Tag Archives: Magnetohydrodynamics

Helicity and Magnetic Helicity

SOURCE FOR CONTENT: Davidson, P.A., 2001, An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics. 3. 

The purpose of this post is to introduce the concepts of helicity as an integral invariant and its magnetic analog. More specifically, I will be showing that

\displaystyle h = \int_{V_{\omega}}\textbf{u}\cdot \omega d^{3}r  (1)

is invariant and thus correlates to the conservation of vortex line topology using the approach given in the source material above.  I will then discuss magnetic helicity and how it relates to MHD.

Consider the total derivative of \textbf{u}\cdot \omega:

\displaystyle \frac{D}{Dt}(\textbf{u}\cdot \omega) = \frac{D\textbf{u}}{Dt}\cdot \omega + \frac{D\omega}{Dt}\cdot \textbf{u}, (2)

where I have used the product rule for derivatives. Also I denote a total derivative as \frac{D}{Dt} = \frac{\partial}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v}) so as not to confuse it with the notation for an ordinary derivative. Recall the Navier-Stokes’ equation and the vorticity equation

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{u}}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})\textbf{u}=\textbf{F}-\frac{1}{\rho}\nabla P + \nu \nabla^{2}\textbf{u}, (3)


\displaystyle \frac{\partial \omega}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})\omega =(\nabla \cdot \omega)\textbf{u} +\eta \nabla^{2}\omega (4).

Let \textbf{F}=0 and let \eta \nabla^{2} \omega \equiv 0 and \nu \nabla^{2} \textbf{u} \equiv 0. Then,

\displaystyle \frac{D\textbf{u}}{Dt}=-\nabla \frac{P}{\rho},  (5)


\displaystyle \frac{D\omega}{Dt}=(\nabla \cdot \omega)\textbf{u}. (6)

If we substitute Eqs. (5) and (6) into Eq.(2), we get

\displaystyle \frac{D}{Dt}(\textbf{u}\cdot \omega)=-\nabla \frac{P}{\rho}\cdot \omega + (\nabla \cdot \omega)\textbf{u}\cdot \textbf{u}. (7)

Evaluating each scalar product gives

\displaystyle -2\nabla \frac{P}{\rho}\omega + \omega u^{2}\nabla = 0. (8)

If we divide by 2 and note the definition of the scalar product, we may rewrite this as follows

\displaystyle \nabla \cdot \bigg\{-\frac{P}{\rho}\omega +\frac{u^{2}}{2}\omega\bigg\}=0. (9)

With this in mind, consider now the total derivative of (\textbf{u}\cdot \omega) multiplied by a volume element \delta V given by

\displaystyle \frac{D}{Dt}(\textbf{u}\cdot \omega)\delta V = \nabla \cdot \bigg\{-\frac{P}{\rho}\omega +\frac{u^{2}}{2}\omega\bigg\}\delta V. (10)

When the above equation is integrated over a volume V_{\omega}, the total derivative becomes an ordinary time derivative. Thus, Eq.(10) becomes

\displaystyle \int_{V_{\omega}}\frac{d}{dt}(\textbf{u}\cdot \omega)dV=\iint_{S_{\omega}}\bigg\{\nabla \cdot [-\frac{P}{\rho}\omega + \frac{u^{2}}{2}\omega ]\bigg\}\cdot d\textbf{S}=0. (11)

Hence, Eq.(11) shows that helicity is an integral invariant. In this analysis, we have assumed that the fluid is inviscid. If one considers two vortex lines (as Davidson does as a mathematical example), one finds that there exists two contributions to the overall helicity, corresponding to an individual vortex line. If one considers the vorticity multiplied by a volume element, one finds that for each line, their value helicity is the same. Thus, because they are the same, we can say that the overall helicity remains invariant and hence are linked. If they weren’t linked, then the helicity would be 0. In regards to magnetic helicity we define this as

\displaystyle h_{m}=\int_{V_{B}}\textbf{A}\cdot \textbf{B}dV, (12)

where \textbf{A} is the magnetic vector potential which is described by the following relations

\displaystyle \nabla \times \textbf{A}=\textbf{B}, (13.1)


\displaystyle \nabla \cdot \textbf{A}=0. (13.2)

 Again, we see that magnetic helicity is also conserved. However, this conservation arises by means of Alfven’s theorem of flux freezing in which the magnetic field lines manage to preserve their topology.

“Proof” of Alfven’s Theorem of Flux Freezing

SOURCE FOR CONTENT: Choudhuri, A.R., 2010. Astrophysics for Physicists. Ch. 8. 

