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  • The Fundamentals of Partial Differential Equations: A Beginner's Guide

    April 27, 2023
    Maxine Hoy
    Maxine Hoy
    Partial Differential Equations
    Maxine is a world-renowned expert in partial differential equations. Her research focuses on the development of analytical and numerical methods for solving PDEs and their application in a variety of domains such as material science, astronomy, and robotics. She has written multiple papers, and her work has received various accolades. She is also a skilled educator and mentor, having taught and coached several students who have gone on to successful careers in academia and industry.

    PDEs are mathematical tools that are used to describe a wide range of physical phenomena, from fluid movement and electromagnetic waves to quantum particle behavior. They are a natural extension of ordinary differential equations (ODEs), which explain the behavior of time-varying systems, to time-varying systems in space and time. We will present the principles of partial differential equations and provide a beginner's guide to understanding their significance and how they work in this blog.

    An Overview of Partial Differential Equations

    A partial differential equation is a mathematical equation in which partial derivatives of an unknown function with respect to one or more independent variables are involved. Heat transport, fluid dynamics, electromagnetism, and quantum physics are all described by these equations.

    Partially differential equations are used to represent the behavior of a system that varies in space and time in terms of the rates of change of the system's attributes about these variables. The heat equation, for example, is a well-known PDE that explains the rate at which heat flows through a material as a function of time and position.

    PDEs are widely used in engineering, physics, and mathematics to represent physical systems and construct mathematical models that can predict their behavior. They are also used to develop systems, optimize processes, and improve existing system performance.

    Different Types of Partial Differential Equations

    There are numerous forms of partial differential equations, each with its unique set of properties and behaviors. The following are the most typical types of PDEs:

    1. Elliptic Partial Differential Equations
    2. The tendency of elliptic partial differential equations to smooth out perturbations and obtain a stable, equilibrium solution distinguishes them. They are used to characterize systems with a strong propensity to equilibrium, such as thermodynamic and electrostatic systems.

      A well-known example of an elliptic PDE is the Laplace equation. It is used to characterize the steady-state distribution of a scalar field in a specific region of space, such as temperature or pressure.

    3. Parabolic Partial Differential Equations
    4. The ability of parabolic partial differential equations to propagate perturbations at a constant pace and to reach a steady-state solution over time distinguishes them. They are used to characterize systems that, like heat diffusion and fluid flow, have a strong tendency to reach a steady state.

      A well-known example of a parabolic PDE is the heat equation. It describes the movement of heat through a material over time.

    5. Hyperbolic Partial Differential Equations
    6. The tendency of hyperbolic partial differential equations to propagate disturbances at a variable rate and to exhibit wave-like behavior distinguishes them. They are used to describe wave-like systems, such as fluid dynamics and electromagnetism.

      A well-known example of a hyperbolic PDE is the wave equation. It is used to describe the propagation of waves through a medium, such as electromagnetic waves or sound waves.

    7. Nonlinear Partial Differential Equations
    8. Nonlinear partial differential equations are distinguished by their nonlinearity, which means that the system's behavior is nonlinearly dependent on its inputs. They are used to explain complicated and nonlinear systems such as turbulence in fluid dynamics and chaos in nonlinear optics.

    The Navier-Stokes equations, which describe fluid motion, are an example of a nonlinear PDE.

    How to Solve Partial Differential Equations

    Solving partial differential equations is a difficult and time-consuming operation that necessitates the use of a variety of mathematical approaches, numerical methods, and computer algorithms. There are two approaches to solving PDEs in general: analytical methods and numerical methods.

    1. Analytical Approaches
    2. Analytic approaches entail determining an exact, closed-form solution to a PDE, which means that the answer may be stated in terms of elementary functions such as trigonometric functions, exponentials, and polynomials. Simple and well-behaved PDEs, such as linear equations with constant coefficients, are frequently solved using analytical methods.

      The most commonly used analytical approaches for solving PDEs are variable separation, integral transforms, and Green's functions. These methods entail exploiting the PDE's properties, such as symmetry, homogeneity, and boundary conditions, to find a solution that solves the problem.

      Analytical approaches, on the other hand, have a limited scope and applicability because they can only be applied to a small fraction of PDEs with simple and well-behaved solutions. PDEs must be solved numerically for the majority of practical reasons.

    3. Numerical Methods
    4. Numerical approaches entail approximating a PDE solution with a finite collection of discrete points or grid cells. These methods reduce the PDE to a collection of algebraic equations that can be solved using linear algebra or nonlinear optimization techniques.

    Finite difference methods, finite element methods, and spectral methods are the most often used numerical methods for solving PDEs. The PDE is discretized into a grid of points, the derivatives are approximated using finite differences or basis functions, and the resulting linear or nonlinear system of equations is solved using numerical algorithms.

