The computation of allowed energy levels for a particle bounded to a finite square well potential is ubiquitous in modern physics and introductory quantum mechanics textbooks. For stationary bound states, the matching conditions for the wave functions lead to a pair of transcendental equations whose roots correspond to the energy eigenvalues. However, the graphical solutions available do not make clear the dependence of the energies on the well potential parameters. In this note, I present a simpler graphical solution involving only one dimensionless parameter that determines a straight-line crossing identical sinusoidal curves. I then reduce this solution to a single cosine curve, and from a three-point interpolation, I derive an approximate formula for all energy levels valid for any square quantum well and that demands only a pocket calculator.

*m*confined in an infinitely deep square quantum well (SQW). On choosing

*x*= 0 at the center of the well potential, whose width is

*L*, the potential energy is $ \u2009 V ( x ) = 0 $ inside it (i.e., for $ \u2212 L / 2 < x < + L / 2 $) and $\u221e$ otherwise. For this potential, the wave functions for stationary states are $ \u2009 \psi n ( x ) = A \u2009 \u2009 cos \u2009 ( k n \u2009 x ) , \u2009 n \u2009 \u2009 \u2009 odd $, and $ \u2009 \psi n ( x ) = B \u2009 \u2009 sin \u2009 ( k n \u2009 x ) , n \u2009 \u2009 \u2009 even $.

^{1}From the boundary condition $ \u2009 \psi n ( \xb1 L / 2 ) = 0 $— i.e., the vanishing of the de Broglie wave function at the impenetrable walls, forming standing waves—it follows that $ \u2009 k n = n \u2009 \pi / L $, so the allowed energy levels are

^{1}

^{,}

*V*

_{0}, penetrating into the walls (i.e., the classically forbidden regions), which leads to longer de Broglie wavelengths and thus lower energy eigenvalues. This problem is treated in all modern physics and quantum mechanics textbooks, but, in spite of its simplicity, the transcendental equations arising from the matching conditions for the wave functions at the potential walls, whose roots correspond to the energy eigenvalues, do not admit exact closed-form solutions.

^{2,3}Though we can appeal to numerical root-finding (iterative) routines, some alternatives are found in the literature (approximate analytical or graphical solutions or series expansions), but they are of limited practical value because they are either of poor accuracy or fail in the limit of infinitely deep or very shallow well potentials (see, e.g., Refs. 5–10).

Since the finite SQW model has important applications in many branches of physics, from atomic and nuclear to solid-state and nanophysics (e.g., in semiconductor heterojunctions, ultra-thin metallic films, and atomic force microscopy), it is pedagogically valuable to search for a simple approximation scheme that yields correct results for both infinitely deep and very shallow SQWs.

*k*and

*q*are positive real numbers, which makes these second-order differential equations with constant coefficients solvable in terms of trigonometric and exponential functions. The boundary condition $ \u2009 \psi ( \xb1 \u221e ) = 0 $ reduces the general solution to

*θ*can assume. Since $ \u2009 \theta > 0 $ by virtue of Eq. (6), one must add the conditions $ \u2009 \u2009 tan \u2009 \theta > 0 $ to Eq. (8a) and $ \u2009 cot \theta = 1 / \u2009 tan \u2009 \theta < 0 $ to Eq. (8b), which is why only the right-hand “half” of the trigonometric curves in Eq. (8) were taken into account in Fig. 1. In this figure,

*θ*, $ n = 1 , 2 , \u2026 , N $, are the abscissae of the points where the straight-line $ \u2009 y = \theta / \theta max $ intersects those curves. The total number

_{n}*N*of such points is given by the ratio $ \u2009 \theta max / ( \pi / 2 ) $ rounded up to the nearest positive integer, i.e.,

*x*. Note that the line $ \u2009 y = \theta / \theta max $ crosses the trigonometric curves at points with higher and higher ordinates, as indicated by vertical dashed lines in Fig. 1, which makes the abscissae $ \u2009 \theta n $ of these points move toward the lower end of the

*n*-th interval with the increase in

*n*since each trigonometric curve is a decreasing function of

*θ*. (Therefore, $ ( n \u2212 1 ) \u2009 \pi / 2 < \theta n < \theta n \u2212 1 + \pi / 2 $ and $ \u2009 ( N \u2212 1 ) \u2009 \pi / 2 < \theta N < min { \theta max , \theta N \u2212 1 + \pi / 2 } $. These upper bounds should be taken into account in the optimization of numerical root-finding routines applied to this problem.) This simple graphical solution allows for a better understanding of the dependence of the energy eigenvalues on the SQW physical parameters. The increase in

