Waveguide (optics)

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An optical waveguide is a physical structure that guides electromagnetic waves in the optical spectrum. Common types of optical waveguides include optical fiber and rectangular waveguides.

Optical fiber light-conducting fiber

An optical fiber is a flexible, transparent fiber made by drawing glass (silica) or plastic to a diameter slightly thicker than that of a human hair. Optical fibers are used most often as a means to transmit light between the two ends of the fiber and find wide usage in fiber-optic communications, where they permit transmission over longer distances and at higher bandwidths than electrical cables. Fibers are used instead of metal wires because signals travel along them with less loss; in addition, fibers are immune to electromagnetic interference, a problem from which metal wires suffer excessively. Fibers are also used for illumination and imaging, and are often wrapped in bundles so they may be used to carry light into, or images out of confined spaces, as in the case of a fiberscope. Specially designed fibers are also used for a variety of other applications, some of them being fiber optic sensors and fiber lasers.


Optical waveguides are used as components in integrated optical circuits or as the transmission medium in local and long haul optical communication systems.

Optical communication communication at a distance using light to carry information

Optical communication, also known as optical telecommunication, is communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices. The earliest basic forms of optical communication date back several millennia, while the earliest electrical device created to do so was the photophone, invented in 1880.

Optical waveguides can be classified according to their geometry (planar, strip, or fiber waveguides), mode structure (single-mode, multi-mode), refractive index distribution (step or gradient index) and material (glass, polymer, semiconductor).

Single-mode optical fiber

In fiber-optic communication, a single-mode optical fiber (SMF) is an optical fiber designed to carry light only directly down the fiber - the transverse mode. Modes are the possible solutions of the Helmholtz equation for waves, which is obtained by combining Maxwell's equations and the boundary conditions. These modes define the way the wave travels through space, i.e. how the wave is distributed in space. Waves can have the same mode but have different frequencies. This is the case in single-mode fibers, where we can have waves with different frequencies, but of the same mode, which means that they are distributed in space in the same way, and that gives us a single ray of light. Although the ray travels parallel to the length of the fiber, it is often called transverse mode since its electromagnetic oscillations occur perpendicular (transverse) to the length of the fiber. The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Charles K. Kao for his theoretical work on the single-mode optical fiber.

Multi-mode optical fiber

Multi-mode optical fiber is a type of optical fiber mostly used for communication over short distances, such as within a building or on a campus. Typical multi-mode links have data rates of 10 Mbit/s to 10 Gbit/s over link lengths of up to 600 meters. Multi-mode fiber has a fairly large core diameter that enables multiple light modes to be propagated and limits the maximum length of a transmission link because of modal dispersion.

Refractive index dimensionless number that describes how fast light propagates through the material

In optics, the refractive index or index of refraction of a material is a dimensionless number that describes how fast light travels through the material. It is defined as

Dielectric slab waveguide

A dielectric slab waveguide consists of three dielectric layers with different refractive indices. Slab waveguide 1.svg
A dielectric slab waveguide consists of three dielectric layers with different refractive indices.

Practical rectangular-geometry optical waveguides are most easily understood as variants of a theoretical dielectric slab waveguide, [1] also called a planar waveguide. [2] The slab waveguide consists of three layers of materials with different dielectric constants, extending infinitely in the directions parallel to their interfaces.

Light may be confined in the middle layer by total internal reflection. This occurs only if the dielectric index of the middle layer is larger than that of the surrounding layers. In practice slab waveguides are not infinite in the direction parallel to the interface, but if the typical size of the interfaces is much much larger than the depth of the layer, the slab waveguide model will be an excellent approximation. Guided modes of a slab waveguide cannot be excited by light incident from the top or bottom interfaces. Light must be injected with a lens from the side into the middle layer. Alternatively a coupling element may be used to couple light into the waveguide, such as a grating coupler or prism coupler.

Total internal reflection physical phenomenon

Total Internal Reflection (TIR) is the phenomenon that makes the water-to-air surface in a fish-tank look like a perfectly silvered mirror when viewed from below the water level (Fig. 1). Technically, TIR is the total reflection of a wave incident at a sufficiently oblique angle on the interface between two media, of which the second ("external") medium is transparent to such waves but has a higher wave velocity than the first ("internal") medium. TIR occurs not only with electromagnetic waves such as light waves and microwaves, but also with other types of waves, including sound and water waves. In the case of a narrow train of waves, such as a laser beam, we tend to speak of the total internal reflection of a "ray" (Fig. 2).

