A tutorial on inverse problems for anomalous diffusion processes Academic Article uri icon


  • 2015 IOP Publishing Ltd. Over the last two decades, anomalous diffusion processes in which the mean squares variance grows slower or faster than that in a Gaussian process have found many applications. At a macroscopic level, these processes are adequately described by fractional differential equations, which involves fractional derivatives in time or/and space. The fractional derivatives describe either history mechanism or long range interactions of particle motions at a microscopic level. The new physics can change dramatically the behavior of the forward problems. For example, the solution operator of the time fractional diffusion diffusion equation has only limited smoothing property, whereas the solution for the space fractional diffusion equation may contain weak singularity. Naturally one expects that the new physics will impact related inverse problems in terms of uniqueness, stability, and degree of ill-posedness. The last aspect is especially important from a practical point of view, i.e., stably reconstructing the quantities of interest. In this paper, we employ a formal analytic and numerical way, especially the two-parameter Mittag-Leffler function and singular value decomposition, to examine the degree of ill-posedness of several 'classical' inverse problems for fractional differential equations involving a Djrbashian-Caputo fractional derivative in either time or space, which represent the fractional analogues of that for classical integral order differential equations. We discuss four inverse problems, i.e., backward fractional diffusion, sideways problem, inverse source problem and inverse potential problem for time fractional diffusion, and inverse Sturm-Liouville problem, Cauchy problem, backward fractional diffusion and sideways problem for space fractional diffusion. It is found that contrary to the wide belief, the influence of anomalous diffusion on the degree of ill-posedness is not definitive: it can either significantly improve or worsen the conditioning of related inverse problems, depending crucially on the specific type of given data and quantity of interest. Further, the study exhibits distinct new features of 'fractional' inverse problems, and a partial list of surprising observations is given below. (a) Classical backward diffusion is exponentially ill-posed, whereas time fractional backward diffusion is only mildly ill-posed in the sense of norms on the domain and range spaces. However, this does not imply that the latter always allows a more effective reconstruction. (b) Theoretically, the time fractional sideways problem is severely ill-posed like its classical counterpart, but numerically can be nearly well-posed. (c) The classical Sturm-Liouville problem requires two pieces of spectral data to uniquely determine a general potential, but in the fractional case, one single Dirichlet spectrum may suffice. (d) The space fractional sideways problem can be far more or far less ill-posed than the classical counterpart, depending on the location of the lateral Cauchy data. In many cases, the precise mechanism of these surprising observations is unclear, and awaits further analytical and numerical exploration, which requires new mathematical tools and ingenuities. Further, our findings indicate fractional diffusion inverse problems also provide an excellent case study in the differences between theoretical ill-conditioning involving domain and range norms and the numerical analysis of a finite-dimensional reconstruction procedure. Throughout we will also describe known analytical and numerical results in the literature.

published proceedings

  • Inverse Problems

author list (cited authors)

  • Jin, B., & Rundell, W.

citation count

  • 143

complete list of authors

  • Jin, Bangti||Rundell, William

publication date

  • March 2015