PolarizationA light wave is an electromagnetic wave that travels through the vacuum of outer space. Light waves are produced by vibrating electric charges. The nature of such electromagnetic waves is beyond the scope of The Physics Classroom Tutorial. For our purposes, it is sufficient to merely say that an electromagnetic wave is a transverse wave that has both an electric and a magnetic component.
The transverse nature of an electromagnetic wave is quite different from any other type of wave that has been discussed in The Physics Classroom Tutorial. Let's suppose that we use the customary slinky to model the behavior of an electromagnetic wave. As an electromagnetic wave traveled towards you, then you would observe the vibrations of the slinky occurring in more than one plane of vibration. This is quite different than what you might notice if you were to look along a slinky and observe a slinky wave traveling towards you. Indeed, the coils of the slinky would be vibrating back and forth as the slinky approached; yet these vibrations would occur in a single plane of space. That is, the coils of the slinky might vibrate up and down or left and right. Yet regardless of their direction of vibration, they would be moving along the same linear direction as you sighted along the slinky. If a slinky wave were an electromagnetic wave, then the vibrations of the slinky would occur in multiple planes. Unlike a usual slinky wave, the electric and magnetic vibrations of an electromagnetic wave occur in numerous planes. A light wave that is vibrating in more than one plane is referred to as unpolarized light. Light emitted by the sun, by a lamp in the classroom, or by a candle flame is unpolarized light. Such light waves are created by electric charges that vibrate in a variety of directions, thus creating an electromagnetic wave that vibrates in a variety of directions. This concept of unpolarized light is rather difficult to visualize. In general, it is helpful to picture unpolarized light as a wave that has an average of half its vibrations in a horizontal plane and half of its vibrations in a vertical plane.
It is possible to transform unpolarized light into polarized light. Polarized light waves are light waves in which the vibrations occur in a single plane. The process of transforming unpolarized light into polarized light is known as polarization. There are a variety of methods of polarizing light. The four methods discussed on this page are:
- Polarization by Transmission
- Polarization by Reflection
- Polarization by Refraction
- Polarization by Scattering
The most common method of polarization involves the use of a Polaroid filter. Polaroid filters are made of a special material that is capable of blocking one of the two planes of vibration of an electromagnetic wave. (Remember, the notion of two planes or directions of vibration is merely a simplification that helps us to visualize the wavelike nature of the electromagnetic wave.) In this sense, a Polaroid serves as a device that filters out one-half of the vibrations upon transmission of the light through the filter. When unpolarized light is transmitted through a Polaroid filter, it emerges with one-half the intensity and with vibrations in a single plane; it emerges as polarized light.
A Polaroid filter is able to polarize light because of the chemical composition of the filter material. The filter can be thought of as having long-chain molecules that are aligned within the filter in the same direction. During the fabrication of the filter, the long-chain molecules are stretched across the filter so that each molecule is (as much as possible) aligned in say the vertical direction. As unpolarized light strikes the filter, the portion of the waves vibrating in the vertical direction are absorbed by the filter. The general rule is that the electromagnetic vibrations that are in a direction parallel to the alignment of the molecules are absorbed.
The alignment of these molecules gives the filter a polarization axis. This polarization axis extends across the length of the filter and only allows vibrations of the electromagnetic wave that are parallel to the axis to pass through. Any vibrations that are perpendicular to the polarization axis are blocked by the filter. Thus, a Polaroid filter with its long-chain molecules aligned horizontally will have a polarization axis aligned vertically. Such a filter will block all horizontal vibrations and allow the vertical vibrations to be transmitted (see diagram above). On the other hand, a Polaroid filter with its long-chain molecules aligned vertically will have a polarization axis aligned horizontally; this filter will block all vertical vibrations and allow the horizontal vibrations to be transmitted.
Polarization of light by use of a Polaroid filter is often demonstrated in a Physics class through a variety of demonstrations. Filters are used to look through and view objects. The filter does not distort the shape or dimensions of the object; it merely serves to produce a dimmer image of the object since one-half of the light is blocked as it passed through the filter. A pair of filters is often placed back to back in order to view objects looking through two filters. By slowly rotating the second filter, an orientation can be found in which all the light from an object is blocked and the object can no longer be seen when viewed through two filters. What happened? In this demonstration, the light was polarized upon passage through the first filter; perhaps only vertical vibrations were able to pass through. These vertical vibrations were then blocked by the second filter since its polarization filter is aligned in a horizontal direction. While you are unable to see the axes on the filter, you will know when the axes are aligned perpendicular to each other because with this orientation, all light is blocked. So by use of two filters, one can completely block all of the light that is incident upon the set; this will only occur if the polarization axes are rotated such that they are perpendicular to each other.
Polarization by Reflection
Unpolarized light can also undergo polarization by reflection off of nonmetallic surfaces. The extent to which polarization occurs is dependent upon the angle at which the light approaches the surface and upon the material that the surface is made of. Metallic surfaces reflect light with a variety of vibrational directions; such reflected light is unpolarized. However, nonmetallic surfaces such as asphalt roadways, snowfields and water reflect light such that there is a large concentration of vibrations in a plane parallel to the reflecting surface. A person viewing objects by means of light reflected off of nonmetallic surfaces will often perceive a glare if the extent of polarization is large. Fishermen are familiar with this glare since it prevents them from seeing fish that lie below the water. Light reflected off a lake is partially polarized in a direction parallel to the water's surface. Fishermen know that the use of glare-reducing sunglasses with the proper polarization axis allows for the blocking of this partially polarized light. By blocking the plane-polarized light, the glare is reduced and the fisherman can more easily see fish located under the water.
Polarization by Refraction
Polarization can also occur by the refraction of light. Refraction occurs when a beam of light passes from one material into another material. At the surface of the two materials, the path of the beam changes its direction. The refracted beam acquires some degree of polarization. Most often, the polarization occurs in a plane perpendicular to the surface. The polarization of refracted light is often demonstrated in a Physics class using a unique crystal that serves as a double-refracting crystal. Iceland Spar, a rather rare form of the mineral calcite, refracts incident light into two different paths. The light is split into two beams upon entering the crystal. Subsequently, if an object is viewed by looking through an Iceland Spar crystal, two images will be seen. The two images are the result of the double refraction of light. Both refracted light beams are polarized - one in a direction parallel to the surface and the other in a direction perpendicular to the surface. Since these two refracted rays are polarized with a perpendicular orientation, a polarizing filter can be used to completely block one of the images. If the polarization axis of the filter is aligned perpendicular to the plane of polarized light, the light is completely blocked by the filter; meanwhile the second image is as bright as can be. And if the filter is then turned 90-degrees in either direction, the second image reappears and the first image disappears. Now that's pretty neat observation that could never be observed if light did not exhibit any wavelike behavior.