Dielectric electrically poorly conducting or non-conducting, non-metallic substance of which charge carriers are generally not free to move

A dielectric is an electrical insulator that can be polarized by an applied electric field. When a dielectric is placed in an electric field, electric charges do not flow through the material as they do in an electrical conductor but only slightly shift from their average equilibrium positions causing dielectric polarization. Because of dielectric polarization, positive charges are displaced in the direction of the field and negative charges shift in the opposite direction. This creates an internal electric field that reduces the overall field within the dielectric itself. If a dielectric is composed of weakly bonded molecules, those molecules not only become polarized, but also reorient so that their symmetry axes align to the field.

One model of guided modes is that of a plane wave reflected back and forth between the two interfaces of the middle layer, at an angle of incidence between the propagation direction of the light and the normal, or perpendicular direction, to the material interface is greater than the critical angle. The critical angle depends on the index of refraction of the materials, which may vary depending on the wavelength of the light. Such propagation will result in a guided mode only at a discrete set of angles where the reflected planewave does not destructively interfere with itself.

In physics, a plane wave is a special case of wave or field: a physical quantity whose value, at any moment, is constant over any plane that is perpendicular to a fixed direction in space.

In geometric optics, the angle of incidence is the angle between a ray incident on a surface and the line perpendicular to the surface at the point of incidence, called the normal. The ray can be formed by any wave: optical, acoustic, microwave, X-ray and so on. In the figure below, the line representing a ray makes an angle θ with the normal. The angle of incidence at which light is first totally internally reflected is known as the critical angle. The angle of reflection and angle of refraction are other angles related to beams.

This structure confines electromagnetic waves only in one direction, and therefore it has little practical application. Structures that may be approximated as slab waveguides do, however, sometimes occur as incidental structures in other devices.

Waveguide are used in Augmented reality glasses, there are 2 technologies: diffractive waveguides and reflective waveguides. Karl Guttag compared the optics of diffractive waveguides against the competing technology, reflective waveguides. [3]

Two-dimensional waveguides

Strip waveguides

A strip waveguide is basically a strip of the layer confined between cladding layers. The simplest case is a rectangular waveguide, which is formed when the guiding layer of the slab waveguide is restricted in both transverse directions rather than just one. Rectangular waveguides are used in integrated optical circuits and in laser diodes. They are commonly used as the basis of such optical components as Mach–Zehnder interferometers and wavelength division multiplexers. The cavities of laser diodes are frequently constructed as rectangular optical waveguides. Optical waveguides with rectangular geometry are produced by a variety of means, usually by a planar process.

The field distribution in a rectangular waveguide cannot be solved analytically, however approximate solution methods, such as Marcatili's method, [4] Extended Marcatili's method [5] and Kumar's method, [6] are known.

Rib waveguides

A rib waveguide is a waveguide in which the guiding layer basically consists of the slab with a strip (or several strips) superimposed onto it. Rib waveguides also provide confinement of the wave in two dimensions.

Segmented waveguides and photonic crystal waveguides

Optical waveguides typically maintain a constant cross-section along their direction of propagation. This is for example the case for strip and of rib waveguides. However, waveguides can also have periodic changes in their cross-section while still allowing lossless transmission of light via so-called Bloch modes. Such waveguides are referred to as segmented waveguides (with a 1D patterning along the direction of propagation [7] ) or as photonic crystal waveguides (with a 2D or 3D patterning [8] ).

Laser-inscribed waveguides

Optical waveguides find their most important application in photonics. Configuring the waveguides in 3D space provides integration between electronic components on a chip and optical fibers. Such waveguides may be designed for a single mode propagation of infrared light at telecommunication wavelengths, and configured to deliver optical signal between input and output locations with very low loss.

Optical waveguides formed in pure silica glass as a result of an accumulated self-focusing effect with 193 nm laser irradiation. Pictured using transmission microscopy with collimated illumination. SF waveguides.jpg
Optical waveguides formed in pure silica glass as a result of an accumulated self-focusing effect with 193 nm laser irradiation. Pictured using transmission microscopy with collimated illumination.

