My recent post, Computational Quantum Chemistry in a nutshell, was quite popular. There are two distinct approaches to computational approaches: those based on calculating the wavefunction, which I described in that post, and those based on calculating the local charge density [one particle density matrix of the many-body system]. Here I describe the latter which is based on density functional theory (DFT). Here are the steps and choices one makes.
First, as for wave-function based methods, one assumes the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, where the atomic nuclei are treated classically and the electrons quantum mechanically.
Next, one makes use of the famous (and profound) Hohenberg-Kohn theorem which says that the total energy of the ground state of a many-body system is a unique functional of the local electronic charge density, E[n(r)]. This means that if one can calculate the local density n(r) one can calculate the total energy of the ground state of the system. Although this is an exact result, the problem is that one needs to know the exchange-correlational functional, and one does not. One has to approximate it.
The next step is to choose a particular exchange-correlation functional. The simplest one is the local density approximation [LDA] where one writes E_xc[n(r)] = f(n(r)), where f(x) is the corresponding energy for a uniform electron gas with constant density x. Kohn and Sham showed that if one minimises the total energy as a function of n(r) then one ends up with a set of eigenvalue equations for some functions phi_i(r) which have the identical mathematical structure to the Schrodinger equation for the molecular orbitals that one calculates in a wave-function based approach with the Hartree-Fock approximation. However, it should be stressed that the phi_i(r) are just a mathematical convenience and are not wave functions. The similarity to the Hartree-Fock equations means the problem is not just computationally tractable but also relatively cheap.
When one solves the Kohn-Sham equations on the computer one has to choose a finite basis set. Often they are similar to the atomic-centred basis sets used in wave-function based calculations. For crystals, one sometimes uses plane waves. Generally, the bigger and the more sophisticated and chemical appropriate the basis set, the better the results.
With the above uncontrolled approximations, one might not necessarily expect to get anything that proximates reality (i.e. experiment). Nevertheless, I would say the results are often surprisingly good. If you pick a random molecule LDA can give a reasonable answer (say within 20 per cent) of the geometry, bond lengths, heats of formation, and vibrational frequencies... However, it does have spectacular failures, both qualitative and quantitative, for many systems, particularly those involving strong electron correlations.
Over the past two decades, there have been two significant improvements to LDA.
First, the generalised gradient approximation (GGA) which has an exchange-correlation functional that allows for the spatial variations in the density that are neglected in LDA.
Second, hybrid functionals (such as B3LYP) which contain a linear combination of the Hartree- Fock exchange functional and other functionals that have been parametrised to increase agreement with experimental properties.
It should be stressed that this means that the calculation is no longer ab initio, i.e. one where you start from just Schrodinger's equation and Coulomb's law and attempts to calculate properties.
It should be stressed that for interesting systems the results can depend significantly on the choice of exchange-correlational functional. Thus, it is important to calculate results for a range of functionals and basis sets and not just report results that are close to experiment.
DFT-based calculations have the significant advantage over wave-function based approaches that they are computationally cheaper (and so are widely used). However, they cannot be systematically improved [the dream of Jacob's ladder is more like a nightmare], and become problematic for charge transfer and the description of excited states.