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.

Effective potential. E> 0 hyperbola and A1 is pericentrum, E = 0 parabola and A2 is pericentrum, E <0 ellipse and A3 is pericentrum A3' is apocentrum, E=Emin circle and A4 is radius. Points A1, ..., A4 are called turning points.

The basic form of potential U eff {\displaystyle U_{\text{eff}}} U_\text{eff} is defined as:

\( {\displaystyle U_{\text{eff}}(\mathbf {r} )={\frac {L^{2}}{2\mu r^{2}}}+U(\mathbf {r} )}, \)


L is the angular momentum
r is the distance between the two masses
μ is the reduced mass of the two bodies (approximately equal to the mass of the orbiting body if one mass is much larger than the other); and
U(r) is the general form of the potential.

The effective force, then, is the negative gradient of the effective potential:

\( {\displaystyle {\begin{aligned}\mathbf {F} _{\text{eff}}&=-\nabla U_{\text{eff}}(\mathbf {r} )\\&={\frac {L^{2}}{\mu r^{3}}}{\hat {\mathbf {r} }}-\nabla U(\mathbf {r} )\end{aligned}}} \) where \( {\hat {\mathbf {r} }} \) denotes a unit vector in the radial direction.
Important properties

There are many useful features of the effective potential, such as

\( U_{{\text{eff}}}\leq E.

To find the radius of a circular orbit, simply minimize the effective potential with respect to r, or equivalently set the net force to zero and then solve for r 0 {\displaystyle r_{0}} r_{0}:

\( \frac{d U_\text{eff}}{dr} = 0 \)

After solving for \( r_{0} \) , plug this back into \( U_\text{eff} \) to find the maximum value of the effective potential \( U_\text{eff}^\text{max} \) .

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:

\( {\displaystyle {\frac {d^{2}U_{\text{eff}}}{dr^{2}}}>0} \)

The frequency of small oscillations, using basic Hamiltonian analysis, is

\( \omega = \sqrt{\frac{U_\text{eff}''}{m}} \) ,

where the double prime indicates the second derivative of the effective potential with respect to r and it is evaluated at a minimum.

Gravitational potential
Visualisation of the effective potential in a plane containing the orbit (grey rubber-sheet model with purple contours of equal potential), the Lagrangian points (red) and a planet (blue) orbiting a star (yellow)[1]

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

\( E = \frac{1}{2}m\left(\dot{r}^2 + r^2\dot{\phi}^2\right) - \frac{GmM}{r}, \)
\( L = mr^2\dot{\phi} \, \)

when the motion of the larger mass is negligible. In these expressions,

\( \dot{r} \)is the derivative of r with respect to time,
\( \dot{\phi} \) is the angular velocity of mass m,
G is the gravitational constant,
E is the total energy, and
L is the angular momentum.

Only two variables are needed, since the motion occurs in a plane. Substituting the second expression into the first and rearranging gives

\( m\dot{r}^2 = 2E - \frac{L^2}{mr^2} + \frac{2GmM}{r} = 2E - \frac{1}{r^2}\left(\frac{L^2}{m} - 2GmMr\right), \)
\( \frac{1}{2}m\dot{r}^2 = E - U_\text{eff}(r), \)


\( U_\text{eff}(r) = \frac{L^2}{2mr^2} - \frac{GmM}{r} \)

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).

A similar derivation may be found in José & Saletan, Classical Dynamics: A Contemporary Approach, pgs. 31–33


Seidov, Zakir F. (2004). "Seidov, Roche Problem". The Astrophysical Journal. 603: 283–284. arXiv:astro-ph/0311272. Bibcode:2004ApJ...603..283S. doi:10.1086/381315.

José, JV; Saletan, EJ (1998). Classical Dynamics: A Contemporary Approach (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-63636-0..
Likos, C.N.; Rosenfeldt, S.; Dingenouts, N.; Ballauff, M.; Lindner, P.; Werner, N.; Vögtle, F.; et al. (2002). "Gaussian effective interaction between flexible dendrimers of fourth generation: a theoretical and experimental study". J. Chem. Phys. 117 (4): 1869–1877. Bibcode:2002JChPh.117.1869L. doi:10.1063/1.1486209. Archived from the original on 2011-07-19.

Baeurle, S.A.; Kroener J. (2004). "Modeling Effective Interactions of Micellar Aggregates of Ionic Surfactants with the Gauss-Core Potential". J. Math. Chem. 36 (4): 409–421. doi:10.1023/

Likos, C.N. (2001). "Effective interactions in soft condensed matter physics". Physics Reports. 348 (4–5): 267–439. Bibcode:2001PhR...348..267L. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/S0370-1573(00)00141-1.

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