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Applications of Polarized Light

Zian rem zyurt


There are many areas in which polarized light is used. For example, in materials science the structure
can be determined with polarization microscopy, in biology certain bacteria and samples indicating
some diseases can be detected. In everyday life it is used in 3D movies, 3D glasses, sunglasses, LCD
screens of computers, watches, calculators, etc. In this report six applications will be discussed which
are rather straightforward and simpler in derivation according to more specic applications.

Optical Activity
When linearly polarized light is applied on to an optically active medium,
it emerges again as linearly polarized light but e-eld direction will be rotated
by some angle, we call this phenomenon optical activity of the medium. Some
materials produce clockwise (dextrorotatory), some produce counterclockwise
(laevorotatory) rotation when looked in the direction of the incoming wave.
Optically active materials can be solid like sugar or quartz, or liquid like
turpentine and sugar solution. Some materials produce either rotation, due to
Figure 1: Structures the existence of two forms of the crystalline structure, which are mirror images
of glucose and fructose of each other. For example, glucose and fructose have dierent optical activities in direction. Glucose is dextrorotatory while fructose is laevorotatory.
Fructose is much more active than glucose, thus in a solution of a mixture of
two molecules, the optical activity will be counterclockwise. This property of sugar solutions is used
in sugar rening industry to measure the strength of sugar solutions [2](pp.51-53)
Optical activity can be measured using two
linear polarizers with their transmission axes
crossed (perpendicular). When the material is
placed inbetween, polarization state coming from
the rst polarizer will be rotated. Thus some of
the polarized light will pass from the analyzer. If
we rotate the analyzer until we see no light, we
can nd this rotation angle.
The rotation angle (in degrees) produced by
Figure 2: Measurement of optical activity [3](p.313) 1 mm plate of optically active solid is called its
specic rotation (). For quartz; at 670 nm it is

16, 5o /mm , at 589 nm 21, 7o /mm and at 546 nm it is 25, 5o /mm. This relation indicates that for

longer wavelengths the polarization state is less rotated, short wavelengths are rotated more.
Optically active liquids cause less rotation than solids. For liquids specic rotation is dened as
rotation angle for 10 cm thickness and 1g/cm3 concentration;
= Ld , where is the rotation angle (optical activity), is specic rotation, L is the thickness

(in dm) and d is the concentration. Measurement of this rotation angle is used to nd the concentration
of the solutions.
How can we relate specic rotation to certain physical parameters? Firstly we use the fact that
linearly polarized light consists of two circularly polarized components, one right-handed and one
left-handed equal in amplitude. Second we make an assumption that these two circularly polarized
components travel with dierent velocities L and R [3]. Since = c/n in the material, two dierent
refractive indices nL and nR can be dened for these two components.
If incident light is polarized in x-direction, it
can be divided into two components as in the
gure. Assume nR 6= nL , phases of L and R
components will not be equal.
L = E
o ei(kL zt) , E
R = E
o ei(kR zt)

, where kL = c nL and kR = c nR . The phase

angles are;
Figure 3: Superposition of left and right circularly
L = kL z t and R = kR z t
polarized light at dierent instants [3](p.314)
Suppose kL > kR which means nL > nR and L < R . At some
distance z in the medium; L > R for all t.
Since the amplitudes of components do not change in time, we

get E L + E R = E again a linearly polarized light.

Because |EL | = |ER | L = R + (gure) =
and the rotation will be levorotatory.



If we relate rotation angle with refractive indices and wavelength;

Figure 4: Optical rotation produced by left and right circularly
polarized light with L < R

kL ztkR z+t
ko z(nL nR )
2 z
L nR )
o 2


(kL kR )z

o (nL

(ko nL ko nR )z

nR )

From this equation we can understand that optical activity is

inversely proportional to wavelength so longer wavelengths are less rotated.

Photoelasticity means stress analysis on materials by means of polarized light. If we place a
birefringent material between two crossed polarizers it is seen colorful. These color variations are
examined for stress variations.

