The effective potential (also known as effective potential energy) combines multiple, perhaps opposing, effects into a single potential. In its basic form, it is the sum of the 'opposing' centrifugal potential energy with the potential energy of a dynamical system. It may be used to determine the orbits of planets (both Newtonian and relativistic) and to perform semi-classical atomic calculations, and often allows problems to be reduced to fewer dimensions.
The basic form of potential is defined as:
The effective force, then, is the negative gradient of the effective potential:
where denotes a unit vector in the radial direction.
There are many useful features of the effective potential, such as
To find the radius of a circular orbit, simply minimize the effective potential with respect to , or equivalently set the net force to zero and then solve for :
After solving for , plug this back into to find the maximum value of the effective potential .
A circular orbit may be either stable, or unstable. If it is unstable, a small perturbation could destabilize the orbit, but a stable orbit is more stable. To determine the stability of a circular orbit, determine the concavity of the effective potential. If the concavity is positive, the orbit is stable:
The frequency of small oscillations, using basic Hamiltonian analysis, is
where the double prime indicates the second derivative of the effective potential with respect to and it is evaluated at a minimum.
Consider a particle of mass m orbiting a much heavier object of mass M. Assume Newtonian mechanics, which is both classical and non-relativistic. The conservation of energy and angular momentum give two constants E and L, which have values
when the motion of the larger mass is negligible. In these expressions,
Only two variables are needed, since the motion occurs in a plane. Substituting the second expression into the first and rearranging gives
is the effective potential.[Note 1] The original two-variable problem has been reduced to a one-variable problem. For many applications the effective potential can be treated exactly like the potential energy of a one-dimensional system: for instance, an energy diagram using the effective potential determines turning points and locations of stable and unstable equilibria. A similar method may be used in other applications, for instance determining orbits in a general relativistic Schwarzschild metric.
Effective potentials are widely used in various condensed matter subfields, e.g. the Gauss-core potential (Likos 2002, Baeurle 2004) and the screened Coulomb potential (Likos 2001).