One of the methods for constructing such waveguides utilizes photorefractive effect in transparent materials. An increase in the refractive index of a material may be induced by nonlinear absorption of pulsed laser light. In order maximize the increase of the refractive index, a very short (typically femtosecond) laser pulses are used, and focused with a high NA microscope objective. By translating the focal spot through a bulk transparent material the waveguides can be directly written. [9] A variation of this method uses a low NA microscope objective and translates the focal spot along the beam axis. This improves the overlap between the focused laser beam and the photorefractive material, thus reducing power needed from the laser. [10]

When transparent material is exposed to an unfocused laser beam of sufficient brightness to initiate photorefractive effect, the waveguides may start forming on their own as a result of an accumulated self-focusing. [11] The formation of such waveguides leads to a breakup of the laser beam. Continued exposure results in a buildup of the refractive index towards the centerline of each waveguide, and collapse of the mode field diameter of the propagating light. Such waveguides remain permanently in the glass and can be photographed off-line (see the picture on the right).

Light pipes

Light pipes are tubes or cylinders of solid material used to guide light a short distance. In electronics, plastic light pipes are used to guide light from LEDs on a circuit board to the user interface surface. In buildings, light pipes are used to transfer illumination from outside the building to where it is needed inside.

Optical fiber

The propagation of light through a multi-mode optical fiber. Optical-fibre.svg
The propagation of light through a multi-mode optical fiber.

Optical fiber is typically a circular cross-section dielectric waveguide consisting of a dielectric material surrounded by another dielectric material with a lower refractive index. Optical fibers are most commonly made from silica glass, however other glass materials are used for certain applications and plastic optical fiber can be used for short-distance applications.

See also

Related Research Articles

Waveguide structure that guides waves, typically electromagnetic waves

A waveguide is a structure that guides waves, such as electromagnetic waves or sound, with minimal loss of energy by restricting expansion to one dimension or two. There is a similar effect in water waves constrained within a canal, or guns that have barrels which restrict hot gas expansion to maximize energy transfer to their bullets. Without the physical constraint of a waveguide, wave amplitudes decrease according to the inverse square law as they expand into three dimensional space.

Photonic crystal a periodic optical nanostructure that affects the motion of photons in much the same way that ionic lattices affect electrons in solids

A photonic crystal is a periodic optical nanostructure that affects the motion of photons in much the same way that ionic lattices affect electrons in solids. Photonic crystals occur in nature in the form of structural coloration and animal reflectors, and, in different forms, promise to be useful in a range of applications.

A transverse mode of electromagnetic radiation is a particular electromagnetic field pattern of the radiation in the plane perpendicular to the radiation's propagation direction. Transverse modes occur in radio waves and microwaves confined to a waveguide, and also in light waves in an optical fiber and in a laser's optical resonator.

Optical ring resonators

An optical ring resonator is a set of waveguides in which at least one is a closed loop coupled to some sort of light input and output. The concepts behind optical ring resonators are the same as those behind whispering galleries except that they use light and obey the properties behind constructive interference and total internal reflection. When light of the resonant wavelength is passed through the loop from input waveguide, it builds up in intensity over multiple round-trips due to constructive interference and is output to the output bus waveguide which serves as a detector waveguide. Because only a select few wavelengths will be at resonance within the loop, the optical ring resonator functions as a filter. Additionally, as implied earlier, two or more ring waveguides can be coupled to each other to form an add/drop optical filter.

Photonic-crystal fiber class of optical fiber

Photonic-crystal fiber (PCF) is a class of optical fiber based on the properties of photonic crystals. It was first explored in 1996 at University of Bath, UK. Because of its ability to confine light in hollow cores or with confinement characteristics not possible in conventional optical fiber, PCF is now finding applications in fiber-optic communications, fiber lasers, nonlinear devices, high-power transmission, highly sensitive gas sensors, and other areas. More specific categories of PCF include photonic-bandgap fiber, holey fiber, hole-assisted fiber, and Bragg fiber. Photonic crystal fibers may be considered a subgroup of a more general class of microstructured optical fibers, where light is guided by structural modifications, and not only by refractive index differences.

Fiber Bragg grating

A fiber Bragg grating (FBG) is a type of distributed Bragg reflector constructed in a short segment of optical fiber that reflects particular wavelengths of light and transmits all others. This is achieved by creating a periodic variation in the refractive index of the fiber core, which generates a wavelength-specific dielectric mirror. A fiber Bragg grating can therefore be used as an inline optical filter to block certain wavelengths, or as a wavelength-specific reflector.

A prism coupler is a prism designed to couple a substantial fraction of the power contained in a beam of light into a thin film to be used as a waveguide without the need for precision polishing of the edge of the film, without the need for sub-micrometer alignment precision of the beam and the edge of the film, and without the need for matching the numerical aperture of the beam to the film. Using a prism coupler, a beam coupled into a thin film can have a diameter hundreds of times the thickness of the film. Invention of the coupler contributed to the initiation of a field of study known as integrated optics.