Figure 5: Light transmitted by crossed polarizers when a birefringent material is placed inbetween. In
this case it acts as a half-wave plate [3](p.317)
In the gure birefringent material has fast axis vertical and slow axis horizontal. Suppose it is a
half-wave plate. This means it retards the slow axis component of e-eld by .

E = Eox ei(kzt) i + Eoy ei(kzt) j . If the slow axis(x) component is retarded by ;

E = Aei(kzt+) i+Aei(kzt) j = A [cos(kz t + ) + i sin(kz t + )] i+A [cos(kz t) + i sin(kz t)] j

E = A [ cos(kz t) i sin(kz t)] i + A [cos(kz t) + i sin(kz t)] j

E = Aei(kzt) i + Aei(kzt) j , thus linearly polarized light will be rotated by 90 degrees and

the light will be fully transmitted by the analyzer.

Optical path dierence is 4 = n nk d , where d is the thickness of the birefringent material.
If we write phase dierence between two components;

4 = 2(4/o ) we get o 4 = 2 n nk d

n nk is almost constant for the optical region of the spectrum. Retardation is thus inversely

proportional to wavelength.
As an example, if the retardation plate in the gure acts as a half-wave plate for red light, it
will be fully transmitted by the analyzer and the other colors will be partially transmitted. Thus the
outcoming light will have reddish hue. We can change thickness d and create dierent phase dierences,
each time the most retarded colors will change. Or we can use a monochromatic light and measure
the thickness of the material.

When stress is applied on isotropic materials optical axis is

induced due to applied stress/strain direction. Materials produced under stress/strain can be viewed between crossed polarizers so that we can observe dierent color variations for amount
of stress/strain applied. In the regions where color variation is
high, thickness changes rapidly, thus the material becomes more

Figure 6: A stereotype of a product
By measuring the polarization state of light reected from
observed under stress [4]
a surface, information regarding the optical constants n and
of that surface can be determined, also thickness of thin lms
can be measured. Ellipsometry is fundamentally measuring and
analyzing the elliptical polarization of light. For determining the
optical constants this method has advantages over other methods; it is applicable to strongly absorbing
materials, it is simple and easy in sample preparation. Also this method requires only a very small
sample size [5].
Fundamental equation of ellipsometry relates the amplitude and
phase of the incident and reected beams from a thin lm to the
complex refractive index and the thickness of the lm. In the gure E p
and E s are the parallel and perpendicular incident eld components to
the plane of incidence. Rp and Rs are the parallel and perpendicular
components of the reected eld. We can dene these components as;
E p = Eop eip , E s = Eos eis , Rp = Rop eip and Rs =
Figure 7: Reection of an inRos eis regarding polarization states [5](p.587)
cident beam by an optical lm
In general, for optically absorbing materials incident eld phase
of thickness d with a refractive
is shifted. We can describe this by complex reection coecients p
index n1 and extinction coeand s ;
cient 1 .
Rp = p Ep , Rs = s Es or m = Rm /Em . Then;
m =


R om

ei(m m ) We can dene a complex amplitude decrease by;

Rop /Eop
Eos /Ros


ei() , where = p s and = p s .

Rop /Eop
Eos /Ros

is dened as tan , and the phase angle 4 = . We can then write;

= tan()ei4 = f (n, , d) [5](p.588)

By ellipsometry, tan is measured, which

shows the amplitude change ratio, and the change
in phase is also measured. Since and 4 are
functions of the optical constants and thickness
we can express the complex amplitude decrease
in terms of these variables.
In the experimental setup a polarizer and a
compensator is placed before the sample and a
polarizer after the sample. The rst polarizer
produces linearly polarized light and it gets elFigure 8: Experimental setup to measure and 4 liptically polarized after going through the comof an optical sample [6]
pensator. The elliptically polarized light becomes linearly polarized after reection and it
gets through the analyzer to be detected.
Fresnel reection coecients are related to refractive indices by;
p =

1 cos o
no cos 1
1 cos o +
no cos 1

and s =

o cos 0
n1 cos 1
o cos 0 +
n1 cos 1

Substituting these identities into = tan ei4 gives;

Figure 9: Reection and trans14 sin2 (o ) tan()ei4 +2 tan()ei4 +tan2 ()ei n
o sin o
1 =
, thus
mission of an incident light
cos 0 [1+tan()ei4 ]
we can nd the complex refractive index in terms of wavelength, since
from a surface [7](p.33)
and 4 are functions of wavelength [7].

