Section: Research Program

Research Program

Our group, originally only involved in electronic structure computations, continues to focus on many numerical issues in quantum chemistry, but now expands its expertise to cover several related problems at larger scales, such as molecular dynamics problems and multiscale problems. The mathematical derivation of continuum energies from quantum chemistry models is one instance of a long-term theoretical endeavour.

Electronic structure of large systems

Quantum Chemistry aims at understanding the properties of matter through the modelling of its behavior at a subatomic scale, where matter is described as an assembly of nuclei and electrons. At this scale, the equation that rules the interactions between these constitutive elements is the Schrödinger equation. It can be considered (except in few special cases notably those involving relativistic phenomena or nuclear reactions) as a universal model for at least three reasons. First it contains all the physical information of the system under consideration so that any of the properties of this system can in theory be deduced from the Schrödinger equation associated to it. Second, the Schrödinger equation does not involve any empirical parameters, except some fundamental constants of Physics (the Planck constant, the mass and charge of the electron, ...); it can thus be written for any kind of molecular system provided its chemical composition, in terms of natures of nuclei and number of electrons, is known. Third, this model enjoys remarkable predictive capabilities, as confirmed by comparisons with a large amount of experimental data of various types. On the other hand, using this high quality model requires working with space and time scales which are both very tiny: the typical size of the electronic cloud of an isolated atom is the Angström (10-10 meters), and the size of the nucleus embedded in it is 10-15 meters; the typical vibration period of a molecular bond is the femtosecond (10-15 seconds), and the characteristic relaxation time for an electron is 10-18 seconds. Consequently, Quantum Chemistry calculations concern very short time (say 10-12 seconds) behaviors of very small size (say 10-27 m3) systems. The underlying question is therefore whether information on phenomena at these scales is useful in understanding or, better, predicting macroscopic properties of matter. It is certainly not true that all macroscopic properties can be simply upscaled from the consideration of the short time behavior of a tiny sample of matter. Many of them derive from ensemble or bulk effects, that are far from being easy to understand and to model. Striking examples are found in solid state materials or biological systems. Cleavage, the ability of minerals to naturally split along crystal surfaces (e.g. mica yields to thin flakes), is an ensemble effect. Protein folding is also an ensemble effect that originates from the presence of the surrounding medium; it is responsible for peculiar properties (e.g. unexpected acidity of some reactive site enhanced by special interactions) upon which vital processes are based. However, it is undoubtedly true that many macroscopic phenomena originate from elementary processes which take place at the atomic scale. Let us mention for instance the fact that the elastic constants of a perfect crystal or the color of a chemical compound (which is related to the wavelengths absorbed or emitted during optic transitions between electronic levels) can be evaluated by atomic scale calculations. In the same fashion, the lubricative properties of graphite are essentially due to a phenomenon which can be entirely modeled at the atomic scale. It is therefore reasonable to simulate the behavior of matter at the atomic scale in order to understand what is going on at the macroscopic one. The journey is however a long one. Starting from the basic principles of Quantum Mechanics to model the matter at the subatomic scale, one finally uses statistical mechanics to reach the macroscopic scale. It is often necessary to rely on intermediate steps to deal with phenomena which take place on various mesoscales. It may then be possible to couple one description of the system with some others within the so-called multiscale models. The sequel indicates how this journey can be completed focusing on the first smallest scales (the subatomic one), rather than on the larger ones. It has already been mentioned that at the subatomic scale, the behavior of nuclei and electrons is governed by the Schrödinger equation, either in its time-dependent form or in its time-independent form. Let us only mention at this point that

  • both equations involve the quantum Hamiltonian of the molecular system under consideration; from a mathematical viewpoint, it is a self-adjoint operator on some Hilbert space; both the Hilbert space and the Hamiltonian operator depend on the nature of the system;

  • also present into these equations is the wavefunction of the system; it completely describes its state; its L2 norm is set to one.

