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In optics, dispersion is a phenomenon that causes the separation of a wave into spectral components with different frequencies, due to a dependence of the wave's speed on its frequency. It is most often described in light waves, though it may happen to any kind of wave that interacts with a medium or can be confined to a waveguide, such as sound waves. There are generally two sources of dispersion: material dispersion, which comes from a frequency-dependent response of a material to waves; and waveguide dispersion, which comes because the transverse mode solutions for waves confined laterally within a finite waveguide generally depend upon the frequency (i.e. on the relative size of the wave, the wavelength, and that of the waveguide).
A related phenomenon is that of modal dispersion, which comes about if a signal consists of a superposition of multiple modes at each frequency—because different modes generally travel at different speeds, dispersion of temporal features (and thus signal degradation) results. A special case of this is polarization mode dispersion (PMD), which comes from a superposition of two modes that normally travel at the same speed due to symmetry (e.g. two orthogonal polarizations in a waveguide of circular or square cross-section), but which travel at different speeds due to random imperfections that break the symmetry.
Material dispersion in optics
In optics, the phase velocity of a wave v in a given medium is given by:
In general, the refractive index is some function of the frequency ν of the light, thus n = n(ν), or alternately, with respect to the wave's wavelength n = n(λ). The wavelength dependency of a material's refractive index is usually quantified by an empirical formula, the Sellmeier equation.
The most commonly seen consequence of dispersion in optics is the separation of white light into a color spectrum by a prism. From Snell's law it can be seen that the angle of refraction of light in a prism depends on the refractive index of the prism material. Since that refractive index varies with wavelength, it follows that the angle that the light is refracted will also vary with wavelength, causing the angular separation of the colors.
For visible light, most transparent materials (e.g. glasses) have:
- 1 < n(λred) < n(λyellow) < n(λblue),
that is, refractive index n decreases with increasing wavelength λ.
At the interface of such a material with air or vacuum (index of ~1), Snell's law predicts that light incident at an angle θ (0 = normal incidence) will be refracted at an angle sin - 1(sin(θ) / n). Thus, blue light (higher index) will be bent more strongly than red light (lower index), resulting in the well-known rainbow pattern.
Group and phase velocity
Another consequence of dispersion manifests itself as a temporal effect. The formula above, v = c / n calculates the phase velocity of a wave; this is the velocity at which the phase of any one frequency component of the wave will propagate. This is not the same as the group velocity of the wave, which is the rate that changes in amplitude (known as the envelope of the wave) will propagate. The group velocity vg is given by:
The group velocity vg is often thought of as the velocity at which energy or information is conveyed along the wave. In most cases this is true, and the group velocity can be thought of as the signal velocity of the waveform. In some unusual circumstances, where the wavelength of the light is close to an absorption resonance of the medium, it is possible for the group velocity to exceed the speed of light (vg > c), leading to the conclusion that superluminal (faster than light) communication is possible. In practice, in such situations the distortion and absorption of the wave is such that the value of the group velocity essentially becomes meaningless, and does not represent the true signal velocity of the wave, which stays less than c.
The group velocity itself is usually a function of the wave's frequency. This results in group velocity dispersion (GVD), which causes a short pulse of light to spread in time as a result of different frequency components of the pulse travelling at different velocities. GVD is often quantified as the group delay dispersion parameter:
If D is less than zero, the medium is said to have normal, or positive dispersion. If D is greater than zero, the medium has anomalous, or negative dispersion. If a light pulse is propagated through a normally dispersive medium, the result is the higher frequency components travel slower than the lower frequency components. The pulse therefore becomes positively chirped, or up-chirped, increasing in frequency with time. Conversely, if a pulse travels through an anomalously dispersive medium, high frequency components travel faster than the lower ones, and the pulse becomes negatively chirped, or down-chirped, decreasing in frequency with time.
The result of GVD, whether negative or positive, is ultimately temporal spreading of the pulse. This makes dispersion management extremely important in optical communications systems based on optical fiber, since if dispersion is too high, a group of pulses representing a bit-stream will spread in time and merge together, rendering the bit-stream unintelligible. This limits the length of fiber that a signal can be sent down without regeneration. One possible answer to this problem is to send signals down the optical fibre at a wavelength where the GVD is zero (e.g. around ~1.3-1.5 μm in silica fibres), so pulses at this wavelength suffer minimal spreading from dispersion—in practice, however, this approach causes more problems than it solves because zero GVD unacceptably amplifies other nonlinear effects (such as four-wave mixing ). Another possible option is to use soliton pulses in the regime of anomalous dispersion, a form of optical pulse which uses a nonlinear optical effect to self-maintain its shape—solitons have the practical problem, however, that they require a certain power level to be maintained in the pulse for the nonlinear effect to be of the correct strength. Instead, the solution that is currently used in practice is to perform dispersion compensation , typically by matching the fiber with another fiber of opposite-sign dispersion so that the dispersion effects cancel; such compensation is ultimately limited by nonlinear effects such as self phase modulation , which interact with dispersion to make it very difficult to undo.
Dispersion control is also important in lasers that produce short pulses. The overall dispersion of the optical resonator is a major factor in determining the duration of the pulses emitted by the laser. A pair of prisms can be arranged to produce net negative dispersion, which can be used to balance the usually positive dispersion of the laser medium. Diffraction gratings can also be used to produce dispersive effects; these are often used in high-power laser amplifier systems.
Dispersion in gemology
In the technical terminology of gemology, dispersion is the difference in the refractive index of a material at the B and G Fraunhofer wavelengths of 686.7 nm and 430.8 nm and is meant to express the degree to which a prism cut from the gemstone shows fire or color. Dispersion is a material property. Fire depends on the dispersion, the cut angles, the lighting environment, the refractive index, and the viewer.
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