A distributed Bragg reflector (DBR) is a reflector used in waveguides, such as optical fibers. It is a structure formed from multiple layers of alternating materials with varying refractive index, or by periodic variation of some characteristic of a dielectric waveguide, resulting in periodic variation in the effective refractive index in the guide. Each layer boundary causes a partial reflection of an optical wave. For waves whose vacuum wavelength is close to four times the optical thickness of the layers, the many reflections combine with constructive interference, and the layers act as a high-quality reflector. The range of wavelengths that are reflected is called the photonic stopband. Within this range of wavelengths, light is "forbidden" to propagate in the structure.

Double-clad fiber

Double-clad fiber (DCF) is a class of optical fiber with a structure consisting of three layers of optical material instead of the usual two. The inner-most layer is called the core. It is surrounded by the inner cladding, which is surrounded by the outer cladding. The three layers are made of materials with different refractive indices.

Silicon photonics The study and application of photonic systems which use silicon as an optical medium

Silicon photonics is the study and application of photonic systems which use silicon as an optical medium. The silicon is usually patterned with sub-micrometre precision, into microphotonic components. These operate in the infrared, most commonly at the 1.55 micrometre wavelength used by most fiber optic telecommunication systems. The silicon typically lies on top of a layer of silica in what is known as silicon on insulator (SOI).

Digital planar holography

Digital planar holography (DPH) is a method for designing and fabricating miniature components for integrated optics. It was invented by Vladimir Yankov and first published in 2003. The essence of the DPH technology is embedding computer designed digital holograms inside a planar waveguide. Light propagates through the plane of the hologram instead of perpendicularly, allowing for a long interaction path. Benefits of a long interaction path have long been used by volume or thick holograms. Planar configuration of the hologram provider for easier access to the embedded diagram aiding in its manufacture.


A slot-waveguide is an optical waveguide that guides strongly confined light in a subwavelength-scale low refractive index region by total internal reflection.

Subwavelength-diameter optical fibre

A subwavelength-diameter optical fibre is an optical fibre whose diameter is less than the wavelength of the light being propagated through it. An SDF usually consists of long thick parts at both ends, transition regions (tapers) where the fibre diameter gradually decreases down to the subwavelength value, and a subwavelength-diameter waist, which is the main acting part.

Microstructured optical fibers (MOF) are optical fiber waveguides where guiding is obtained through manipulation of waveguide structure rather than its index of refraction.

In physics, a high contrast grating is a single layer near-wavelength grating physical structure where the grating material has a large contrast in index of refraction with its surroundings. The term near-wavelength refers to the grating period, which has a value between one optical wavelength in the grating material and that in its surrounding materials.

Hybrid plasmonic waveguide

A hybrid plasmonic waveguide is an optical waveguide that achieves strong light confinement by coupling the light guided by a dielectric waveguide and a plasmonic waveguide. It is formed by separating a medium of high refractive index from a metal surface by a small gap.

Marcatili’s method is an approximate analytical method that describes how light propagates through rectangular dielectric optical waveguides. It was published by Enrique Marcatili in 1969.

An erbium-doped waveguide amplifier is a type of an optical amplifier. It is a close relative of an EDFA, Erbium-doped fiber amplifier, and in fact EDWA's basic operating principles are identical to those of the EDFA. Both of them can be used to amplify infrared light at wavelengths in optical communication bands between 1500 and 1600 nm. However, whereas an EDFA is made using a free-standing fiber, an EDWA is typically produced on a planar substrate, sometimes in ways that are very similar to the methods used in electronic integrated circuit manufacturing. Therefore, the main advantage of EDWAs over EDFAs lies in their potential to be intimately integrated with other optical components on the same planar substrate and thus making EDFAs unnecessary.

Ravindra Kumar Sinha (physicist) Indian physicist and administrator

Prof. Ravindra Kumar Sinha is the director of the CSIR-Central Scientific Instruments Organisation (CSIR-CSIO) Sector-30C, Chandigarh-160 030, India & Professor - Applied Physics, Dean-Academic[UG] & Chief Coordinator: TIFAC-Center of Relevance and Excellence in Fiber Optics and Optical Communication, Mission REACH Program, Technology Vision-2020, Govt. of India Delhi Technological University Bawana Road, Delhi-110042, India.


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  3. Karl Guttag on Technology
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