Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

4.6: Energy Levels of Hydrogen Atom

Consider a hydrogen atom, for which the potential takes the specific form


$\displaystyle V(r) = -\frac{e^2}{4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,r}.$ (396)



The radial eigenfunction $ R(r)$ satisfies Equation (395), which can be written


$\displaystyle \left[\frac{\hbar^2}{2\,\mu} \left(-\frac{1}{r^2} \frac{d}{dr}\,r...
... +\frac{l\,(l+1)}{r^2}\right) -\frac{e^2}{4\pi\,\epsilon_0\,r}- E\right] R = 0.$ (397)



Here, $ \mu = m_e \,m_p/(m_e+ m_p)\simeq m_e$ is the reduced mass, which takes into account the fact that the electron (of mass $ m_e$ ) and the proton (of mass $ m_p$ ) both rotate about a common centre, which is equivalent to a particle of mass $ \mu$ rotating about a fixed point. Let us write the product $ r\, R(r)$ as the function $ P(r)$ . The above equation transforms to


$\displaystyle \frac{d^2 P}{d r^2} - \frac{2\,\mu}{\hbar^2}\left[ \frac{l\,(l+1)\,\hbar^2}{2\,\mu \,r^2} - \frac{e^2}{4\pi \,\epsilon_0 \,r}-E\right] P =0,$ (398)



which is the one-dimensional Schrödinger equation for a particle of mass $ \mu$ moving in the effective potential


$\displaystyle V_{\rm eff}(r) = -\frac{e^2}{4\pi \,\epsilon_0 \,r} + \frac{l\,(l+1)\,\hbar^2}{2\,\mu\, r^2}.$ (399)



The effective potential has a simple physical interpretation. The first part is the attractive Coulomb potential, and the second part corresponds to the repulsive centrifugal force.



$\displaystyle a= \sqrt{\frac{-\hbar^2}{2\,\mu \,E}},$ (400)



and $ y=r/a$ , with


$\displaystyle P(r) = f(y) \exp(-y).$ (401)



Here, it is assumed that the energy eigenvalue $ E$ is negative. Equation (398) transforms to


$\displaystyle \left(\frac{d^2}{dy^2} -2\,\frac{d}{dy} -\frac{l\,(l+1)}{y^2} + \frac{2\,\mu\, e^2\, a}{4\pi\, \epsilon_0\, \hbar^2\,y}\right) f= 0.$ (402)



Let us look for a power-law solution of the form


$\displaystyle f(y) = \sum_{n} c_n\, y^{\,n}.$ (403)



Substituting this solution into Equation (402), we obtain


$\displaystyle \sum_n c_n \left[ n\,(n-1)\,y^{\,n-2} - 2\,n\, y^{\,n-1} - l\,(l+...
...+ \frac{2\,\mu\, e^2 \,a}{4\pi\, \epsilon_0 \,\hbar^2}\, y^{\,n-1} \right] = 0.$ (404)



Equating the coefficients of $ y^{\,n-2}$ gives


$\displaystyle c_n\,[n\,(n-1) - l\,(l+1)] = c_{n-1} \left [2\,(n-1) - \frac{2\,\mu\, e^2\, a}{4\pi\, \epsilon_0\, \hbar^2}\right].$ (405)



Now, the power law series (403) must terminate at small $ n$ , at some positive value of $ n$ , otherwise $ f(y)$ would behave unphysically as $ y\rightarrow 0$ . This is only possible if $ [n_{\rm min} (n_{\rm min} -1) - l\,(l+1) ] =0$ , where the first term in the series is $ c_{n_{\rm min}}\,y^{\,n_{\rm min}}$ . There are two possibilities: $ n_{\rm min} = -l$ or $ n_{\rm min} = l+1$ . The former predicts unphysical behavior of the wavefunction at $ y=0$ . Thus, we conclude that $ n_{\rm min} = l+1$ . Note that for an $ l=0$ state there is a finite probability of finding the electron at the nucleus, whereas for an $ l>0$ state there is zero probability of finding the electron at the nucleus (i.e., $ \vert\psi\vert^{\,2} =0$ at $ r=0$ , except when $ l=0$ ). Note, also, that it is only possible to obtain sensible behavior of the wavefunction as $ r\rightarrow 0$ if $ l$ is an integer.

