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Deriving phase field crystal theory from dynamical density functional theory: consequences of the approximations

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journal contribution
posted on 29.08.2019 by Andrew Archer, Daniel Ratliff, Alastair M Rucklidge, Priya Subramanian
Phase field crystal (PFC) theory is extensively used for modelling the phase behaviour, structure, thermodynamics and other related properties of solids. PFC theory can be derived from dynamical density functional theory (DDFT) via a sequence of approximations. Here, we carefully identify all of these approximations and explain the consequences of each. One approximation that is made in standard derivations is to neglect a term of form ∇ · [n∇Ln], where n is the scaled density profile and L is a linear operator. We show that this term makes a significant contribution to the stability of the crystal, and that dropping this term from the theory forces another approximation, that of replacing the logarithmic term from the ideal gas contribution to the free energy with its truncated Taylor expansion, to yield a polynomial in n. However, the consequences of doing this are: (i) the presence of an additional spinodal in the phase diagram, so the liquid is predicted first to freeze and then to melt again as the density is increased; and (ii) other periodic structures, such as stripes, are erroneously predicted to be thermodynamic equilibrium structures. In general, L consists of a nonlocal convolution involving the pair direct correlation function. A second approximation sometimes made in deriving PFC theory is to replace L by a gradient expansion involving derivatives. We show that this leads to the possibility of the density going to zero, with its logarithm going to −∞ whilst being balanced by the fourth derivative of the density going to +∞. This subtle singularity leads to solutions failing to exist above a certain value of the average density. We illustrate all of these conclusions with results for a particularly simple model two-dimensional fluid, the generalised exponential model of index 4 (GEM-4), chosen because a DDFT is known to be accurate for this model. The consequences of the subsequent PFC approximations can then be examined. These include the phase diagram being both qualitatively incorrect, in that it has a stripe phase, and quantitatively incorrect (by orders of magnitude) regarding the properties of the crystal phase. Thus, although PFC models are very successful as phenomenological models of crystallisation, we find it impossible to derive the PFC as a theory for the (scaled) density distribution when starting from an accurate DDFT, without introducing spurious artefacts. However, we find that making a simple one-mode approximation for the logarithm of the density distribution log ρ(x) (rather than for ρ(x)), is surprisingly accurate. This approach gives a tantalising hint that accurate PFC-type theories may instead be derived as theories for the field log ρ(x), rather than for the density profile itself.


L’Oréal UK and Ireland Fellowship for Women in Science

EPSRC grant EP/P015689/1

EPSRC grant EP/P015611/1

Leverhulme Trust (RF-2018-449/9, AMR)



  • Science


  • Mathematical Sciences

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Physical Review E






American Physical Society


AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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© American Physical Society

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This paper was accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review E and the definitive published version is available at

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Prof Andrew Archer

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