A Practical Guide to the Partition Function of Atoms and Ions

P. Alimohamadi, G. J. Ferland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The partition function, U, the number of available states in an atom or molecules, is crucial for understanding the physical state of any astrophysical system in thermodynamic equilibrium. There are surprisingly few useful discussions of the partition function's numerical value. Textbooks often define U; some give tables of representative values, while others do a deep dive into the theory of dense plasma. Most say that it depends on temperature, atomic structure, density, and that it diverges, that is, it goes to infinity, at high temperatures, but few give practical examples. We aim to rectify this. We show that there are two limits, one- and two-electron (or closed-shell) systems like H or He, and species with a complicated electronic structure like C, N, O, and Fe. The high-temperature divergence does not occur for one- and two-electron systems in practical situations because, at high temperatures, species are collisionally ionized to higher-ionization stages and are not abundant. The partition function is then close to the statistical weight of the ground state. There is no such simplification for many-electron species. U is temperature sensitive across the range of temperatures where an ion is abundant but remains finite at even the highest practical temperatures. The actual value depends on highly uncertain truncation theories in high-density plasmas. We show that there are various theories for continuum lowering but that they are not in good agreement. This remains a long-standing unsolved problem.

Original languageEnglish
Article number073001
JournalPublications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
Issue number1037
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
G.J.F. acknowledges support by NSF (1816537, 1910687), NASA (ATP 17-ATP17-0141, 19-ATP19-0188), and STScI (HST-AR- 15018).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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