For large values of $ y$ , the ratio of successive terms in the series (403) is


$\displaystyle \frac{c_n \,y}{c_{n-1}} = \frac{2\, y}{n},$ (406)



according to Equation (405). This is the same as the ratio of successive terms in the series


$\displaystyle \sum_n \frac{(2\,y)^{\,n}}{n!},$ (407)



which converges to $ \exp(2\,y)$ . We conclude that $ f(y)\rightarrow \exp(2\,y)$ as $ y\rightarrow \infty$ . It follows from Equation (401) that $ R(r) \rightarrow
\exp(r/a) /r $ as $ r\rightarrow
\infty$ . This does not correspond to physically acceptable behavior of the wavefunction, since $ \int d^3x'\, \vert\psi\vert^{\,2}$ must be finite. The only way in which we can avoid this unphysical behavior is if the series (403) terminates at some maximum value of $ n$ . According to the recursion relation (405), this is only possible if


$\displaystyle \frac{\mu\, e^2 \,a}{4\pi \,\epsilon_0\, \hbar^2} = n,$ (408)



where the last term in the series is $ c_n\, y^{\,n}$ . It follows from Equation (400) that the energy eigenvalues are quantized, and can only take the values


$\displaystyle E = \frac{E_0}{n^2},$ (409)





$\displaystyle E_0 = - \frac{\mu\, e^4}{32\pi^2\,\epsilon_0^{\,2}\, \hbar^2} = - 13.6\,{\rm eV}$ (410)



is the ground state energy. Here, $ n$ is a positive integer which must exceed the quantum number $ l$ , otherwise there would be no terms in the series (403).

The properly normalized wavefunction of a hydrogen atom is written


$\displaystyle \psi(r, \theta, \varphi) = R_{n\,l}(r)\, Y_{l\,m} (\theta, \varphi),$ (411)





$\displaystyle R_{n\,l}(r) = {\cal R}_{n\,l}(r/a),$ (412)





$\displaystyle a = n\,a_0.$ (413)





$\displaystyle a_0 =\frac{4\pi\, \epsilon_0\,\hbar^2}{\mu \,e^2} = 5.3\times 10^{-11}\,\,\,{\rm meters}$ (414)



is the Bohr radius, and $ {\cal R}_{n\,l}(x)$ is a well-behaved solution of the differential equation


$\displaystyle \left[\frac{1}{x^2} \frac{d}{dx}\, x^2 \,\frac{d}{dx}-\frac{l\,(l+1)}{x^2} + \frac{2\,n}{x} - 1\right] {\cal R}_{n\,l} = 0$ (415)



that is consistent with the normalization constraint


$\displaystyle \int_0^\infty dr\,r^2\,[R_{n\,l}(r)]^{\,2}= 1.$ (416)



Finally, the $ Y_{l\,m}$ are spherical harmonics. The restrictions on the quantum numbers are $ \vert m\vert \leq l< n$ , where $ n$ is a positive integer, $ l$ a non-negative integer, and $ m$ an integer.

The ground state of hydrogen corresponds to $ n=1$ . The only permissible values of the other quantum numbers are $ l=0$ and $ m=0$ . Thus, the ground state is a spherically symmetric, zero angular momentum state. The next energy level corresponds to $ n=2$ . The other quantum numbers are allowed to take the values $ l=0$ , $ m=0$ or $ l=1$ , $ m=-1, 0, 1$ . Thus, there are $ n=2$ states with non-zero angular momentum. Note that the energy levels given in Equation (409) are independent of the quantum number $ l$ , despite the fact that $ l$ appears in the radial eigenfunction equation (415). This is a special property of a $ 1/r$ Coulomb potential.

In addition to the quantized negative energy states of the hydrogen atom, which we have just found, there is also a continuum of unbound positive energy states.