The time-dependent equation is a first-order linear evolution equation, whereas the time-independent equation is a linear eigenvalue equation. For the reader more familiar with numerical analysis than with quantum mechanics, the linear nature of the problems stated above may look auspicious. What makes the numerical simulation of these equations extremely difficult is essentially the huge size of the Hilbert space: indeed, this space is roughly some symmetry-constrained subspace of L2(d), with d=3(M+N), M and N respectively denoting the number of nuclei and the number of electrons the system is made of. The parameter d is already 39 for a single water molecule and rapidly reaches 106 for polymers or biological molecules. In addition, a consequence of the universality of the model is that one has to deal at the same time with several energy scales. In molecular systems, the basic elementary interaction between nuclei and electrons (the two-body Coulomb interaction) appears in various complex physical and chemical phenomena whose characteristic energies cover several orders of magnitude: the binding energy of core electrons in heavy atoms is 104 times as large as a typical covalent bond energy, which is itself around 20 times as large as the energy of a hydrogen bond. High precision or at least controlled error cancellations are thus required to reach chemical accuracy when starting from the Schrödinger equation. Clever approximations of the Schrödinger problems are therefore needed. The main two approximation strategies, namely the Born-Oppenheimer-Hartree-Fock and the Born-Oppenheimer-Kohn-Sham strategies, end up with large systems of coupled nonlinear partial differential equations, each of these equations being posed on L2(3). The size of the underlying functional space is thus reduced at the cost of a dramatic increase of the mathematical complexity of the problem: nonlinearity. The mathematical and numerical analysis of the resulting models has been the major concern of the project-team for a long time. In the recent years, while part of the activity still follows this path, the focus has progressively shifted to problems at other scales.

As the size of the systems one wants to study increases, more efficient numerical techniques need to be resorted to. In computational chemistry, the typical scaling law for the complexity of computations with respect to the size of the system under study is N3, N being for instance the number of electrons. The Holy Grail in this respect is to reach a linear scaling, so as to make possible simulations of systems of practical interest in biology or material science. Efforts in this direction must address a large variety of questions such as

  • how can one improve the nonlinear iterations that are the basis of any ab initio models for computational chemistry?

  • how can one more efficiently solve the inner loop which most often consists in the solution procedure for the linear problem (with frozen nonlinearity)?

  • how can one design a sufficiently small variational space, whose dimension is kept limited while the size of the system increases?

An alternative strategy to reduce the complexity of ab initio computations is to try to couple different models at different scales. Such a mixed strategy can be either a sequential one or a parallel one, in the sense that

  • in the former, the results of the model at the lower scale are simply used to evaluate some parameters that are inserted in the model for the larger scale: one example is the parameterized classical molecular dynamics, which makes use of force fields that are fitted to calculations at the quantum level;

  • while in the latter, the model at the lower scale is concurrently coupled to the model at the larger scale: an instance of such a strategy is the so called QM/MM coupling (standing for Quantum Mechanics/Molecular Mechanics coupling) where some part of the system (typically the reactive site of a protein) is modeled with quantum models, that therefore accounts for the change in the electronic structure and for the modification of chemical bonds, while the rest of the system (typically the inert part of a protein) is coarse grained and more crudely modeled by classical mechanics.

The coupling of different scales can even go up to the macroscopic scale, with methods that couple a microscopic representation of matter, or at least a mesoscopic one, with the equations of continuum mechanics at the macroscopic level.

Computational Statistical Mechanics

The orders of magnitude used in the microscopic representation of matter are far from the orders of magnitude of the macroscopic quantities we are used to: The number of particles under consideration in a macroscopic sample of material is of the order of the Avogadro number 𝒩A6×1023, the typical distances are expressed in Å (10-10 m), the energies are of the order of kBT4×10-21 J at room temperature, and the typical times are of the order of 10-15 s.

To give some insight into such a large number of particles contained in a macroscopic sample, it is helpful to compute the number of moles of water on earth. Recall that one mole of water corresponds to 18 mL, so that a standard glass of water contains roughly 10 moles, and a typical bathtub contains 105 mol. On the other hand, there are approximately 1018 m3 of water in the oceans, i.e. 7×1022 mol, a number comparable to the Avogadro number. This means that inferring the macroscopic behavior of physical systems described at the microscopic level by the dynamics of several millions of particles only is like inferring the ocean's dynamics from hydrodynamics in a bathtub...

For practical numerical computations of matter at the microscopic level, following the dynamics of every atom would require simulating 𝒩A atoms and performing O(1015) time integration steps, which is of course impossible! These numbers should be compared with the current orders of magnitude of the problems that can be tackled with classical molecular simulation, where several millions of atoms only can be followed over time scales of the order of a few microseconds.

Describing the macroscopic behavior of matter knowing its microscopic description therefore seems out of reach. Statistical physics allows us to bridge the gap between microscopic and macroscopic descriptions of matter, at least on a conceptual level. The question is whether the estimated quantities for a system of N particles correctly approximate the macroscopic property, formally obtained in the thermodynamic limit N+ (the density being kept fixed). In some cases, in particular for simple homogeneous systems, the macroscopic behavior is well approximated from small-scale simulations. However, the convergence of the estimated quantities as a function of the number of particles involved in the simulation should be checked in all cases.

Despite its intrinsic limitations on spatial and timescales, molecular simulation has been used and developed over the past 50 years, and its number of users keeps increasing. As we understand it, it has two major aims nowadays.