In the previous post we saw the consequences of different regimes of the magnetic Reynolds’ number under which either diffusion or advection of the magnetic field dominates. In this post, I shall be doing a “proof” of Alven’s Theorem of Flux Freezing. (I hesitate to call it a proof since it lacks the mathematical rigor that one associates with a proof.) Also note in this post, I will be working with the assumption of a high magnetic Reynolds number.

Alfven’s Theorem of Flux Freezing: Suppose we have a surface S located within a plasma at some initial time t_{0}. From the theorem it is known that the flux of the associated magnetic field is linked with surface S by

\displaystyle \int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}. (1)

At some later time t^{\prime}, the elements of plasma contained within S at t_{0} move to some other point and will constitute some different surface M. The magnetic flux, linked to M at t^{\prime} by

\displaystyle \int_{M}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{M}, (2)

from which we may mathematically state the theorem as

\displaystyle \int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}=\int_{M}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{M}. (3)

If we know that the magnetic field evolves in time in accordance to the induction equation we may express Eq.(3) as

\displaystyle \frac{d}{dt}\int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}=0. (4)

To confirm that this is true, we note the two ways magnetic flux may change as being due to either (1) some intrinsic variability of the magnetic field strength or (2) movement of the surface. Therefore, either way it follows that

\displaystyle \frac{d}{dt}\int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}=\int_{S}\frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}\cdot d\textbf{S}+\int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot \frac{d}{dt}(d\textbf{S}). (5)

Now, consider again the two surfaces. Let us suppose now that M is displaced some distance relative to S. Further, let us also suppose that this displacement occurs during a time interval t^{\prime}=t_{0}+\delta t. Additionally, if we imagine a cylinder formed by projecting a circular cross-section from one surface to the other, we may consider its length to be \delta l with area given by the cross product: -\delta t \textbf{v}\times \delta\textbf{l}. Moreover, since we know that the area of integration is a closed region we see that the integral vanishes (goes to 0). Thus, we may write the difference

\displaystyle d\textbf{M}-d\textbf{S}-\delta \oint \textbf{v}\times \delta \textbf{l}=0 (6).

Recall the definition for a derivative, we may apply it to the second term on the right hand side of Eq.(5) to get

\displaystyle \frac{d}{dt}(d\textbf{S})=\lim_{\delta t\rightarrow 0}\frac{d\textbf{M}-d\textbf{S}}{\delta t}=\oint \textbf{v}\times \delta \textbf{l}. (7)

Thus the term becomes

\displaystyle \int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot \frac{d}{dt}(d\textbf{S})=\int \oint \textbf{B}\cdot (\textbf{v}\times \delta\textbf{l})=\int \oint (\textbf{B}\times \textbf{v})\cdot \delta l. (8)

Since the integrals that exist interior to the boundary of the surface (call it path C) vanish and recall Stokes’ theorem

\displaystyle \oint_{\partial \Omega}\textbf{F}\cdot d\textbf{r}=\int\int_{\Omega} (\nabla \times \textbf{F})\cdot d\Omega,

and applying it to Eq.(8) we arrive at

\displaystyle \frac{d}{dt}\int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}=\oint_{\partial S}(\textbf{B}\times\textbf{v}) \cdot \delta \textbf{l}=\int\int_{S}\bigg\{\nabla \times (\textbf{B}\times\textbf{v})\bigg\}\cdot d\textbf{S}. (9)

Recall that we are dealing with high magnetic Reynolds number, if we use the corresponding form of the induction equation in Eq.(9) we arrive at

\displaystyle \frac{d}{dt}\int_{S}\textbf{B}\cdot d\textbf{S}=\int\int_{S}d\textbf{S}\cdot \bigg\{ \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}-\nabla\times (\textbf{v}\times \textbf{B})\bigg\}= 0. (10)

Thus, this completes the “proof”.

Consequences and some Elementary Theorems of the Ideal One-Fluid Magnetohydrodynamic Equations


Priest, E. Magnetohydrodynamics of the Sun, 2014. Cambridge University Press. Ch.2.;

Davidson, P.A., 2001. An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics. Ch.4. 

We have seen how to derive the induction equation from Maxwell’s equations assuming no charge and assuming that the plasma velocity is non-relativistic. Thus, we have the induction equation as being

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}=\nabla \times (\textbf{v}\times \textbf{B})+\lambda \nabla^{2}\textbf{B}. (1)

Many texts in MHD make the comparison of the induction equation to the vorticity equation

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \Omega}{\partial t}= \nabla \times (\textbf{v} \times \Omega)+\nu \nabla^{2}\Omega, (2)

where I have made use of the vector identity

\nabla \times (\textbf{X}\times \textbf{Y})=\textbf{X}(\nabla \cdot \textbf{Y})-\textbf{Y}(\nabla \cdot \textbf{X})+(\textbf{Y}\cdot \nabla)\textbf{X}-(\textbf{X}\cdot \nabla)\textbf{Y}.

