Section: Scientific Foundations

Mathematical analysis and simulation of wave propagation

Our activity relies on the existence of mathematical models established by physicists to model the propagation of waves in various situations. The basic ingredient is a partial differential equation (or a system of partial differential equations) of the hyperbolic type that are often (but not always) linear for most of the applications we are interested in. The prototype equation is the wave equation:

2 u t 2 -c 2 Δu=0,

which can be directly applied to acoustic waves but which also constitutes a simplified scalar model for other types of waves (This is why the development of new numerical methods often begins by their application to the wave equation). Of course, taking into account more realistic physics will enrich and complexify the basic models (presence of sources, boundary conditions, coupling of models, integro-differential or non linear terms,...)

It is classical to distinguish between two types of problems associated with these models: the time domain problems and the frequency domain (or time harmonic) problems. In the first case, the time is one of the variables of which the unknown solution depends and one has to face an evolution problem. In the second case (which rigorously makes sense only for linear problems), the dependence with respect to time is imposed a priori (via the source term for instance): the solution is supposed to be harmonic in time, proportional to e iωt , where ω>0 denotes the pulsation (also commonly, but improperly, called the frequency). Therefore, the time dependence occurs only through this pulsation which is given a priori and plays the rôle of a parameter: the unknown is only a function of space variables. For instance, the wave equation leads to the Helmholtz wave equation (also called the reduced wave equation) :

-c 2 Δu-ω 2 u=0.

These two types of problems, although deduced from the same physical modelling, have very different mathematical properties and require the development of adapted numerical methods.

However, there is generally one common feature between the two problems: the existence of a dimension characteristic of the physical phenomenon: the wavelength. Intuitively, this dimension is the length along which the searched solution varies substantially. In the case of the propagation of a wave in an heterogeneous medium, it is necessary to speak of several wavelengths (the wavelength can vary from one medium to another). This quantity has a fundamental influence on the behavior of the solution and its knowledge will have a great influence on the choice of a numerical method.

Nowadays, the numerical techniques for solving the basic academic and industrial problems are well mastered. A lot of companies have at their disposal computational codes whose limits (in particular in terms of accuracy or robustness) are well known. However, the resolution of complex wave propagation problems close to real applications still poses (essentially open) problems which constitute a real challenge for applied mathematicians. A large part of research in mathematics applied to wave propagation problems is oriented towards the following goals:

  • the conception of new numerical methods, more and more accurate and high performing.

  • the treatment of more and more complex problems (non local models, non linear models, coupled systems, ...)

  • the study of specific phenomena or features such as guided waves, resonances,...

  • the development of approximate models in various situations,

  • imaging techniques and inverse problems related to wave propagation.