First, it can be used as a numerical microscope, which allows us to perform “computer” experiments. This was the initial motivation for simulations at the microscopic level: physical theories were tested on computers. This use of molecular simulation is particularly clear in its historic development, which was triggered and sustained by the physics of simple liquids. Indeed, there was no good analytical theory for these systems, and the observation of computer trajectories was very helpful to guide the physicists' intuition about what was happening in the system, for instance the mechanisms leading to molecular diffusion. In particular, the pioneering works on Monte-Carlo methods by Metropolis et al., and the first molecular dynamics simulation of Alder and Wainwright were performed because of such motivations. Today, understanding the behavior of matter at the microscopic level can still be difficult from an experimental viewpoint (because of the high resolution required, both in time and in space), or because we simply do not know what to look for! Numerical simulations are then a valuable tool to test some ideas or obtain some data to process and analyze in order to help assessing experimental setups. This is particularly true for current nanoscale systems.

Another major aim of molecular simulation, maybe even more important than the previous one, is to compute macroscopic quantities or thermodynamic properties, typically through averages of some functionals of the system. In this case, molecular simulation is a way to obtain quantitative information on a system, instead of resorting to approximate theories, constructed for simplified models, and giving only qualitative answers. Sometimes, these properties are accessible through experiments, but in some cases only numerical computations are possible since experiments may be unfeasible or too costly (for instance, when high pressure or large temperature regimes are considered, or when studying materials not yet synthesized). More generally, molecular simulation is a tool to explore the links between the microscopic and macroscopic properties of a material, allowing one to address modelling questions such as “Which microscopic ingredients are necessary (and which are not) to observe a given macroscopic behavior?”

Homogenization and related problems

Over the years, the project-team has developed an increasing expertise on how to couple models written at the atomistic scale with more macroscopic models, and, more generally, an expertise in multiscale modelling for materials science.

The following observation motivates the idea of coupling atomistic and continuum representation of materials. In many situations of interest (crack propagation, presence of defects in the atomistic lattice, ...), using a model based on continuum mechanics is difficult. Indeed, such a model is based on a macroscopic constitutive law, the derivation of which requires a deep qualitative and quantitative understanding of the physical and mechanical properties of the solid under consideration. For many solids, reaching such an understanding is a challenge, as loads they are subjected to become larger and more diverse, and as experimental observations helping designing such models are not always possible (think of materials used in the nuclear industry). Using an atomistic model in the whole domain is not possible either, due to its prohibitive computational cost. Recall indeed that a macroscopic sample of matter contains a number of atoms on the order of 1023. However, it turns out that, in many situations of interest, the deformation that we are looking for is not smooth in only a small part of the solid. So, a natural idea is to try to take advantage of both models, the continuum mechanics one and the atomistic one, and to couple them, in a domain decomposition spirit. In most of the domain, the deformation is expected to be smooth, and reliable continuum mechanics models are then available. In the rest of the domain, the expected deformation is singular, so that one needs an atomistic model to describe it properly, the cost of which remains however limited as this region is small.

From a mathematical viewpoint, the question is to couple a discrete model with a model described by PDEs. This raises many questions, both from the theoretical and numerical viewpoints:

  • first, one needs to derive, from an atomistic model, continuum mechanics models, under some regularity assumptions that encode the fact that the situation is smooth enough for such a macroscopic model to provide a good description of the materials;

  • second, couple these two models, e.g. in a domain decomposition spirit, with the specificity that models in both domains are written in a different language, that there is no natural way to write boundary conditions coupling these two models, and that one would like the decomposition to be self-adaptive.

More generally, the presence of numerous length scales in material science problems represents a challenge for numerical simulation, especially when some randomness is assumed on the materials. It can take various forms, and includes defects in crystals, thermal fluctuations, and impurities or heterogeneities in continuous media. Standard methods available in the literature to handle such problems often lead to very costly computations. Our goal is to develop numerical methods that are more affordable. Because we cannot embrace all difficulties at once, we focus on a simple case, where the fine scale and the coarse-scale models can be written similarly, in the form of a simple elliptic partial differential equation in divergence form. The fine scale model includes heterogeneities at a small scale, a situation which is formalized by the fact that the coefficients in the fine scale model vary on a small length scale. After homogenization, this model yields an effective, macroscopic model, which includes no small scale. In many cases, a sound theoretical groundwork exists for such homogenization results. The difficulty stems from the fact that the models generally lead to prohibitively costly computations. For such a case, simple from the theoretical viewpoint, our aim is to focus on different practical computational approaches to speed-up the computations. One possibility, among others, is to look for specific random materials, relevant from the practical viewpoint, and for which a dedicated approach can be proposed, that is less expensive than the general approach.