*V*

_{0}for a given

*L*, or that of

*L*for a given

*V*

_{0}, increases

*θ*, thus reducing the slope of the line $ \u2009 y = \theta / \theta max $, which increases the number

_{max}*N*of intersections with the trigonometric curves. In the limit of infinitely deep SQWs, $ \theta max \u2192 \u221e \u2009 $, and then, the crossing-points will tend to the points on the axis of abscissae with $ \u2009 \theta n = n \u2009 \pi / 2 $, which makes $ \u2009 E n = \u210f 2 \u2009 \theta n \u2009 2 / ( 2 m \u2009 \u2113 \u2009 2 ) $ tend to $ \u2009 n 2 \u2009 \u03f5 1 $, which is just the well-known result for infinite SQWs [see Eq. (1)]. Inversely, the decrease in

*V*

_{0}for a given

*L*, or that of

*L*for a given

*V*

_{0}, reduces

*θ*, thus increasing the slope of the line $ \u2009 y = \theta / \theta max $ until the number

_{max}*N*of intersections to be reduced to only one, which occurs when $ \u2009 \theta max < \pi / 2 $, or, equivalently, $ V 0 < \pi 2 \u210f 2 / ( 2 m L 2 ) = \u03f5 1 $, the ground-state energy for the corresponding infinitely deep SQW. This shows that there is at least one stationary bound state in a finite SQW, no matter how shallow it is. For very shallow SQWs, $ \u2009 \theta max \u226a \pi / 2 $, so the Taylor approximation $ \u2009 \u2009 cos \u2009 \theta \u2248 1 \u2212 \theta 2 / 2 ! $ becomes accurate, and we are left with $ \u2009 1 \u2212 \theta 2 / 2 = \theta / \theta max $ whose only positive solution is

*E*

_{1}and

*V*

_{0}and neglecting high-order terms, one promptly finds

*θ*, $ n = 1 , \u2026 , N $, can be computed by reducing the trigonometric functions in Eq. (8) to a single cosine curve over $ [ 0 , \pi / 2 ] $ containing all “roots” $ \u2009 \theta \u0303 n = \theta n \u2212 ( n \u2212 1 ) \u2009 \pi / 2 $, as indicated in Fig. 2. Our approximation scheme consists in interpolating the function $ \u2009 y = cos \u2009 \theta $ by its three points (0, 1), $(\pi /3,\u20091/2)$, and $(\pi /2,\u20090)$, marked with black bullets in Fig. 2. This yields the parabola (see the red, dashed curve)

_{n}*α*, the abscissae of the points where the parallel straight-lines

_{n}*N*as given in Eq. (9), the only positive solution of

Let us show how our approximation scheme works using a SQW whose physical parameters, in atomic units, (In this unit system, lengths are expressed in units of $ \u2009 a B \u2261 \u210f 2 / ( m 0 \u2009 k e \u2009 e 2 ) = 0.529 $ Å, the Bohr radius, and energies are in units of $ \u2009 H t \u2261 m \u2009 k e \u2009 2 e 4 / \u210f 2 = 27.2114 $ eV, the Hartree energy. The main advantage of this system is that $ \u2009 m 0 = \u210f = k e = e = 1 $.) are $ \u2009 L = 2 $ and $ \u2009 V 0 = 49 \u2009 \pi 2 / 32 = 15.11 $, which were chosen in a manner that $ \u2009 \theta max = 7 4 \u2009 \pi $, the value used in Figs. 1 and 2. For this value, Eq. (9) returns $N= 3.5 +1=4$. Then, since $ \u2009 Z = 7 / 4 $, one promptly finds $b=1/6+4/21=5/14$, with which our approximate formula in Eq. (15) returns $ \u2009 2 \u2009 z 1 = 0.8515 , \u2009 2 \u2009 z 2 = 0.6821 , 2 \u2009 z 3 = 0.4789 $, and $ \u2009 2 \u2009 z 4 = 0.2068 $. With these values in hands, being $ \u2009 \u03f5 1 = \pi 2 \u210f 2 / ( 2 m L 2 ) = \pi 2 / 8 $ a.u., Eq. (16) returns the following approximate values (in a.u.): $ \u2009 E 1 = 0.8946 \u2009 ( 0.8805 ) , \u2009 E 2 = 3.4905 \u2009 ( 3.4864 ) , \u2009 E 3 = 7.5811 \u2009 ( 7.6788 ) $, and $ \u2009 E 4 = 12.6868 \u2009 ( 12.9883 ) $. (The values in parenthesis are the exact energy eigenvalues, found by solving Eqs. (8a) and (8b) numerically.) Our approximate values are in good agreement with the corresponding exact ones.

