Electrostatic shielding in plasmas and the physical meaning of the Debye length

G. Livadiotis, D. J. Mccomas

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This paper examines the electrostatic shielding in plasmas, and resolves inconsistencies about what the Debye length really is. Two different interpretations of the Debye length are currently used: (1) The potential energy approximately equals the thermal energy, and (2) the ratio of the shielded to the unshielded potential drops to 1/e. We examine these two interpretations of the Debye length for equilibrium plasmas described by the Boltzmann distribution, and non-equilibrium plasmas (e.g. space plasmas) described by kappa distributions. We study three dimensionalities of the electrostatic potential: 1-D potential of linear symmetry for planar charge density, 2-D potential of cylindrical symmetry for linear charge density, and 3-D potential of spherical symmetry for a point charge. We resolve critical inconsistencies of the two interpretations, including: independence of the Debye length on the dimensionality; requirement for small charge perturbations that is equivalent to weakly coupled plasmas; correlations between ions and electrons; existence of temperature for non-equilibrium plasmas; and isotropic Debye shielding. We introduce a third Debye length interpretation that naturally emerges from the second statistical moment of the particle position distribution; this is analogous to the kinetic definition of temperature, which is the second statistical moment of the velocity distribution. Finally, we compare the three interpretations, identifying what information is required for theoretical/experimental plasma-physics research: Interpretation 1 applies only to kappa distributions; Interpretation 2 is not restricted to any specific form of the ion/electron distributions, but these forms have to be known; Interpretation 3 needs only the second statistical moment of the positional distribution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-378
Number of pages38
JournalJournal of Plasma Physics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Condensed Matter Physics


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