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Infinite Grid of Resistors

Remain, remain thou here,


While sense can keep it on. And, sweetest, fairest,
As I my poor self did exchange for you,
To your so infinite loss, so in our trifles
I still win of you: for my sake wear this...
Shakespeare

There is a well-known puzzle based on the premise of an infinite grid of resistors


connecting adjacent nodes of a square lattice. A small portion of such a grid is illustrated
below.

Between every pair of adjacent nodes is a resistance R, and were told that this grid of
resistors extends to infinity in all direction, and were asked to determine the effective
resistance between two adjacent nodes, or, more generally, between any two specified
nodes of the lattice.
For adjacent nodes, the usual solution of this puzzle is to consider the current flow field
as the sum of two components, one being the flow field of a grid with current injected
into a single node, and the other being the flow field of a grid with current extracted from
a single (adjacent) node. The symmetry of the two individual cases then enables us to
infer the flow rates through the immediately adjacent resistors, and hence we can
conclude (as explained in more detail below) that the effective resistance between two
adjacent nodes is R/2. This solution has a certain intuitive plausibility, since its similar to
how the potential field of an electric dipole can be expressed as the sum of the fields of a
positive and a negative charge, each of which is spherically symmetrical about its
respective charge. Just as the electric potential satisfies the Laplace equation, the voltages
of the grid nodes satisfy the discrete from of the Laplace equation, which is to say, the
voltage at each node is the average of the voltages of the four surrounding nodes. Its also
easy to see that solutions are additive, in the sense that the sum of any two solutions for
given boundary conditions is a solution for the sum of the boundary conditions.
If we accept the premise of an infinite grid of resistors, along with some tacit assumption
about the behavior of the voltages and currents at infinity, and if we accept the idea that
we can treat the current fields for the positive and negative nodes separately, and that
applying a voltage to a single node of the infinite grid will result in some current flow

into the grid, the puzzle is easily solved by simple symmetry considerations. We assert
(somewhat naively) that if we inject (say) four Amperes of current into a given node, with
no removal of current at any finite point of the grid, the current will flow equally out
through the four resistors, so one Ampere will flow toward each of the four adjacent
nodes. This one Ampere must flow out through the three other lines emanating from that
adjacent node, as indicated in the left hand figure below.

The figure on the right shows the four nodes surrounding the negative node, assuming
we are extracting four Amperes from that node (with no current injected at any finite
node of the grid). Again, simple symmetry dictates the distribution of currents indicated
in the figure. Adding the two current fields together, we see that the link between the
positive and negative nodes carries a total of 2 Amperes away from the positive node, and
the other three links emanating from the positive node carry away a combined total of 1 +
1 + 1 (2 ) = 2 Amperes. Thus the direct link carries the same current as all the other
paths, so the resistance of the direct link equals the effective resistance of the entire grid
excluding that link. The direct link is in parallel with the remainder of the grid, so the
combined resistance is simply R/2.
This is an appealing argument, and it certainly gives the right answer (as can be
verified by other methods), but the premises are somewhat questionable, and the
reasoning involves some subtle issues that need to be addressed before it can qualify as a
rigorous proof. The fundamental problem with the simple argument, as stated above, is
that it relies on the notion of forcing current into a node of an infinite grid, without
satisfactorily explaining where this current goes. One hand-waving explanation is that
we may regard the grid as being grounded at infinity, but this isnt strictly valid,
because the resistance from any given node to infinity is infinite. This is easily seen
from the fact that a given node is surrounded by a sequence of concentric squares, and the
number of resistive links beginning from the central node and expanding outward to
successive concentric squares are 4, 12, 20, 28, , etc., which implies that the total
resistance to infinity is (at least roughly)

The odd harmonic series diverges, so this resistance is infinite. Therefore, in order for
current to enter the grid at a node and exit at infinity, we would require infinite potential
(i.e., voltage) between the node and the grid points at infinity. To make the argument
rigorous, we could consider a large but finite grid, and convince ourselves that the
behavior approaches the expected result in the limit as the grid size increases. This is not
entirely trivial, because we must be sure the two sequences of expanding grids, one

