1. Reflection and Refraction of light

Total Internal Reflection of Light

The principle of total internal reflection is the basis for fiber optic light transmission that makes possible medical procedures such as endoscopy, telephone voice transmissions encoded as light pulses, and devices such as fiber optic illuminators that are widely used in microscopy and other tasks requiring precision lighting effects. The prisms employed in binoculars and in single-lens reflex cameras also utilize total internal reflection to direct images through several 90-degree angles and into the user’s eye. In the case of fiber optic transmission, light entering one end of the fiber is reflected internally numerous times from the wall of the fiber as it zigzags toward the other end, with none of the light escaping through the thin fiber walls. This method of “piping” light can be maintained for long distances and with numerous turns along the path of the fiber.

Total internal reflection is only possible under certain conditions. The light is required to travel in a medium that has relatively high refractive index, and this value must be higher than that of the surrounding medium. Water, glass, and many plastics are therefore suitable for use when they are surrounded by air. If the materials are chosen appropriately, reflections of the light inside the fiber or light pipe will occur at a shallow angle to the inner surface (see Figure 7), and all light will be totally contained within the pipe until it exits at the far end. At the entrance to the optic fiber, however, the light must strike the end at a high incidence angle in order to travel across the boundary and into the fiber.

Image showing the total internal reflection in fiber optics

The principles of reflection are exploited to great benefit in many optical instruments and devices, and this often includes the application of various mechanisms to reduce reflections from surfaces that take part in image formation. The concept behind antireflection technology is to control the light used in an optical device in such a manner that the light rays reflect from surfaces where it is intended and beneficial, and do not reflect away from surfaces where this would have a deleterious effect on the image being observed. One of the most significant advances made in modern lens design, whether for microscopes, cameras, or other optical devices, is the improvement in antireflection coating technology.

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