We study geometric variational problems for a class of models in quantum field theory known as Faddeev-Skyrme models. Mathematically one considers minimizing an energy functional on homotopy classes of maps from closed 3-manifolds into homogeneous spaces of compact Lie groups. The energy minimizers known as Hopfions describe stable configurations of subatomic particles such as protons and their strong interactions. The Hopfions exhibit distinct localized knot-like structure and received a lot of attention lately in both mathematical and physical literature.

High non-linearity of the energy functional presents both analytical and algebraic difficulties for studying it. In particular we introduce novel Sobolev spaces suitable for our variational problem and develop the notion of homotopy type for maps in such spaces that generalizes homotopy for smooth and continuous maps. As the spaces in question are neither linear nor even convex we take advantage of the algebraic structure on homogeneous spaces to represent maps by gauge potentials that form a linear space and reformulate the problem in terms of these potentials. However this representation of maps introduces some gauge ambiguity into the picture and we work out 'gauge calculus' for the principal bundles involved to apply the gauge-fixing techniques that eliminate the ambiguity. These bundles arise as pullbacks of the structure bundles H[arrow pointing right with hook on tail]G[arrow pointing right]G/H of homogeneous spaces and we study their topology and geometry that are of independent interest.

Our main results include proving existence of Hopfions as finite energy Sobolev maps in each (generalized) homotopy class when the target space is a symmetric space. For more general spaces we obtain a weaker result on existence of minimizers only in each 2-homotopy class.