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Polarization

The polarization of a plane wave describes how the direction of the electric field vector changes with time.

Until now we have just assumed that the E-field points linearly in one direction, usually along a coordinate

axis, such as E = x̂E0 e−k0 z . However, there could also be a ŷ component to this field, since ŷ is also

perpendicular to the direction of propagation. Furthermore, there could also be a phase-shift in time between

these two components. Therefore, a more general expression for a plane wave travelling in the ẑ direction

would be

J o

E = x̂Ex + ŷEy eφ e−k0 z

where Ex and Ey are the magnitudes of the x̂ and ŷ components, and φ is the phase shift between the two

components. The diﬀerent types of polarization represent diﬀerent conditions on these variables:

• Linear Polarization: φ = 0 When there is no phase shift in time between the elements, then the

direction of the E-field does not vary with time, and we get linear polarization.

• Circular Polarization: φ = ±90◦ , Ex = Ey When the components are 90◦ out of phase and equal

in magnitude, then locus of the E-field vector traces out a circle in time, and the wave is circularly

polarized.

• Elliptical Polarization: For any other possible situation other than the two above, the E-field traces

an ellipse in time, and therefore is called elliptical polarization. This is the most general case.

In the cases of circular and elliptical polarization, the field vector can rotate in one of two possible directions.

If the thumb points in the direction of propagation as the fingers of the right hand are curled in the direction

of the rotation, then the wave is called right circular, otherwise it is left-circular polarization.

Plane waves normally incident on plane boundaries can be treated in ways that are strikingly similar to

reflections on transmission lines. The situation in shown in the figure below.

region 1 region 2

Er transmitted

kr

Et

Hr kt

reflected

Ht

Ei z

incident

ki

Hi

z=0

The fields can be written as

E i = x̂Ei0 e−k1 z E r = x̂Er0 ek1 z E t = x̂Et0 e−k2 z

Ei0 −k1 z Er0 k1 z Et0 −k2 z

H i = ŷ e H r = −ŷ e H t = ŷ e

η1 η1 η2

Enforcing the boundary conditions for conitnuity of tangential field components gives the reflection coeﬃcient

and transmission coeﬃcient

Er0 η2 − η1 Et0 2η2

Γ= = and τ= =

Eio η2 + η1 Eio η2 + η1

If region-2 is a perfect conductor, then η2 = 0 and we get Γ = −1 and τ = 0, so there is no signal transmitted

into the conductor. Just as with transmission lines, we can define a wave impedance which describes the

ratio of total electric field to total magnetic field at any point in space. This gives the familar impedance

transformation formula

η2 + η1 tan k1 l

Zin (−l) = η1

η1 + η2 tan k1 l

We can then treat situations like quarter-wave matching problems and multiple dielectric boundaries just

like we did with transmission lines.

Oblique incidence on plane boundaries is more complicated for two reasons: the field components and

direction of propagation no longer point along coordinate axes, and polarization of the waves becomes

important. The picture below and on the following page illustrates the dirrefent polarizations.

Perpendicular Parallel

x x

reflected

kr Hr transmitted kr transmitted

Hr

kt Et kt

Er

reflected Et Er Ht

θr θt θr θt

θi Ht z θi z

ki ki

incident

Ei Ei

Hi

Hi

incident

z=0 z=0

The two polarizations are defined with respect to a plane of incidence, which is an imaginary plane containing

both the normal vector to the boundary and the k i vector of the incident signal. Parallel polarization has

the E-field pointing parallel to the plane of incidence.

The analysis proceeds by writing down expression for the various field components and enforcing the boudary

conditions. Doing this for both cases of polarization gives us Snell’s Laws and the Fresnel Equations. Snells’

laws are

Snell’s law of reflection: θi = θr

√ √

Snell’s law of refraction: 1 sin θi = 2 sin θt

√

Snell’s law of refraction is usually written in terms of the index of refraction, which is defined as n1 = 1.

(This is a somewhat unfortunate choice of notation, because n is often confused with η.) The Fresnel

Parallel Polarization

Perpendicular Polarization

Ei ki

Hi kr

Er

region 1

θi θr

ε 1 , µ1 Hr

boundary plane

x

region 2

ε2 , µ 2 θt

y plane of

Ht kt incidence

Et

Perpendicular Polarization

Parallel Polarization

Ei

ki Er kr

Hi

region 1

θi θr

Hr

ε 1 , µ1

boundary plane

x

region 2

ε2 , µ 2 θt Et

y plane of

kt incidence

Ht

z

equations are

η2 sec θt − η1 sec θi η2 cos θt − η1 cos θi

Perpendicular: Γ⊥ = Parallel: Γ =

η2 sec θt + η1 sec θi η2 cos θt + η1 cos θi

2η2 sec θt 2η2 cos θi

τ⊥ = τ =

η2 sec θt + η1 sec θi η2 cos θt + η1 cos θi

Comparing these expression with the case of normal incidence, we see that they are similar in form except

that the wave impedances have been modified to incorporate some angular dependence. We can define a

generalized wave impedance and phase constant for incidence at any angle on dielectric boundaries, which

for the ith region are written as

phase constant: βi = ki cos θi

perpendicular wave impedance: Zi = ηi sec θi

parallel wave impedance: Zi = ηi cos θi

In the case of parallel polarization, we can always find an angle of incidence such that Γ = 0, provided that

µ1 = µ2 and 1 = 2 . we call this angle the Brewster Angle, and denote it by θB . Setting the numerator of

Γ = 0 and using Snell’s law of refraction gives us the simple expression for Brewster angle

5

2

tan θB =

1

At the Brewster angle, waves with parallel polarization will be completely transmitted into medium 2. We

could also find a similar angle for perpendicular polarization such that Γ⊥ = 0, but this would require

materials of diﬀerent permeabilities and identical permittivities, something which does not often occur in

nature.

Another important angle occurs if the wave travels from a medium of high permittivity ( 1 ) into a medium

of lower permittivity ( 2 ). In this case we encounter the critical angle for total internal reflection. At angles

of incidence greater than or equal to this critical angle, there is no transmitted signal into region-2, and

θt = 90◦ . From Snell’s law we get 5

2

θc = sin−1

1

Physically there is still some field penetration into region-2, but the fields strength decays exponentially

away from the boundary. This is called an evanescent field. This evanescent field actually propagates along

the boundary.

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