Indeed, if we do compare the induction equation (Eq.(1)) to the vorticity equation (Eq.(2)) we easily see the resemblance between the two. The first term on the right hand side of Eq.(1)/ Eq.(2) determines the advection of magnetic field lines/vortex field lines; the second term on the right hand side deals with the diffusion of the magnetic field lines/vortex field lines.

From this, we can impose restrictions and thus look at the consequences of the induction equation (since it governs the evolution of the magnetic field). Furthermore, we see that we can modify the kinematic theorems of classical vortex dynamics to describe the properties of magnetic field lines. After discussing the direct consequences of the induction equation, I will discuss a few theorems of vortex dynamics and then introduce their MHD analogue.

Inherent to this is magnetic Reynold’s number. In geophysical fluid dynamics, the Reynolds number (not the magnetic Reynolds number) is a ratio between the viscous forces per volume and the inertial forces per volume given by

\displaystyle Re=\frac{ul}{V}, (3)

where u, l, V represent the typical fluid velocity, length scale and typical volume respectively. The magnetic Reynolds number is the ratio between the advective and diffusive terms of the induction equation. There are two canoncial regimes: (1) Re_{m}<<1, and (2)Re_{m}>>1 The former is sometimes called the diffusive limit and the latter is called either the Ideal limit or the infinite conductivity limit (I prefer to call it the ideal limit, since the terms infinite conductivity limit is not quite accurate).


Case I:  Re_{m}<<1

Consider again the induction equation

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}=\nabla \times (\textbf{v}\times \textbf{B})+\lambda\nabla^{2}\textbf{B}.

If we then assume that we are dealing with incompressible flows (i.e. (\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})=0) then we can use the aforementioned vector identity to write the induction equation as

\displaystyle \frac{D\textbf{B}}{Dt}=(\textbf{B}\cdot \nabla)\textbf{v}+\lambda\nabla^{2}\textbf{B}. (4)

In the regime for which Re_{m}<<1, the induction equation for incompressible flows (Eq.(4)) assumes the form

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}=\lambda \nabla^{2}\textbf{B}. (5)

Compare this now to the following equation,

\displaystyle \frac{\partial T}{\partial t}=\alpha \nabla^{2}T. (6)

We see that the magnetic field lines are diffused through the plasma.


Case II: Re_{m}>>1

If we now consider the case for which the advective term dominates, we see that the induction equation takes the form

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}=\nabla \times (\textbf{v}\times \textbf{B}). (7)

Mathematically, what this suggests is that the magnetic field lines become “frozen-in” the plasma, giving rise to Alfven’s theorem of flux freezing.

Many astrophysical systems require a high magnetic Reynolds number. Such systems include the solar magnetic field (heliospheric current sheet), planetary dynamos (Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn), and galactic magnetic fields.

Kelvin’s Theorem & Helmholtz’s Theorem:

Kelvin’s Theorem: Consider a vortex tube in which we have that (\nabla \cdot \Omega)=0, in which case

\displaystyle \oint \Omega \cdot d\textbf{S}=0, (8)

and consider also the curve taken around a closed surface, (we call this curve a material curve C_{m}(t)) we may define the circulation as being

\displaystyle \Gamma = \oint_{C_{m}(t)}\textbf{v}\cdot d\textbf{l}. (9)

Thus, Kelvin’s theorem states that if the material curve is closed and it consists of identical fluid particles then the circulation, given by Eq.(9), is temporally invariant.

Helmholtz’s Theorem:

Part I: Suppose we consider a fluid element which lies on a vortex line at some initial time t=t_{0}, according to this theorem it states that this fluid element will continue to lie on that vortex line indefinitely.

Part II: This part says that the flux of vorticity

\displaystyle \Phi = \int \Omega \cdot d\textbf{S}, (10)

remains constant for each cross-sectional area and is also invariant with respect to time.


Now the magnetic analogue of Helmholtz’s Theorems are found to be Alfven’s theorem of flux freezing and conservation of magnetic flux, magnetic field lines, and magnetic topology.

The first says that fluid elements which lie along magnetic field lines will continue to do so indefinitely; basically the same for the first Helmholtz theorem.

The second requires a more detailed argument to demonstrate why it works but it says that the magnetic flux through the plasma remains constant. The third says that magnetic field lines, hence the magnetic structure may be stretched and deformed in many ways, but the magnetic topology overall remains the same.