In conclusion, in this note, I have presented a simpler graphical solution and an approximate
analytical formula for the energy levels of stationary bound states of a particle in a finite
SQW. Our graphical solution demands only one dimensionless parameter, namely, *θ _{max}*, which determines the straight-line $ \u2009 y = \theta / \theta max $ plotted in Fig. 1, which
crosses some identical trigonometric curves, allowing students to see that finite SQWs always
have a finite number $ N \u2265 1 $ of stationary bound states and, since this figure also shows
that the decrease in

*V*

_{0}increases the slope of the straight-line, they can understand why the energy eigenvalues $ \u2009 E n $ deviate more and more from $ \u2009 \u03f5 n $, the corresponding eigenvalues for infinite SQWs. In Fig. 2, we succeeded in reducing those curves to a single cosine curve over the interval $[0,\u2009\pi /2]$. As this curve resembles a parabola, I have taken the endpoints, together the “midpoint” $(\pi /3,\u20091/2)$, for a quadratic interpolation. This has led to an accurate formula for the “roots” $ \theta \u0303 n $, from which one promptly finds the corresponding energy eigenvalues and all this without artificial numerical factors or adjustable parameters. We also give a numerical example to illustrate how our approximation scheme works, and we think that it is so simple that the reader can easily repeat the computations for arbitrary values of $ \u2009 L $ and $ \u2009 V 0 $ in a pocket calculator. As our method is not iterative, it is free of divergence issues, or slow convergence, as well as spurious roots, with the advantage of becoming more and more accurate in both limits of infinitely deep and very shallow SQWs, as given in Eqs. (1) and (11), respectively.

Of course, some authors have already developed graphical solutions for the finite SQW problem
similar to the one proposed here. In Sec. 4.2 of Ref. 11, a more advanced textbook, Davies arrives at a pair of simple equations in his
Eq. (4.14), which is the same as our Eq. (8),
but, astonishingly, he turns back to the more complicated original result, our Eq. (6), to develop a graphical solution! In Ref. 12, the authors also arrive at that pair of equations, but
their graphical analysis is somewhat obscured by some equations involving complex numbers,
which follow from their choice of the reference level for the well potential (null in the
barriers and negative into the well). Moreover, they adopt *k* for the axis of
abscissae, which is not a dimensionless quantity. In Ref. 13, Mitin *et al.* employed a method very similar to ours, but they
prefer to use the inverse trigonometric function $ \u2009 arcsin x $, which is not a single-valued function. In comparison to those
methods found in textbooks, our method certainly is both simpler and more elegant.

On regarding previous attempts to approximate the allowed energy levels in finite SQWs,
distinct methods are found in the literature, but they either present a poor accuracy or they
do not remain accurate for both very shallow and very deep SQWs.^{5–7,9} Reed's method,^{7} e.g., which is often mentioned in recent papers (see, e.g., Ref. 10), involves a rather complicated function, which
certainly demands the use of a computer, which in turn could be used for solving Eq. (6) numerically or even for implementing a full
numerical solution of the Schrödinger equation! As our interpolation of the cosine function
includes the endpoints (0, 1) and $(\pi /2,\u20090)$, our approximate formula in Eq. (15) will also furnish the exact result for infinite SQWs and the correct
result for very shallow SQWs. Finally, for those who insist in solving Eq. (6) numerically, our approximate energies could be
taken as good starting points to improve the convergence of numerical routines applied to this
problem.

## REFERENCES

*Modern Physics*

*Introduction to Quantum Mechanics*

*Quantum Mechanics*

*The Physics of Low-Dimensional Semiconductors: An Introduction*

*Quantum Mechanics*

*β*and its Complement H

_{I}.

*Quantum Mechanics for Nanostructures*