# Elliptic coordinate system

In geometry, the **elliptic**(**al**) **coordinate system** is a two-dimensional orthogonal coordinate system in which
the coordinate lines are confocal ellipses and hyperbolae. The two foci
and are generally taken to be fixed at and
, respectively, on the -axis of the Cartesian coordinate system.

## Basic definition

The most common definition of elliptic coordinates is

where is a nonnegative real number and

On the complex plane, an equivalent relationship is

These definitions correspond to ellipses and hyperbolae. The trigonometric identity

shows that curves of constant form ellipses, whereas the hyperbolic trigonometric identity

shows that curves of constant form hyperbolae.

### Scale factors

In an orthogonal coordinate system the lengths of the basis vectors are known as scale factors. The scale factors for the elliptic coordinates are equal to

Using the *double argument identities* for hyperbolic functions and trigonometric functions, the scale factors can be equivalently expressed as

Consequently, an infinitesimal element of area equals

and the Laplacian reads

Other differential operators such as and can be expressed in the coordinates by substituting the scale factors into the general formulae found in orthogonal coordinates.

## Alternative definition

An alternative and geometrically intuitive set of elliptic coordinates are sometimes used, where and . Hence, the curves of constant are ellipses, whereas the curves of constant are hyperbolae. The coordinate must belong to the interval [-1, 1], whereas the coordinate must be greater than or equal to one.

The coordinates have a simple relation to the distances to the foci and . For any point in the plane, the *sum* of its distances to the foci equals , whereas their *difference* equals .
Thus, the distance to is , whereas the distance to is . (Recall that and are located at and , respectively.)

A drawback of these coordinates is that the points with Cartesian coordinates (x,y) and (x,-y) have the same coordinates , so the conversion to Cartesian coordinates is not a function, but a multifunction.

### Alternative scale factors

The scale factors for the alternative elliptic coordinates are

Hence, the infinitesimal area element becomes

and the Laplacian equals

Other differential operators such as and can be expressed in the coordinates by substituting the scale factors into the general formulae found in orthogonal coordinates.

## Extrapolation to higher dimensions

Elliptic coordinates form the basis for several sets of three-dimensional orthogonal coordinates. The elliptic cylindrical coordinates are produced by projecting in the -direction. The prolate spheroidal coordinates are produced by rotating the elliptic coordinates about the -axis, i.e., the axis connecting the foci, whereas the oblate spheroidal coordinates are produced by rotating the elliptic coordinates about the -axis, i.e., the axis separating the foci.

## Applications

The classic applications of elliptic coordinates are in solving partial differential equations, e.g., Laplace's equation or the Helmholtz equation, for which elliptic coordinates are a natural description of a system thus allowing a separation of variables in the partial differential equations. Some traditional examples are solving systems such as electrons orbiting a molecule or planetary orbits that have an elliptical shape.

The geometric properties of elliptic coordinates can also be useful. A typical example might involve an integration over all pairs of vectors and that sum to a fixed vector , where the integrand was a function of the vector lengths and . (In such a case, one would position between the two foci and aligned with the -axis, i.e., .) For concreteness, , and could represent the momenta of a particle and its decomposition products, respectively, and the integrand might involve the kinetic energies of the products (which are proportional to the squared lengths of the momenta).

## References

- Hazewinkel, Michiel, ed. (2001) [1994], "Elliptic coordinates",
*Encyclopedia of Mathematics*, Springer Science+Business Media B.V. / Kluwer Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-1-55608-010-4 - Korn GA and Korn TM. (1961)
*Mathematical Handbook for Scientists and Engineers*, McGraw-Hill. - Weisstein, Eric W. "Elliptic Cylindrical Coordinates." From MathWorld — A Wolfram Web Resource. http://mathworld.wolfram.com/EllipticCylindricalCoordinates.html