A **phonon** is a quantized mode of vibration occurring in a rigid crystal lattice, such as the atomic lattice of a solid. The study of phonons is an important part of solid state physics, because they contribute to many of the physical properties of materials, such as thermal and electrical conductivity. For example, the propagation of phonons is responsible for the conduction of heat in insulators, and the properties of long-wavelength phonons gives rise to sound in solids (hence the name *phonon*).

According to a well-known result in classical mechanics, any vibration of a lattice can be decomposed into a superposition of normal modes of vibration. When these modes are analysed using quantum mechanics, they are found to possess some particle-like properties (see wave-particle duality.) When treated as particles, phonons are bosons possessing zero spin.

The following article provides an overview of the physics of phonons.

We begin our investigation of phonons by examining the mechanical systems from which they emerge. Consider a rigid regular (or "crystalline") lattice composed of *N* particles. We will refer to these particles as "atoms", though in a real solid they may actually be ions. *N* is some large number, say around 10^{23} (Avogadro's number) for a typical piece of solid.

If the lattice is rigid, the atoms must be exerting forces on one another, so as to keep each atom near its equilibrium position. In real solids, these forces include Van der Waals forces, covalent bonds, and so forth, all of which are ultimately due to the electric force; magnetic and gravitational forces are generally negligible. The forces between each pair of atoms may be characterized by some potential energy function *V*, depending on the separation of the atoms. The potential energy of the *entire* lattice is the sum of all the pairwise potential energies:

It is extremely difficult to solve this many-body problem in full generality, in either classical or quantum mechanics. In order to simplify the task, we introduce two important approximations. Firstly, we only perform the sum over neighbouring atoms. Although the electric forces in real solids extend to infinity, this approximation is nevertheles valid because the fields produced by distant atoms are screened. Secondly, we treat the potentials *V* as harmonic potentials, which is permissible as long as the atoms remain close to their equilibrium positions. (Formally, this is done by Taylor expanding *V* about its equilibrium value.)

The resulting lattice may be visualized as a system of balls connected by springs. Two such lattices are shown in the figures below. The figure on the left shows a cubic lattice, which is a good model for many types of crystalline solid. The figure on the right shows a linear chain, a very simple lattice which we will shortly use for modelling phonons. Other common lattices may be found in the article on crystal structure.

The potential energy of the lattice may now be written as

Due to the connections between atoms, the displacement of one or more atoms from their equilibrium positions will give rise to a set of vibration waves propagating through the lattice. One such wave is shown in the figure below. The amplitude of the wave is given by the displacements of the atoms from their equilibrium positions. The wavelength λ is marked.

It should be noted that there is a minimum possible wavelength, given by the equilibrium separation *a* between atoms. As we shall see in the following sections, any wavelength shorter than this can be mapped onto a wavelength longer than *a*.

Not every possible lattice vibration has a well-defined wavelength and frequency. However, the normal modes (which, as we mentioned in the introduction, are the elementary building-blocks of lattice vibrations) do possess well-defined wavelengths and frequencies. We will now examine these normal modes in some detail.

We begin by studying the simplest model of phonons, a one-dimensional quantum mechanical harmonic chain. The formalism for this one-dimensional model is readily generalizable to two and three dimensions. Consider a linear chain of *N* atoms. The Hamiltonian for this system is

We introduce a set of *N* "normal coordinates" *Q _{k}*, defined as the discrete Fourier transforms of the

By inverting the discrete Fourier transforms to express the *Q*'s in terms of the *x*'s and the Π's in terms of the *p*'s, and using the canonical commutation relations between the *x*'s and *p*'s, we can show that

It is not *a priori* obvious that these excitations generated by the *a* operators are literally waves of lattice displacement, but one may convince oneself of this by calculating the *position-position correlation function*. Let |*k*> denote a state with a single quantum of mode *k* excited, i.e.*j* and *l*,

This is exactly what we would expect for a lattice wave with frequency *ω _{k}* and wave number

The energy spectrum of this Hamiltonian is easily obtained by the method of ladder operators, similar to the quantum harmonic oscillator problem. We introduce a set of ladder operators defined by

We can immediately deduce two important properties of phonons. Firstly, phonons are bosons, since any number of identical excitations can be created by repeated application of the creation operator *a*_{k}^{†}. Secondly, each phonon is a "collective mode" caused by the motion of every atom in the lattice. This may be seen from the fact that the ladder operators contain sums over the position and momentum operators of every atom.

The speed of propagation of a phonon, which is also the speed of sound in the lattice, is given by the slope of the dispersion relation, ∂ω_{k}/∂*k* (see group velocity.) At low values of *k* (i.e. long wavelengths), the dispersion relation is almost linear, and the speed of sound is approximately ω*a*, independent of the phonon frequency. As a result, packets of phonons with different (but long) wavelengths can propagate for large distances across the lattice without breaking apart. This is the reason that sound propagates through solids without significant distortion. This behavior fails at large values of *k*, i.e. short wavelengths, due to the microscopic details of the lattice.

It should be noted that the physics of sound in air is different from the physics of sound in solids, although both are density waves. This is because sound waves in air propagate in a gas of randomly moving molecules rather than a regular crystal lattice.

It is tempting to treat a phonon with wave vector **k** as though it has a momentum ℏ**k**, by analogy to photons and matter waves. This is not entirely correct, for ℏ**k** is not actually a physical momentum; it is called the *crystal momentum* or *pseudomomentum*. This is because **k** is only determined up to multiples of constant vectors, known as reciprocal lattice vectors. For
example, in our one-dimensional model, the normal coordinates *Q* and *Π* are defined so that

It is usually convenient to consider phonon wave vectors **k** which have the smallest magnitude (|**k**|) in their "family". The set of all such wave vectors defines the *first Brillouin zone*. Additional Brillouin zones may be defined as copies of the first zone, shifted by some reciprocal lattice vector.

*Insert Brillouin Zone picture here (e.g. for a hexagonal lattice)*

A crystal lattice at zero temperature lies in its ground state, and contains no phonons. According to thermodynamics, when the lattice is held at a non-zero temperature its energy is not constant, but fluctuates randomly about some mean value. These energy fluctuations are caused by random lattice vibrations, which can be viewed as a *gas of phonons*. (Note: the random motion of the atoms in the lattice is what we usually think of as heat.) Because these phonons are generated by the temperature of the lattice, they are sometimes referred to as **thermal phonons**.

Unlike the atoms which make up an ordinary gas, thermal phonons can be created or destroyed by random energy fluctuations. Their behavior is similar to the *photon* gas produced by an electromagnetic cavity, wherein photons may be emitted or absorbed by the cavity walls. This similarity is not coincidental, for it turns out that the electromagnetic field behaves like a set of harmonic oscillators; see Blackbody radiation. Both gases obey the Bose-Einstein statistics: in thermal equilibrium, the average number of phonons (or photons) in a given state is

"Optical phonons" always have some minimum frequency of vibration, even when their wavelength is large. They are called "optical" because in ionic crystals (like sodium chloride) they are excited very easily by light (in fact, infrared radiation). This is because they correspond to a mode of vibration where positive and negative ions at adjacent lattice sites swing against each other, creating a time-varying electrical dipole moment.