Elliptic operator

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A solution to Laplace's equation defined on an annulus. The Laplace operator is the most famous example of an elliptic operator.

In the theory of partial differential equations, elliptic operators are differential operators that generalize the Laplace operator. They are defined by the condition that the coefficients of the highest-order derivatives be positive, which implies the key property that the principal symbol is invertible, or equivalently that there are no real characteristic directions.

Elliptic operators are typical of potential theory, and they appear frequently in electrostatics and continuum mechanics. Elliptic regularity implies that their solutions tend to be smooth functions (if the coefficients in the operator are smooth). Steady-state solutions to hyperbolic and parabolic equations generally solve elliptic equations.


Let be a linear differential operator of order m on a domain in Rn given by

where denotes a multi-index, and denotes the partial derivative of order in .

Then is called elliptic if for every x in and every non-zero in Rn,

where .

In many applications, this condition is not strong enough, and instead a uniform ellipticity condition may be imposed for operators of order m = 2k:

where C is a positive constant. Note that ellipticity only depends on the highest-order terms.[1]

A nonlinear operator

is elliptic if its linearization is; i.e. the first-order Taylor expansion with respect to u and its derivatives about any point is an elliptic operator.

Example 1
The negative of the Laplacian in Rd given by
is a uniformly elliptic operator. The Laplace operator occurs frequently in electrostatics. If ρ is the charge density within some region Ω, the potential Φ must satisfy the equation
Example 2
Given a matrix-valued function A(x) which is symmetric and positive definite for every x, having components aij, the operator
is elliptic. This is the most general form of a second-order divergence form linear elliptic differential operator. The Laplace operator is obtained by taking A = I. These operators also occur in electrostatics in polarized media.
Example 3
For p a non-negative number, the p-Laplacian is a nonlinear elliptic operator defined by
A similar nonlinear operator occurs in glacier mechanics. The Cauchy stress tensor of ice, according to Glen's flow law, is given by
for some constant B. The velocity of an ice sheet in steady state will then solve the nonlinear elliptic system
where ρ is the ice density, g is the gravitational acceleration vector, p is the pressure and Q is a forcing term.

Elliptic regularity theorem[edit]

Let L be an elliptic operator of order 2k with coefficients having 2k continuous derivatives. The Dirichlet problem for L is to find a function u, given a function f and some appropriate boundary values, such that Lu = f and such that u has the appropriate boundary values and normal derivatives. The existence theory for elliptic operators, using Gårding's inequality and the Lax–Milgram lemma, only guarantees that a weak solution u exists in the Sobolev space Hk.

This situation is ultimately unsatisfactory, as the weak solution u might not have enough derivatives for the expression Lu to be well-defined in the classical sense.

The elliptic regularity theorem guarantees that, provided f is square-integrable, u will in fact have 2k square-integrable weak derivatives. In particular, if f is infinitely-often differentiable, then so is u.

Any differential operator exhibiting this property is called a hypoelliptic operator; thus, every elliptic operator is hypoelliptic. The property also means that every fundamental solution of an elliptic operator is infinitely differentiable in any neighborhood not containing 0.

As an application, suppose a function satisfies the Cauchy–Riemann equations. Since the Cauchy-Riemann equations form an elliptic operator, it follows that is smooth.

General definition[edit]

Let be a (possibly nonlinear) differential operator between vector bundles of any rank. Take its principal symbol with respect to a one-form . (Basically, what we are doing is replacing the highest order covariant derivatives by vector fields .)

We say is weakly elliptic if is a linear isomorphism for every non-zero .

We say is (uniformly) strongly elliptic if for some constant ,

for all and all . It is important to note that the definition of ellipticity in the previous part of the article is strong ellipticity. Here is an inner product. Notice that the are covector fields or one-forms, but the are elements of the vector bundle upon which acts.

The quintessential example of a (strongly) elliptic operator is the Laplacian (or its negative, depending upon convention). It is not hard to see that needs to be of even order for strong ellipticity to even be an option. Otherwise, just consider plugging in both and its negative. On the other hand, a weakly elliptic first-order operator, such as the Dirac operator can square to become a strongly elliptic operator, such as the Laplacian. The composition of weakly elliptic operators is weakly elliptic.

Weak ellipticity is nevertheless strong enough for the Fredholm alternative, Schauder estimates, and the Atiyah–Singer index theorem. On the other hand, we need strong ellipticity for the maximum principle, and to guarantee that the eigenvalues are discrete, and their only limit point is infinity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note that this is sometimes called strict ellipticity, with uniform ellipticity being used to mean that an upper bound exists on the symbol of the operator as well. It is important to check the definitions the author is using, as conventions may differ. See, e.g., Evans, Chapter 6, for a use of the first definition, and Gilbarg and Trudinger, Chapter 3, for a use of the second.


  • Evans, L. C. (2010) [1998], Partial differential equations, Graduate Studies in Mathematics, vol. 19 (2nd ed.), Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, ISBN 978-0-8218-4974-3, MR 2597943
    Rauch, J. (2000). "Partial differential equations, by L. C. Evans" (PDF). Journal of the American Mathematical Society. 37 (3): 363–367. doi:10.1090/s0273-0979-00-00868-5.
  • Gilbarg, D.; Trudinger, N. S. (1983) [1977], Elliptic partial differential equations of second order, Grundlehren der Mathematischen Wissenschaften, vol. 224 (2nd ed.), Berlin, New York: Springer-Verlag, ISBN 978-3-540-13025-3, MR 0737190
  • Shubin, M. A. (2001) [1994], "Elliptic operator", Encyclopedia of Mathematics, EMS Press

External links[edit]