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 To apply related concepts and principles of Physics in the experiment;
 to learn how to use a diffraction pattern to measure the pitch (spacing) of the data
tracks on CDs and DVDs; and
 to differentiate the memory capacity of DVDs and CDs by determining their data
track spacing


CDs and DVDs are everywhere these days. In fact, you probably receive one free in the mail
every month or two as an advertisement for an Internet service provider. CDs and DVDs store huge
amounts of binary data (patterns of 0's and 1's) which your player can "read" with a laser, lenses,
light detector, and some sophisticated electronics.

CDs and DVDs are both multi-layered disks, made mostly of plastic. The layer that contains
the data (DVDs can have more than one data layer) consists of a series of tiny pits, arranged in a
spiral, tracking from the center of the disk to the edge. The data layer is coated with a thin layer of
aluminum or silver, making it highly reflective.

How small are the pits? Well, their diameter is 500 nanometers (nm). How small is that? A
millimeter (mm), which you can see with your unaided eye, is one-thousandth of a meter. Imagine
how much you have to shrink a meter to get down to the size of a millimeter. Now imagine shrinking
a millimeter by the same amount. That takes you down to a micrometer (μm), or one-thousandth of a
millimeter. You have to shrink a micrometer one thousand times more to get down to the size of a
nanometer. A typical human hair is about 100 μm wide. The pits on a CD are 0.5 μm wide. So you
could fit 200 pits across the width of a typical human hair! The diameter of the pits is also similar to
the wavelengths of visible light (400 to 700 nm).
On the CD, the pits have some blank space ("land") on either side of them. This means that
the adjacent data tracks of the spiral are regularly spaced (something like 3 times the pit diameter).
This regular spacing of the spiral tracks, slightly larger than the wavelengths of visible light,
produces the shimmering colors you see when you tilt a CD back and forth under a light. The colors
result from diffraction of the white light source by the CD.


The first laser diffraction system designed by Malvern Instruments was first introduced in the
1970’s. Since then, the technique has been accepted across a wide range of applications as a means
of obtaining rapid, robust particle size data.

The technique of laser diffraction is based around principle that particles passing through a
laser beam will scatter light at an angle that is directly related to their size. As the particle size
decreases, the observed scattering angle increases logarithmically. The observed scattering intensity
is also dependent on particle sizes and diminishes, to a good approximation, in relation to the
particle’s cross-sectional area. Large particles therefore scatter light at narrow angles with high
intensity whereas small particles scatter at wider angles but with low intensity.

The primary measurement that has to be carried out within a laser diffraction system is the
capture of the light scattering data from the particles under study. A typical system consists of:

• A laser, to provide a source of coherent, intense light of fixed wavelength

• A sample presentation system to ensure that material under test passes through the laser beam
as a homogeneous stream of particles in a known, reproducible state of dispersion
• A series of detectors which are used to measure the light pattern produced over a wide range
of angles.

The size range accessible during the measurement is directly related to the angular range of
the scattering measurement, with modern instruments making measurements from around 0.02
degrees through to beyond 130 degrees. A logarithmic detector sequence, where the detectors are
grouped closely together can small angles and become more widely spaced at wide angles, yields the
optimum sensitivity as this follows the changes in scattering angle observed as the particle size
decreases. Finally, the detector sequence is generally set up such that equal volumes of particles of
different sizes produce a similar measured signal. This requires the size of the detectors to be
increased as the measured scattering angle increases.

In laser diffraction, particle size distributions are calculated by comparing a sample’s scattering
pattern with an appropriate optical model using a mathematical inversion process. Traditionally two
different models are used: the Fraunhofer Approximation and Mie Theory.

Mie Theory provides a rigorous solution for the calculation of particle size distributions from light
scattering data and is based on Maxwell’s electromagnetic field equations. It predicts scattering
intensities for all particles, small or large, transparent or opaque within the following assumptions:

• The particles being measured are spherical

• The suspension is dilute, such at the scattered light is measured before it is re-scattered by
other particles.
• The optical properties of the particles and the medium surrounding them is know
• The particles are homogeneous

Mie Theory predicts the primary scattering response observed from the surface of the particle, with
the intensity predicted by the refractive index difference between the particle and the dispersion
medium. It also predicts how the particle’s absorption affects the secondary scattering signal caused
by light refraction within the particle – this is especially important for particles below 50 microns in
diameter and is extremely important when the particle is transparent, as stated in the international
standard for laser diffraction measurements (ISO13320-1 (1999)).

The Fraunhofer Approximation was used in early laser diffraction instruments, mainly because it is
simpler to calculate and does not require input of the sample’s optical properties. It is based on
similar assumptions to Mie Theory, but additionally assumes that:

• The particles being measured are opaque discs

• Light is scattered only a narrow angles.
• That particles of all sizes scatter light with the same efficiency
• The refractive index difference between the particle and surrounding medium is infinite.
These approximations hold at large particle sizes (above 50 microns in size) but are increasingly in
error when measuring fine particles.


