Is the helmholtz equation really sign-indefinite?

A. Moiola, E.A. Spence

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The usual variational (or weak) formulations of the Helmholtz equation are sign-indefinite in the sense that the bilinear forms cannot be bounded below by a positive multiple of the appropriate norm squared. This is often for a good reason, since in bounded domains under certain boundary conditions the solution of the Helmholtz equation is not unique at wavenumbers that correspond to eigenvalues of the Laplacian, and thus the variational problem cannot be sign-definite. However, even in cases where the solution is unique for all wavenumbers, the standard variational formulations of the Helmholtz equation are still indefinite when the wavenumber is large. This indefiniteness has implications for both the analysis and the practical implementation of finite element methods. In this paper we introduce new sign-definite (also called coercive or elliptic) formulations of the Helmholtz equation posed in either the interior of a star-shaped domain with impedance boundary conditions or the exterior of a star-shaped domain with Dirichlet boundary conditions. Like the standard variational formulations, these new formulations arise from simply multiplying the Helmholtz equation by particular test functions and integrating by parts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)274-312
Number of pages39
JournalSiam Review
Issue number2
Early online date8 May 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Helmholtz equation
  • high frequency
  • coercivity
  • sign-definiteness
  • Morawetz identity
  • frequency-explicit analysis
  • Finite element method


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