The justification for these last two require some proof-like arguments and I will leave that to another post.

In my project, I considered the case of high magnetic Reynolds number in order to examine the MHD processes present in region of metallic hydrogen present in Jupiter’s interior.

In the next post, I will “prove” the theorems I mention and discuss the project.

Basic Equations of Ideal One-Fluid Magnetohydrodynamics: (Part V) The Energy Equations and Summary

SOURCE FOR CONTENT: Priest E., Magnetohydrodynamics of the Sun, 2014. Ch. 2. Cambridge University Press.


The final subset of equations deals with the energy equations. My undergraduate research did not take into account the thermodynamics of conducting fluid in order to keep the math relatively simple. However, in order to understand MHD one must take into account these considerations. Therefore, there are three essential equations that are indicative of the energy equations:

I. Heat Equation:

We may write this equation in terms of the entropy S as

\displaystyle \rho T \bigg\{\frac{\partial S}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})S\bigg\}=-\mathcal{L}, (1)

where \mathcal{L} represents the net effect of energy sinks and sources and is called the energy loss function. For simplicity, one typically writes the form of the heat equation to be

\displaystyle \frac{\rho^{\gamma}}{\gamma -1}\frac{d}{dt}\bigg\{\frac{P}{\rho^{\gamma}}\bigg\}=-\mathcal{L}. (2)

2. Conduction

For this equation one considers the explicit form of the energy loss function as being

\displaystyle \mathcal{L}=\nabla \cdot \textbf{q}+L_{r}-\frac{J^{2}}{\sigma}-F_{H}, (3)

where \textbf{q} represents heat flux by particle conduction, L_{r} is the net radiation, J^{2}/\sigma is the Ohmic dissipation, and F_{H} represents external heating sources, if any exist.  The term \textbf{q} is given by

\textbf{q}=-\kappa \nabla T, (4)

where \kappa is the thermal conduction tensor.

3. Radiation

The equation for radiation can be written as a variation of the diffusion equation for temperature

\displaystyle \frac{DT}{Dt}=\kappa \nabla^{2}T (5)

where \kappa here denotes the thermal diffusivity given by

\displaystyle \kappa = \frac{\kappa_{r}}{\rho c_{P}}. (6)

We may write the final form of the energy equation as

\displaystyle \frac{\rho^{\gamma}}{\gamma-1}\frac{d}{dt}\bigg\{\frac{P}{\rho^{\gamma}}\bigg\}=-\nabla \cdot \textbf{q}-L_{r}+J^{2}/\sigma+F_{H}, (7)

where \textbf{q} is given by Eq.(4).

As far as my undergraduate research is concerned, I am including these equations to be complete.


So to summarize the series so far, I have derived most of the basic equations of ideal one-fluid model of magnetohydrodynamics. The equations are

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{B}}{\partial t}=(\textbf{v}\times \textbf{B})+\lambda \nabla^{2}\textbf{B}, (A)

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \textbf{v}}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})\textbf{v}=-\frac{1}{\rho}\nabla\bigg\{P+\frac{B^{2}}{2\mu_{0}}\bigg\}+\frac{(\nabla \cdot \textbf{B})\textbf{B}}{\mu_{0}\rho}, (B)

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \rho}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \rho\textbf{v})=0, (C)

\displaystyle \frac{\partial \Omega}{\partial t}+(\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})\Omega = (\nabla \cdot \Omega)\textbf{v}+\nu \nabla^{2}\Omega, (D)

\displaystyle P = \frac{k_{B}}{m}\rho T = \frac{\tilde{R}}{\tilde{\mu}}\rho T, (E) (Ideal Gas Law)


\displaystyle \frac{\rho^{\gamma}}{\gamma-1}\frac{d}{dt}\bigg\{\frac{P}{\rho^{\gamma}}\bigg\}=-\nabla \cdot \textbf{q}-L_{r}+J^{2}/\sigma +F_{H}.  (F)

We also have the following ancillary equations

\displaystyle (\nabla \cdot \textbf{B})=0, (G.1)

since we haven’t found evidence of the existence of magnetic monopoles. We also have that

\displaystyle \nabla \times \textbf{B}=\mu_{0}\textbf{J}, (G.2)

where we are assuming that the plasma velocity v << c (i.e. non-relativistic). Finally for incompressible flows we know that (\nabla \cdot \textbf{v})=0 corresponding to isopycnal flows.


In the next post, I will discuss some of the consequences of these equations and some elementary theorems involving conservation of magnetic flux and magnetic field line topology.