concentric about the positive node and one concentric about the negative node, approach
mutually compatible boundary conditions in the limit, giving zero net flow to infinity.
To evaluate this limit, the voltage at the central node (relative to the voltage at infinity)
must approach infinity to provide a fixed amount of current. This is discussed further in
another note, where we also discuss the arbitrariness of the solution for a truly infinite
grid. Strictly speaking, for a truly infinite grid, the solution is indeterminate unless some
asymptotic boundary conditions are imposed (which are not specified in the usual
statements of the problem).
The unphysical aspect of the problem can also be seen in the fact that the flow field is
assumed to be fully developed, to infinity, a situation that could not have been established
by any realistic physical process in any finite amount of time. Of course, the postulated
grid consists purely of ideal resistances, with no capacitances or inductances, so there are
no dynamics to consider, and hence one could argue that the entire current field is
established instantaneously to infinity - but this merely illustrates that the postulated grid
is idealized to the point of violating the laws of physics. All real circuits have capacitance
and inductance, which is why the propagation speed cannot be infinite. One might think
that such idealizations are harmless for this problem, but they actually render the problem
totally indeterminate if we apply them rigorously. Our intuitive sense that there is a
unique answer comes precisely from our unconscious imposition of physically
reasonable asymptotic behavior emanatng from a localized source, based on the
asymptotic behavior of a finite grid as the size increases a conception that arises from
our physical notions of locality and finite propagation of effects, notions which are not
justified in the idealized setting.
Setting aside these issues, and just naively adopting the usual tacit assumptions about the
asyptotic conditions of the grid, we can consider the more general problem of
determining the resistance between any two nodes. The most common method is based
on superimposing solutions of the basic difference equation. Again this method tacitly
imposes plausible boundary conditions to force a unique answer, essentially by requiring
that the grid behaves like the limit of a large finite grid. Consider first the trivial example
of a one-dimensional grid of unit resistors, in which the net current emanating from the
nth node is given by

where we stipulate that I0 = 1 Amp and In = 0 for all n 0. Notice that for all n 0
would could negate the signs of the indices on the right hand side without affecting the
equation, because the net current is zero at those nodes, and the equations above and
below the origin are symmetrical. However, the case n = 0 is different if we stipulate that
V1 = V1, and if we stipulate that I0 = -1, which implies

It follows that, for unit resistors, if we stipulate V0 = 0, we must have V1 = 1/2. Therefore,
if we imagine current being extracted from just the node at the origin, while all the other
nodes have zero net current flow, then for all n 0 we have the relation

The characteristic polynomial is

For any value of that satisfies this equation, its clear that one solution of the preceding
difference equation is Vn = An for any constant A. However, the characteristic equation
has the repeated roots 1 = 2 = 1, so we have a resonance term, and the general form of
the solution of the discrete difference equation is

for some constants A and B, chosen to make the solution consistent with the specified
boundary conditions. We want V0 = 0, so we must put A = 0. Also, since the recurrence
relation doesnt apply at n = 0, we can chose B equal to +1/2 for positive n, and 1/2 for
negative n, which amounts to taking the absolute of n, giving the result Vn = |n|/2. This
implies that the effective resistance between nodes separated by k resistors is (as
expected) simply kR, where R is the resistance of an individual resistor.
We can similarly consider the difference equation for grids of higher dimensions. For a
two-dimensional grid, the current emanating from node (m,n) for all m,n > 0 is

We stipulate that Im,n = 0 for all m,n > 0, so the characteristic equation for this twodimensional difference equation is

This shows that there are infinitely many eigenvalues. Indeed, for any value of we
can solve for the corresponding value , and vice versa. For any such pair of values ,
satisfying this equation its clear that a solution of the preceding difference equation is
given by Vm,n = A(,) mn for any constant A(,). If we define parameters , such that
i = ln() and i = ln(), then these solutions can be written as

In terms of and the characteristic equation can be written as

Now, any combination of these solutions will satisfy the original difference equation for
nodes with zero net current, but we want I0,0 = 1 Amp, and to achieve this we (again)
take the absolute values of the indices, i.e., we define

For values of m and n different from zero the has no effect the difference equation, i.e., it
still gives zero net current. However, for m = n = 0 we get

