An Introduction to Finite Element Methods for Inverse Coefficient Problems in Elliptic PDEs

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Several novel imaging and non-destructive testing technologies are based on reconstructing the spatially dependent coefficient in an elliptic partial differential equation from measurements of its solution(s). In practical applications, the unknown coefficient is often assumed to be piecewise constant on a given pixel partition (corresponding to the desired resolution), and only finitely many measurement can be made. This leads to the problem of inverting a finite-dimensional non-linear forward operator F:D(F)⊆Rn→Rm, where evaluating ℱ requires one or several PDE solutions. Numerical inversion methods require the implementation of this forward operator and its Jacobian. We show how to efficiently implement both using a standard FEM package and prove convergence of the FEM approximations against their true-solution counterparts. We present simple example codes for Comsol with the Matlab Livelink package, and numerically demonstrate the challenges that arise from non-uniqueness, non-linearity and instability issues. We also discuss monotonicity and convexity properties of the forward operator that arise for symmetric measurement settings. This text assumes the reader to have a basic knowledge on Finite Element Methods, including the variational formulation of elliptic PDEs, the Lax-Milgram-theorem, and the Céa-Lemma. Section 3 also assumes that the reader is familiar with the concept of Fréchet differentiability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-210
Number of pages28
JournalJahresbericht der Deutschen Mathematiker-Vereinigung
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Finite element methods
  • Finitely many measurements
  • Inverse problems
  • Piecewise-constant coefficient


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