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# Review of Coordinate Systems

## A good understanding of coordinate systems can be very helpful in solving problems

related to Maxwells Equations. The three most common coordinate systems are
rectangular (x, y, z), cylindrical (r, , z), and spherical ( , , r ).

Unit vectors in rectangular, cylindrical, and spherical coordinates

In rectangular coordinates a point P is specified by x,
y, and z, where these values are all measured from the
origin (see figure at right). A vector at the point P is
specified in terms of three mutually perpendicular
components with unit vectors k and , j , i

(also called
z and , y , x ). The unit vectors k and , j , i

form a right-
handed set; that is, if you push j into i

with your right
hand, your right thumb will point along k

direction.

In cylindrical coordinates a point P is specified by
r, , z, where is measured from the x axis (or x-z
plane) (see figure at right). A vector at the point P
is specified in terms of three mutually perpendicular
components with unit vectors r perpendicular to
the cylinder of radius r, perpendicular to the
plane through the z axis at angle , and z
perpendicular to the x-y plane at distance z. The
unit vectors r, , z form a right-handed set.

In spherical coordinates a point P is specified by
, , r , where r is measured from the origin, is
measured from thez axis, and is measured from
thex axis (or x-z plane) (see figure at right). With
z axis up, is sometimes called the zenith angle
and the azimuth angle. A vector at the point P
is specified in terms of three mutually
perpendicular components with unit vectors r
perpendicular to the sphere of radius r,

perpendicular to the cone of angle , and
perpendicular to the plane through the z axis at
angle . The unit vectors r ,

, form a right-
handed set.

Infinitesimal lengths and volumes

An infinitesimal length in the rectangular system is given by

2 2 2
z d y d x d d + + = L (1)

and an infinitesimal volume by

z d y d x d v d = (2)

In the cylindrical system the corresponding quantities are

2 2 2 2
z d d r r d d + + = L (3)

and z d d r r d v d = (4)

In the spherical system we have

2 2 2 2 2 2
sin d r d r r d d + + = L (5)

and d r d r dr v d sin = (6)

Direction cosines and coordinate-system transformation

As shown in the figure on the right, the
projection x of the scalar distance r on the x axis
is given by cos r where is the angle
between r and the x axis. The projection of r on
the y axis is given by cos r , and the
projection on the z axis by cos r . Note that
= so cos cos = .

The quantities cos , cos , and cos are
called the direction cosines. From the theorem
of Pythagoras,

1 cos cos cos
2 2 2
= + + (7)

The scalar distance r of a spherical coordinate
system transforms into rectangular coordinate
distance

cos sin cos r r x = = (8)
sin sin cos r r y = = (9)
cos cos r r z = = (10)
from which
cos sin cos = (11)
sin sin cos = direction cosines (12)
cos cos = (13)

As the converse of (8), (9), and (10), the spherical coordinate values ( , , r ) may be
expressed in terms of rectangular coordinate distances as follows:

0
2 2 2
+ + = r z y x r (14)

) 0 ( cos
2 2 2
1

+ +
=

z y x
z
(15)

x
y
1
tan

= (16)

From these and similar coordinate transformations of spherical to rectangular and
rectangular to spherical coordinates, we may express a vector A at some point P with
spherical components

A A A
r
, , as the rectangular components
z y x
A A A and , , , where

sin cos cos cos sin A A A A
r x
+ = (17)

cos sin cos sin sin A A A A
r y
+ + = (18)

sin cos A A A
r z
= (19)

Note that the direction cosines are simply the dot products of the spherical unit vector r
with the rectangular unit vectors z and , y , x :

cos sin = x r =cos (20)
sin sin = y r =cos (21)
cos = z r =cos (22)

These and other dot product combinations are listed in the following table:

Note that the unit vectors r in the cylindrical and spherical systems are not the same.
For example,

Spherical Cylindrical
cos sin = x r cos = x r
sin sin = y r sin = y r
cos = z r 0 = z r