This shows that if we put V0,0 = 0 then for -1 Amp of current we must have V1,0 = 1/4
volts, which is consistent with the fact that the resistance between two adjacent nodes of
1/2 ohms, because we superimpose this solution with an equal and opposite solution
centered on the adjacent node with +1 Amp current.
We dont yet have a definite solution satisfying all the conditions, because with the
absolute values of the indices we generally get non-zero currents for Im,0 and I0,n. To solve
this problem, we will simply superimpose several of these solutions, and impose the
requirement that the net currents of the form Im,0 and I0,n all vanish. To do this, we
integrate the solutions of the form (4) over ranging from to . Thus we have

with the understanding that is given as a function of by equation (3). We will find that
this determines the function A( ,). Consider first the requirement Im,0 = 0. Inserting the
expression for Vm,0 from equation (4) into equation (1), we have, for all m > 0,

Making use of the characteristic equation (3), this can be written as

Now we seek to superimpose many of these solutions such that the net current for these
expressions is zero. To do this, we will integrate this expression over ranging from
to . Thus we have

At this point we recall that the exponential Fourier series for an arbitrary function f(x) is

Therefore we have

where weve made use of the fact that I0,0 = 1 and Im,0 = 0 for all m 0. From this we
infer that

Inserting this into equation (5), we get

Again, its understood that is given as a function of by equation (3). It might seem as
if we cannot now force the currents I0,n to equal zero. If we had imposed that requirement
first, instead of Im,0 = 0, by symmetry we would have found

which seems superficially different from (7). However, notice that the limits of
integration are reversed, because and progress in opposite directions. Furthermore, if
we take the differential of the characteristic equation (3) we get

which proves that (7) and (8) are equivalent. As discussed previously, the resistance
between the origin and the node (m,n) is twice the value of Vm,n V0,0, so we have the
formula

This can be split into two integrals, one ranging from to 0, and the other ranging from
0 to +, as follows:

Reversing the sign of in the first integral, and noting that cos(-) = cos(), this can be
written as

and hence we have

For example, the resistance between two diagonal corners of a lattice square is given by

If we define the variable s = cos() we have = acos(s) and

As ranges from 0 to , the parameter s ranges from 1 to -1, so the preceding integral can
be written as

We now make use of the identity

to re-write the integral as

Also, from the identity

we have

so the integral can be written as

(This same result can be derived purely algebraically, without the use of Fourier series, as
described in another note.) Knowing this resistance value for diagonal nodes, and the
resistance value 1/2 for adjacent nodes, we can immediately compute the resistances to
several other nodes by simple application of the basic difference equation. Thus we have
the resistances relative to the origin shown below.

Returning to equation (9), we see that the same substitutions and identities that we used
to simplify R1,1 enable us to write the general expression as

where hm(s) denote the trigonometric polynomials giving cos(m) as a function of s =


cos(). The first several of these polynomials are

The coefficients of these polynomials are given by a simple recurrence relation, and they
also have a simple trigonometric expression. However, we dont actually need to deal
with these polynomials, because it is sufficient to determine the values of R0,n by the
above integral, and then all the remaining resistances are easily determined by simple
algebra. Hence we can focus on just the integrals

To simplify this still further, we can define the parameter

in terms of which s and ds are given by

Re-writing the expression for R0,n in terms of the parameter , we get

Making use of the indefinite integrals

where

we can determine the values

and so on.
Another way of simplifying the integrals involved in the infinite grid solution is to return
to equation (7), focusing on the case of positive m and n with m > n, and recalling that
the resistance from the origin to the node (m,n) is twice the voltage given by (7), so we
have

where, for convenience, weve shifted the limits of integration from the range [-,+] to
the range [0,2]. Now suppose we define new variables r,s such that = r + s and = r
s. Substituting for and in equation (3) gives the relation cos(r)cos(s) = 1. In terms of
these parameters equation (10) can be written as

Obviously we have d = dr + ds, and differentiating the relation cos(r)cos(s) = 1 gives

so we have

Making this substitution into (11) gives

Now, noting the identity

we are led to define a parameter t such that

From this we get

With these substitutions, equation (12) becomes

To this point we have continued to specify the limits of integration in terms of , but now
we note as ranges over the real values from 0 to 2 we have t = (1i) where is a realvalued parameter ranging from infinity to 0. Hence we make this change of variable to
express the result as

where weve made use of the fact that the variable can be multiplied by an arbitrary
factor inside the curved parentheses without affecting the integral. For the first diagonal
node we have m = n = 1 and the integral is simply

For the resistances to the other nodes along the diagonal of the lattice, notice that for any
m we have

Consequently we have the well-known result

from which all the other resistances are easily computed. In another note we consider the
same problem from a more algebraic standpoint.
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