    Numerical methods are widely employed in practice because they can handle complex and nonlinear PDEs with arbitrary boundary conditions and geometries. However, great consideration must be given to the grid size, time step, and numerical techniques, as well as the validation and verification of the results.

    Partial Differential Equations in Practice

    Partial differential equations have numerous applications in several industries, and their use is expanding as new issues emerge. Here are some more partial differential equation applications:

    Image Processing

    In image processing, partial differential equations are used to enhance images and extract characteristics from them. The heat equation and its modifications are particularly useful in image smoothing, where the image is gradually smoothed out via pixel value diffusion over time. Another PDE used in image processing is the nonlinear diffusion equation, which may be used to selectively maintain edges and features in a picture while smoothing out the remainder.

    Partial differential equations are used in material science to predict the behavior of materials under various situations such as stress, strain, and temperature. The elasticity equations and the heat equation, in particular, are used to simulate material deformation and heat transport, respectively. These models can be used to create materials with specified properties or to forecast how materials will behave under certain conditions.


    In astrophysics, partial differential equations are used to predict the behavior of stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects. The Navier-Stokes equations are used to simulate the behavior of plasma in the sun, whereas the wave equation is used to simulate gravitational wave transmission. These models can be used to analyze the behavior of celestial objects and forecast their future behavior.


    In geophysics, partial differential equations are used to simulate the behavior of the Earth's crust and its interactions with the atmosphere and seas. The wave equation is used to simulate seismic waves and detect earthquakes, whereas the Navier-Stokes equations are used to simulate ocean currents and weather patterns. These models can be used to forecast the behavior of the earth's crust and to comprehend the impact of human activity on the ecosystem.

    Computer Vision

    In computer vision, partial differential equations are used to extract features and information from images and movies. The level set approach, in particular, is a popular PDE-based method for segmenting images and recognizing object boundaries. To split the image into multiple sections, the method includes solving a partial differential equation that evolves a curve over time.


    In robotics, partial differential equations are used to model the behavior of robotic systems and enhance their performance. The Euler-Lagrange equation is used to model robotic system dynamics, whereas the Hamilton-Jacobi equation is utilized to model robotic motion planning and optimization. These models can be utilized to create efficient, resilient, and safe robotic systems.

    Engineering and physics use partial differential equations to model the behavior of physical systems such as heat transfer, fluid dynamics, electromagnetic, and quantum mechanics. They give a mathematical framework for studying and forecasting the behavior of complex systems under various scenarios.

    The Navier-Stokes equations, for example, are used to describe the flow of fluids such as air and water in a variety of engineering applications such as aircraft design, oil and gas production, and weather forecasting. The Maxwell equations are used to model electromagnetic wave behavior as well as to construct and optimize communication systems such as antennas and fiber-optic networks.


    In finance, partial differential equations are used to simulate financial market behavior and to price financial products such as options and derivatives. They offer a quantitative framework for analyzing the risk and return of financial investments as well as optimizing asset allocation.

    The Black-Scholes equation, for example, is a well-known PDE that is used to model option prices and hedge against market risk. In finance, the heat equation is used to simulate information spread and to examine the dynamics of financial contagion.


    Partial differential equations are increasingly being utilized in biology to simulate the behavior of complicated biological systems such as infectious disease propagation, cell population dynamics, and tumor growth. They give a quantitative framework for understanding these systems' behavior and creating treatments to prevent or treat disease.

    The reaction-diffusion equations, for example, are used to simulate the development of diseases like COVID-19 and to create treatments like vaccination and quarantine regimes. The Fisher-Kolmogorov equation is used to simulate population growth and spread, such as species distribution in an ecosystem.

    To summarize, partial differential equations are a strong tool for modeling and forecasting the behavior of complex systems in a wide range of domains such as image processing, material science, astronomy, geophysics, computer vision, and robotics. The usage of partial differential equations is anticipated to grow as new challenges and technologies emerge, providing a powerful foundation for understanding and optimizing the behavior of complex systems.


    Partial differential equations are an important tool in mathematics and science for modeling and predicting the behavior of complex systems. They are a strong tool for understanding the physical world and building efficient systems in a wide range of domains, including engineering, physics, finance, and biology. While analytical methods are effective for solving basic and well-behaved PDEs, most practical applications require numerical approaches. The answer is approximated using discrete points or grid cells, and the resulting system of equations is solved using numerical algorithms. While these approaches can handle complex and nonlinear PDEs, they necessitate careful parameter selection and validation of findings.

    Fluid dynamics, electromagnetism, finance, and biology are all domains where partial differential equations are used. They give a mathematical framework for studying these systems' behavior and planning actions to prevent or treat diseases, maximize financial investments, and improve physical system performance. Partially differential equations will continue to play a vital role in defining our understanding of the world around us and building optimized systems that benefit society as technology progresses and new scientific discoveries are discovered.

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