One of the most common applications of polarized light is liquid crystal display. It is used in
watches, computer screens, tvs, calculators, etc.
The molecules of liquid crystalline structure are oriented
in layers in manufacturing and each layer is slightly rotated
to obtain a spiral shape. When polarized light interacts
with the liquid crystal the electric eld follows the molecule
orientation due to oscillation directions of molecules, so it
will be twisted by 90 degrees generally at the end of the
spiral shape.
Liquid crystalline phase is sandwiched between two layers of glass plates, one of them has positive electrodes while
the other has negative electrodes and each electrode can be
individually charged. Light coming from the rst polarizer
Figure 10: A basic form of liquid crystal is vertically polarized. If no current is applied to electrodes,
display [8]
the twisted liquid crystal structure rotates polarization so
it can pass from the second polarizer.

When current is applied to electrodes, the liquid crystalline phase aligns with the current and
twisting will be lost. So, light passing through a charged electrode is not rotated and blocked by the
second polarizer. By choosing which electrode to apply voltage, numbers and shapes can be seen on
the display. Of course, the switching on and o can be changed due to desired design of the display

In photography, generally polarization due to scattering or reection is used and reections and
scattered light can be blocked. Light coming from the Sun for example is scattered by molecules is
the atmosphere. The oscillation of the molecules is in their dipole axis direction. By using a polarizer
at an appropriate angle we can reduce light from the sky and get a darker tone, which is described as
increased saturation. The oscillations of course are not all in the same direction, however it is observed
that the majority of polarized light coming from the sky is horizontally polarized. This works most
eectively if your position is 90 degrees according to the Sun.
We can also prevent the reections from water surfaces or other dielectric transparent surfaces and
see through them. The more we reach to Brewster's angle of 56, 3o , the more transparent the surfaces
will be.

Figure 11: In the photograph on the right linear polarizer is used nearly at Brewster's angle [9].

Figure 12: Color saturation is increased and the sky is darkened in blue tone by polarizer [9].

Figure 13: Using linear polarizer haze is reduced in the second photograph [9].

According to a theory, around a thousand years ago Vikings have discovered a navigation tool for
detecting the position of the Sun on cloudy days. It is a calcite crystal, also called as Iceland Spar
In order to nd the Sun's position they looked
through the calcite to the sky and rotated it until the
two images behind the crystal have the same intensity.
Then the Sun's position will be the direction of sum
of two images' polarization states.
We can rst nd the polarization states of the two
images behind the crystal. Since their polarization
states are perpendicular (due to ordinary and extraordinary rays traveling in perpendicular polarizations)
at an appropriate angle when looked with a polarizer
one of the images will disappear. The other image disFigure 14: Determining the Sun's position sappears when the angle is rotated about 90 degrees.
Thus we can determine the electric eld vector direcwith a calcite crystal [11]
tions for each image. These two images will have the
same intensity if the incoming e-eld has a polarization state just inbetween the polarization directions
of the two images. Thus the direction inbetween two images polarizations shows the direction of the
Sun because sunlight is horizontally polarized after scattering.

[2] Pye, D., Polarized Light in Science and Nature, IOP Publishing, 2001
[3] Pedrotti L., Introduction to Optics, Prentice Hall, 1987
[5] Goldstein, D., Polarized Light, Marcel Dekker Inc.,2003
[7] Jung, J. et. al., Ellipsometry Project Report, Aalborg University, Institute of Physics and Nanotechnology
[9] Yoav Schechner, Nayar, Larry Wol, Basic Principles of Light Polarization, Lecture #17 Presentation