# 8.1: Approximate Solution of the Schrödinger Equation

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If we can’t find an analytic solution to the Schrödinger equation, a trick known as the variational principle allows us to estimate the energy of the ground state of a system. We choose an unnormalized trial function $$\Phi (a_n)$$ which depends on some variational parameters, $$a_n$$ and minimise

$E[a_n] = \frac{\langle \Phi |\hat{H} |\Phi \rangle}{\langle \Phi |\Phi \rangle} \nonumber$

with respect to those parameters. This gives an approximation to the wavefunction whose accuracy depends on the number of parameters and the clever choice of $$\Phi (a_n)$$. For more rigorous treatments, a set of basis functions with expansion coefficients $$a_n$$ may be used.

The proof is as follows, if we expand the normalised wavefunction

$|\phi (a_n) \rangle = \Phi (a_n)/ \langle \Phi (a_n)|\Phi (a_n) \rangle^{1/2} \nonumber$

in terms of the true (unknown) eigenbasis $$|i\rangle$$ of the Hamiltonian, then its energy is

$E[a_n] = \sum_{ij} \langle\phi |i \rangle \langle i|\hat{H} |j \rangle \langle j|\phi \rangle = \sum_i |\langle\phi |i \rangle |^2 E_i = E_0 + \sum_i |\langle\phi |i\rangle |^2 (E_i − E_0) \geq E_0 \nonumber$

where the true (unknown) ground state of the system is defined by $$\hat{H} |i_0 \rangle = E_0|i_0 \rangle$$. The inequality arises because both $$|\langle \phi |i\rangle |^2$$ and $$(E_i − E_0)$$ must be positive.

Thus the lower we can make the energy $$E[a_i ]$$, the closer it will be to the actual ground state energy, and the closer $$|\phi \rangle$$ will be to $$|i_0\rangle$$.

If the trial wavefunction consists of a complete basis set of orthonormal functions $$|\chi i\rangle$$, each multiplied by $$a_i : |\phi \rangle = \sum_i a_i |\chi_i \rangle$$ then the solution is exact and we just have the usual trick of expanding a wavefunction in a basis set. Alternately, we might just use an incomplete set with a few low-energy basis functions to get a $$|\Phi \rangle$$ close to the ground state $$|i_0 \rangle$$. In practice, this is how most quantum mechanics problems are solved.

This page titled 8.1: Approximate Solution of the Schrödinger Equation is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Graeme Ackland via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.