Nonlinear electrostatics: the Poisson-Boltzmann equation

C. G. Gray, P. J. Stiles

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    24 Citations (Scopus)


    The description of a conducting medium in thermal equilibrium, such as an electrolyte solution or a plasma, involves nonlinear electrostatics, a subject rarely discussed in the standard electricity and magnetism textbooks. We consider in detail the case of the electrostatic double layer formed by an electrolyte solution near a uniformly charged wall, and we use mean-field or Poisson-Boltzmann (PB) theory to calculate the mean electrostatic potential and the mean ion concentrations, as functions of distance from the wall. PB theory is developed from the Gibbs variational principle for thermal equilibrium of minimising the system free energy. We clarify the key issue of which free energy (Helmholtz, Gibbs, grand, ...) should be used in the Gibbs principle; this turns out to depend not only on the specified conditions in the bulk electrolyte solution (e.g. fixed volume or fixed pressure), but also on the specified surface conditions, such as fixed surface charge or fixed surface potential. Despite its nonlinearity the PB equation for the mean electrostatic potential can be solved analytically for planar or wall geometry, and we present analytic solutions for both a full electrolyte and for an ionic solution containing only counterions, i.e. ions of sign opposite to that of the wall charge. This latter case has some novel features. We also use the free energy to discuss the inter-wall forces which arise when the two parallel charged walls are sufficiently close to permit their double layers to overlap. We consider situations where the two walls carry equal charges, and where they carry equal and opposite charges.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number053002
    Pages (from-to)1-27
    Number of pages27
    JournalEuropean Journal of Physics
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2018


    • double-layer free energies
    • electric double layer
    • Gibbs variational principle
    • inter-plate forces in electrolytes
    • Poisson-Boltzmann theory


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