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Prisms and Beamsplitters

Section Overview:

Beamsplitters and prisms are not only found in a wide variety of common optical instruments, such as cameras, binoculars, microscopes, telescopes, periscopes, range finders, and surveying equipment, but also in many sophisticated scientific instruments including interferometers, spectrophotometers, and fluorimeters. Both of these important optical tools are critical for laser applications that require tight control of beam direction to precise tolerances with a minimum of light loss due to scatter or unwanted reflections. Illustrated in Figure 1 is a diagram of a typical binocular microscope observation tube configuration. In order to divert light collected by the objective into both eyepieces, it is first divided by a beamsplitter and then channeled through reflecting prisms into parallel cylindrical optical light pipes. Thus, the binocular observation tube utilizes both prism and beamsplitter technology to direct beams of light having equal intensity into the eyepieces.

Review Articles

Introduction to Prisms and Beamsplitters

Prisms and beamsplitters are essential components that bend, split, reflect, and fold light through the pathways of both simple and sophisticated optical systems. Cut and ground to specific tolerances and exact angles, prisms are polished blocks of glass or other transparent materials that can be employed to deflect a light beam, rotate or invert an image, separate polarization states, or disperse light into its component wavelengths. Many prism designs can perform more than one function, which often includes changing the line of sight and simultaneously shortening the optical path, thus reducing the size of optical instruments.

Interactive Tutorials

  • Common Reflecting Prisms

    Prisms are made to be located in specific orientations where the entrance and exit faces are both parallel and perpendicular to the optical axis. Explore image deviation, rotation, and displacement exhibited by these prisms.

  • Right-Angle Prisms

    Explore light reflection and image rotation, inversion, and reversion by a right-angle prism as a function of the prism orientation with respect to incident light in this interactive tutorial.

  • Refraction by an Equilateral Prism

    Discover and learn about how the incident angle of white light entering the equilateral prism affects the degree of dispersion and the angles of light exiting the prism in this interactive tutorial.

  • Transmission and Reflection by Beamsplitters

    A beamsplitter is an optical component that partially transmits and reflects an incident light beam, usually in unequal proportions. Analyze transmission and reflection of a light beam by three common beamsplitter designs.

  • Dielectric Plate Beamsplitters

    Analyze and explore transmission, reflection, and total internal reflection exhibited by a light beam interacting with a dielectric plate beamsplitter in this featured interactive java tutorial.

  • Beam Steering by Wedge Prisms

    Circular prisms having plane surfaces positioned at slight angles with respect to each other are termed optical wedges. Explore how two wedge prisms operate together to deflect an incident light beam.

  • Birefringent Polarizing Prisms

    Discover in this interactive java tutorial how various common birefringent polarizing prisms work and operate to split light waves into ordinary and extraordinary components.

Selected Literature References

Selected Literature References

A number of high-quality review articles on prisms and beamsplitters have been published by leading investigators in the fields of optics and photonics. This section contains periodical and book location information about these articles, as well as providing a listing of the chapter titles for appropriate sections dealing with beamsplitters and prism systems.

Contributing Authors

Kenneth R. Spring - Scientific Consultant, Lusby, Maryland, 20657.

Matthew Parry-Hill, Thomas J. Fellers, and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.

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