons equation: 2 V =
0

eV )

(4)

en0 sinh(eV / )
0

(5)

Now we are in a bit of a pickle because this looks like a second-order, nonlinear dierential equation. We can simplify things a bit by assuming that the potential energy of the particles in the applied eld is much smaller than their thermal energy: eV . We can then expand the right hand side in a Taylor series: n0 e eV n0 e 2 2 V = ( )= V (6) 0 0 Now I have a second-order linear dierential equation, which can be solved. Dimensionally, I can compare the two sides and realize that the pre factor on the right hand side has to have the dimensions of inverse length squared. So we dene D
0 n0 e 2

(7)

to be the Debye length. In terms of the Debye length, equation 5 is 2 V = with solution (in one-dimension) V = V0 ex/D 2 (9) where the decaying solution was chosen to match the boundary condition of V 0 as x . From this form of the solution it is clear what the physical meaning of D is. Inside of D , charges feel the potential due to the central charge. Outside of this Debye length, the potential falls o exponentially, and charges are no longer aware of the presence of the central charge. The charge is, eectively, screened by the surrounding charges. The situation is akin to a group of people crowding around, say, a poster. If you arrive late, you wont be able to see what everyone is looking at, because you are screened by the people surrounding the poster. V 2 D (8)