Rectangular Cylindrical Spherical

S
p
h
e
r
i
c
a
l

C
y
l
i
n
d
r
i
c
a
l

R
e
c
t
a
n
g
u
l
a
r

x
y
z r

z r

x
1 0 0 cos sin 0 cos sin cos cos sin
y 0 1 0 sin cos 0 sin sin sin cos cos
z
0 0 1 0 0 1 cos sin 0

r
cos sin 0 1 0 0 sin cos 0
sin cos 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
z
0 0 1 0 0 1 cos sin 0

r
cos sin sin sin cos sin 0 cos 1 0 0

cos cos sin cos sin cos 0 sin 0 1 0
sin cos 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
In addition to rectangular, cylindrical, and spherical coordinate systems, there are many
other systems such as the elliptical, spheroidal (both prolate and oblate), and paraboloidal
systems. Although the number of possible systems is infinite, all of them can be treated
in terms of a generalized curvilinear coordinate system.

The fundamental parameters of the rectangular, cylindrical, and spherical coordinate
systems are summarized in the following table:

Coordinate
system
Coordinates Range
Unit
vectors
Length
elements
Coordinate
surfaces
Rectangular

x
+ to
i or x

dx Plane x=constant
y
+ to
j or y

dy Plane y=constant
z
+ to
k or z

dz Plane z=constant

Cylindrical
r
to 0 r dr Cylinder r=constant
2 to 0 d r Plane =constant
z
+ to
z dz Plane z=constant

Spherical
r
to 0 r dr Sphere r=constant
to 0

r d Cone =constant
2 to 0 d r sin Plane =constant

The following two tables give the unit vector dot products in rectangular coordinates for
both rectangular-cylindrical and rectangular-spherical coordinates.

Rectangular-cylindrical product in rectangular coordinates

Example: = = cos y
2 2
y x
x
+

x y z

r
2 2
y x
x
+

2 2
y x
y
+

0

2 2
y x
y
+

2 2
y x
x
+

0

z

0

0

1

Rectangular-spherical product in rectangular coordinates

Example: = = cos sin r x
2 2 2
z y x
x
+ +

Here are the transformations of vector components between coordinate systems:

Rectangular to cylindrical Cylindrical to rectangular

2 2 2 2
y x
x
A
y x
x
A A
y x r
+
+
+
=

sin cos A A A
r x
=
2 2 2 2
y x
x
A
y x
y
A A
y x
+
+
+
=

cos sin A A A
r y
=
z z
A A =
z z
A A =

Rectangular to spherical
2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
z y x
z
A
z y x
y
A
z y x
x
A A
z y x r
+ +
+
+ +
+
+ +
=
2 2 2
2 2
2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
z y x
y x
A
z y x y x
yz
A
z y x y x
xz
A A
z y x
+ +
+

+ + +
+
+ + +
=

2 2 2 2
y x
x
A
y x
y
A A
y x
+
+
+
=

Spherical to rectangular

sin cos cos cos sin A A A A
r x
+ =

cos sin cos sin sin A A A A
r y
+ + =

sin cos A A A
r z
=

x y z
r

2 2 2
z y x
x
+ +

2 2 2
z y x
y
+ +

2 2 2
z y x
z
+ +

2 2 2 2 2
z y x y x
xz
+ + +

2 2 2 2 2
z y x y x
yz
+ + +

2 2 2
2 2
z y x
y x
+ +
+

2 2
y x
y
+

2 2
y x
x
+

0
And here are expressions for the gradient, divergence, and curl in all three coordinate
systems:

Rectangular coordinates

z
f
y
f
x
f
f

= z y x
z
A
y
A
x
A
z
y
x

= A
z y x
x
y
z x
y
z
A A A
z y x y
A
x
A
x
A
z
A
z
A
y
A

=
z y x
z y x A

Cylindrical coordinates

z
f f
r r
f
f

= z r
1

z
A
A
r
rA
r r
z
r

1 1
A
z r
r z r z
A rA A
z r
r r
A
rA
r r r
A
z
A
z
A
A
r

=
1

1

1

1

z r
z r A

Spherical coordinates

=
f
r
f
r r
f
f
sin
1

=
A
r
A
r
A r
r r
r
sin
1
) sin (
sin
1 1
2
2
A

r r
A
rA
r r
rA
r
A
r
A
A
r
1

sin
1 1

) sin (
sin
1
r A