In quantum mechanics, the particle in a box model (also known as the infinite potential well or the infinite square well) describes a particle free to move in a small space surrounded by impenetrable barriers. The model is mainly used as a hypothetical example to illustrate the differences between classical and quantum systems. In classical systems, for example a ball trapped inside a heavy box, the particle can move at any speed within the box and it is no more likely to be found at one position than another. However, when the well becomes very narrow (on the scale of a few nanometers), quantum effects become important. The particle may only occupy certain positive energy levels. Likewise, it can never have zero energy, meaning that the particle can never "sit still". Additionally, it is more likely to be found at certain positions than at others, depending on its energy level. The particle may never be detected at certain positions, known as spatial nodes.
The particle in a box model provides one of the very few problems in quantum mechanics which can be solved analytically, without approximations. This means that the observable properties of the particle (such as its energy and position) are related to the mass of the particle and the width of the well by simple mathematical expressions. Due to its simplicity, the model allows insight into quantum effects without the need for complicated mathematics. It is one of the first quantum mechanics problems taught in undergraduate physics courses, and it is commonly used as an approximation for more complicated quantum systems. See also: the history of quantum mechanics.
The simplest form of the particle in a box model considers a one-dimensional system. Here, the particle may only move backwards and forwards along a straight line with impenetrable barriers at either end. The walls of a one-dimensional box may be visualised as regions of space with an infinitely large potential. Conversely, the interior of the box has a constant, zero potential. This means that no forces act upon the particle inside the box and it can move freely in that region. However, infinitely large forces repel the particle if it touches the walls of the box, preventing it from escaping. The potential in this model is given as
where L is the length of the box and x is the position of the particle within the box.
In quantum mechanics, the wavefunction gives the most fundamental description of the behavior of a particle; the measurable properties of the particle (such as its position, momentum and energy) may all be derived from the wavefunction. The wavefunction ψ(x,t) can be found by solving the Schrödinger equation for the system
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