Project 2: Using a Laser Pointer to measure Data Track Spacing on CDs and DVDs
laser pointer (with known wavelength) P 200
CD (own materials)
DVD (own materials)
protractor (own materials)
index card (own materials)
several pieces of thin cardboard (cereal (own materials)
box, or similar)
sturdy box, preferably wooden P 100
stack of books (own materials)
black marker (own materials)
calculator with trigonometry functions (sin, (own materials)
cos, tan)
digital camera and tripod (optional) (own materials)

Schematic Diagram

Figure 3. The Main Apparatus


1. The image above shows the experimental setup. It's a good idea to work near the edge of a
table, with good lighting. Here are the important features of the setup, in order of
a. Place the CD, label-side down, near the center of the workspace.
b. Put a piece of cardboard to the right of the CD, and another piece of cardboard behind
the CD. Both pieces should be about the same thickness as the CD. You will be
placing the box on top of all this. The cardboard prevents the box from wobbling.
c. If you want, put a piece of paper or tissue over the back half of the CD, to prevent
d. For measuring the angles, you will attach the protractor to the index card, flush at the
bottom. Use a stack of two cardboard spacers at the points indicated, so that the laser
pointer can shine down between the index card and the protractor.
e. Tape the index card to the side of the box (we used a wooden box for holding
magazines). The index card and protractor should be flush with the bottom of the box.
f. Carefully place the box over the CD and cardboard pieces. You want the index card
lined up along the diameter of the CD, parallel to the front of the table. The center of
the protractor should be lined up midway between the center and the rim of the CD.
g. A stack of books makes a convenient elbow rest for the person holding the laser
pointer. Rest your fingers against the box as shown to help hold the laser pointer
h. Before you turn on the laser pointer, make sure that no one is in the path of the
diffracted beams (the plane of the index card, extended out on both sides and above).
i. Direct the laser pointer beam down the face of the index card, and align the beam
with the center of the protractor. You may have to fiddle slightly before you see a
diffraction pattern like the one in the photo. Make your adjustments carefully, keeping
the beam as close to parallel with the card as possible.

2. Making measurements
a. When the incident and diffracted beams are clearly visible, mark their locations with
the marker, or take a digital photo for later analysis. If you are using a marker, start
with a fresh index card for each measurement. If you are using a digital camera, make
sure that the camera is aligned parallel to the index card, with the frame horizontally
centered on the protractor. As a test, it's a good idea to take a picture of an index card
marked with three lines at known angles. Measure the angles with your favorite photo
editing program to confirm that your camera is aligned properly.

b. The image above shows how to mark and measure the angles. If you are using a
marker, mark the beam locations with dots, and label them. If you are using digital
photos, use a photo editing program to draw lines over the beams, starting from the
center of the protractor. Remember that angles are measured from the normal (black
line in the illustration). For example, θi, the angle of the incident beam, is 20 degrees
in the image above. You measure from the normal (90° on the protractor) to the
incident beam (70° on the protractor). The angle for the diffracted beam of order m=1
is about +48 degrees. You measure from the normal (90° on the protractor) to the
diffracted beam (about 138° on the protractor). This angle is positive because the
diffracted beam is on the opposite side of the normal from the incident beam. The
angle for the diffracted beam of order m=−1 is about −7 degrees. This angle is
negative because the diffracted beam is on the same side of the normal as the incident
beam. What is the angle for diffracted beam of order m=−2? Is it positive or negative?

[Note: Did you notice the small problem with this setup? Examine the protractor
closely, and you will see that the positions for 0 and 180 degrees are not flush with
the CD. Because of this, the angles measured with this setup will be slightly
underestimated. If you do the calculations with the angles given above, you'll see that
the calculated values for data track spacing are reasonable nevertheless. However, a
protractor that has 0 and 180 degrees flush with its edge is a better choice.]

c. Repeat the procedure at least five times. If you are using a marker, remember to start
with a fresh index card for each measurement. It is OK to vary the angle of the
incident beam with each trial.
d. Do five trials with a DVD for comparison.

3. Calculating d, the data track spacing.

a. Make separate tables for your CD and DVD data, similar to the one below. You'll fill
in the first five columns from your measurements, and you will calculate values for
the last four columns. For some angles of the laser pointer, you may not see all of the
diffraction orders. In that case, just leave the column corresponding to the missing
order blank.

d, m=1 d, m=2 d, m=−1 d, m=−2

Trial θi θ+1 θ+2 θ−1 θ−2
(nm) (nm) (nm) (nm)

b. Here is the formula for calculating d:
d = m × λ ⁄ (sin θm − sin θi ) (Equation 2)
c. Calculate d for each of the non-zero order diffracted rays (i.e., m = +1, +2, −1, −2).
For example, for m = −1, and a laser pointer with a wavelength of 655 nm, the
formula would be:

d = (−1) × 655 ⁄ (sin θ−1 − sin θi )

d. Since we entered the wavelength in units of nm, our answer is also in nm. (To convert
to μm, multiply your answer by 1 μm/1000 nm.)
e. Note: make sure that your calculator is set for entering angles in degrees.
f. If your laser pointer specifies its wavelength as a range of numbers, use the center of
the range as the value for λ. Inexpensive red laser pointers are generally in the 635 –
670 nm range. Green laser pointers are 532 nm.
g. Calculate the average value for each d column, and, separately, for all of the values of