The FDTD method belongs in the general class of grid-based differential time-domain numerical modeling methods. The time-dependent Maxwell's equations (in partial differential form) are discretized using central-difference approximations to the space and time partial derivatives. The resulting finite-difference equations are solved in either software or hardware in a leapfrog manner: the electric field vector components in a volume of space are solved at a given instant in time; then the magnetic field vector components in the same spatial volume are solved at the next instant in time; and the process is repeated over and over again until the desired transient or steady-state electromagnetic field behavior is fully evolved.
The basic FDTD space grid and time-stepping algorithm trace back to a seminal 1966 paper by Kane Yee in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (Yee 1966). The descriptor "Finite-difference time-domain" and its corresponding "FDTD" acronym were originated by Allen Taflove in a 1980 paper in IEEE Transactions on Electromagnetic Compatibility (Taflove 1980). See "References" for these and other important journal papers in the development of FDTD techniques, as well as relevant textbooks and research monographs.
Since about 1990, FDTD techniques have emerged as primary means to computationally model many scientific and engineering problems dealing with electromagnetic wave interactions with material structures. As summarized in Taflove & Hagness (2005), current FDTD modeling applications range from near-DC (ultralow-frequency geophysics involving the entire Earth-ionosphere waveguide) through microwaves (radar signature technology, antennas, wireless communications devices, digital interconnects, biomedical imaging/treatment) to visible light (photonic crystals, nanoplasmonics, solitons, and biophotonics). In 2006, an estimated 2,000 FDTD-related publications appeared in the science and engineering literature (see "Growth of FDTD publications"). At present, there are at least 27 commercial/proprietary FDTD software vendors; 8 free-software/open-source-software FDTD projects; and 2 freeware/closed-source FDTD projects, some not for commercial use (see "External links").
The H-field is time-stepped in a similar manner. At any point in space, the updated value of the H-field in time is dependent on the stored value of the H-field and the numerical curl of the local distribution of the E-field in space. Iterating the E-field and H-field updates results in a marching-in-time process wherein sampled-data analogs of the continuous electromagnetic waves under consideration propagate in a numerical grid stored in the computer memory.
This description holds true for 1-D, 2-D, and 3-D FDTD techniques. When multiple dimensions are considered, calculating the numerical curl can become complicated. Kane Yee's seminal 1966 paper in IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation proposed spatially staggering the vector components of the E-field and H-field about rectangular unit cells of a Cartesian computational grid so that each E-field vector component is located midway between a pair of H-field vector components, and conversely. This scheme, now known as a Yee lattice, has proven to be very robust, and remains at the core of many current FDTD software constructs (Yee 1966).
Furthermore, Yee proposed a leapfrog scheme for marching in time wherein the E-field and H-field updates are staggered so that E-field updates are conducted midway during each time-step between successive H-field updates, and conversely (Yee 1966). On the plus side, this explicit time-stepping scheme avoids the need to solve simultaneous equations, and furthermore yields dissipation-free numerical wave propagation. On the minus side, this scheme mandates an upper bound on the time-step to ensure numerical stability (Taflove & Brodwin 1975). As a result, certain classes of simulations can require many thousands of time-steps for completion.
Once the computational domain and the grid materials are established, a source is specified. The source can be an impinging plane wave, a current on a wire, or an applied electric field, depending on the application.
Since the E and H fields are determined directly, the output of the simulation is usually the E or H field at a point or a series of points within the computational domain. The simulation evolves the E and H fields forward in time.
Processing may be done on the E and H fields returned by the simulation. Data processing may also occur while the simulation is ongoing.
While the FDTD technique computes electromagnetic fields within a compact spatial region, scattered and/or radiated far fields can be obtained via near-to-far-field transformations, as reported originally by Umashankar and Taflove (1982).
FDTD is a versatile modeling technique used to solve Maxwell's equations. It is intuitive, so users can easily understand how to use it and know what to expect from a given model.
FDTD is a time-domain technique, and when a broadband pulse (such as a Gaussian pulse) is used as the source, then the response of the system over a wide range of frequencies can be obtained with a single simulation. This is useful in applications where resonant frequencies are not exactly known, or anytime that a broadband result is desired.
Since FDTD calculates the E and H fields everywhere in the computational domain as they evolve in time, it lends itself to providing animated displays of the electromagnetic field movement through the model. This type of display is useful in understanding what is going on in the model, and to help ensure that the model is working correctly.
The FDTD technique allows the user to specify the material at all points within the computational domain. A wide variety of linear and nonlinear dielectric and magnetic materials can be naturally and easily modeled.
FDTD allows the effects of apertures to be determined directly. Shielding effects can be found, and the fields both inside and outside a structure can be found directly or indirectly.
FDTD uses the E and H fields directly. Since most EMI/EMC modeling applications are interested in the E and H fields, it is convenient that no conversions must be made after the simulation has run to get these values.
FDTD finds the E/H fields directly everywhere in the computational domain. If the field values at some distance are desired, it is likely that this distance will force the computational domain to be excessively large. Far-field extensions are available for FDTD, but require some amount of postprocessing (Taflove & Hagness 2005).
Since FDTD simulations calculate the E and H fields at all points within the computational domain, the computational domain must be finite to permit its residence in the computer memory. In many cases this is achieved by inserting artificial boundaries into the simulation space. Care must be taken to minimize errors introduced by such boundaries. There are a number of available highly effective absorbing boundary conditions (ABCs) to simulate an infinite unbounded computational domain (Taflove & Hagness 2005). Most modern FDTD implementations instead use a special absorbing "material", called a perfectly matched layer (PML) to implement absorbing boundaries (Berenger 1994, Gedney 1996).
Because FDTD is solved by propagating the fields forward in the time domain, the electromagnetic time response of the medium must be modeled explicitly. For an arbitrary response, this involves a computationally expensive time convolution, although in most cases the time response of the medium (or Dispersion (optics)) can be adequately and simply modeled using either the recursive convolution (RC) technique, the auxiliary differential equation (ADE) technique, or the Z-transform technique. An alternative way of solving Maxwell's equations that can treat arbitrary dispersion easily is the Pseudospectral Spatial-Domain method (PSSD), which instead propagates the fields forward in space.
The most commonly used grid truncation techniques for open-region FDTD modeling problems are the Mur absorbing boundary condition (ABC) (Mur 1981), the Liao ABC (Liao et al. 1984), and various perfectly matched layer (PML) formulations (Berenger 1994, Gedney 1996, Taflove & Hagness 2005). The Mur and Liao techniques are simpler than PML. However, PML (which is technically an absorbing region rather than a boundary condition per se) can provide orders-of-magnitude lower reflections. The PML concept was introduced by J.-P. Berenger in a seminal 1994 paper in the Journal of Computational Physics (Berenger 1994). Since 1994, Berenger's original split-field implementation has been modified and extended to the uniaxial PML (UPML), the convolutional PML (CPML), and the higher-order PML. The latter two PML formulations have increased ability to absorb evanescent waves, and therefore can in principle be placed closer to a simulated scattering or radiating structure than Berenger's original formulation.
An estimated 2,000 FDTD-related publications appeared in the science and engineering literature in 2006. The current rate of growth (based upon a study of ISI Web of Science data) is approximately 5:1 over the period 1995 to 2006.