Refractive index

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The refractive index of a material is the factor by which the phase velocity of electromagnetic radiation is slowed relative to vacuum. It is usually given the symbox n, and defined for a material by:

where εr is the material's relative permittivity, and μr is its relative permeability. For a non-magnetic material, μr is very close to 1, therefore n is approximately .

The phase velocity is defined as the rate at which the crests of the waveform propagate; that is, the rate at which the phase of the waveform is moving. The group velocity is the rate that the envelope of the waveform is propagating; that is, the rate of variation of the amplitude of the waveform. It is the group velocity that (almost always) represents the rate that information (and energy) may be transmitted by the wave, for example the velocity at which a pulse of light travels down an optical fiber.

The speed of light

The speed of all electromagnetic radiation in vacuum is the same, approximately 3×108 meters per second, and is denoted by c. Therefore, if v is the phase velocity of radiation of a specific frequency in a specific material, the refractive index is given by

This number is typically greater than one: the higher the index of the material, the more the light is slowed down. However, at certain frequencies (e.g. near absorption resonances, and for x-rays), n will actually be smaller than one. This does not contradict the theory of relativity, which holds that no information-carrying signal can ever propagate faster than c, because the phase velocity is not the same as the group velocity or the signal velocity.

Sometimes, a "group velocity refractive index", usually called the group index is defined:


where vg is the group velocity. This value should not be confused with n, which is always defined with respect to the phase velocity.

At the microscale, an electromagnetic wave's phase velocity is slowed in a material because the electric field creates a disturbance in the charges of each atom (primarily the electrons) proportional to the permittivity. The charges will, in general, oscillate slightly out of phase with respect to the driving electric field. The charges thus radiate their own electromagnetic wave that is at the same frequency but with a phase delay. The macroscopic sum of all such contributions in the material is a wave with the same frequency but shorter wavelength than the original, leading to a slowing of the wave's phase velocity. Most of the radiation from oscillating material charges will modify the incoming wave, changing its velocity. However, some net energy will be radiated in other directions (see scattering).

If the refractive indices of two materials are known for a given frequency, then one can compute the angle by which radiation of that frequency will be refracted as it moves from the first into the second material from Snell's law.

Recent research has also demonstrated the existence of negative refractive index which can occur if ε and μ are simultaneously negative. Not thought to occur naturally, this can be achieved with so called metamaterials and offers the possibility of perfect lenses and other exotic phenomena such as a reversal of Snell's law.

Dispersion and Absorption

In real materials, the polarization does not respond instantaneously to an applied field. This causes dielectric loss, which can be expressed by a permittivity that is both complex and frequency dependent. Real materials are not perfect insulators either, i.e. they have non-zero direct current conductivity. Taking both aspects into consideration, we can define a complex index of refraction:

Here, n is the refractive index indicating the phase velocity as above, while κ is called the extinction coefficient, which indicates the amount of absorption loss when the electromagnetic wave propagates through the material. Both n and κ are dependent on the frequency (wavelength).

The effect that n varies with frequency (except in vacuum, where all frequencies travel at the same speed, c) is known as dispersion, and it is what causes a prism to divide white light into its constituent spectral colors, explains rainbows, and is the cause of chromatic aberration in lenses. In regions of the spectrum where the material does not absorb, the of the refractive index tends to increase with frequency. Near absorption peaks, the curve of the refractive index is a complex form given by the Kramers-Kronig relations, and can decreases with frequency.

The Sellmeier equation is an empirical formula that works well in describing dispersion, and Sellmeier coefficients are often quoted instead of the refractive index in tables. For some representative refractive indices at different wavelengths, see list of indices of refraction.

As shown above, dielectric loss and non-zero DC conductivity in materials cause absorption. Good dielectric materials such as glass have extremely low DC conductivity, and at low frequencies the dielectric loss is also negligible, resulting in almost no absorption (). However, at higher frequencies (such as visible light), dielectric loss may increase absorption significantly, reducing the material's transparency to these frequencies.

The real and imaginary parts of the complex refractive index are related through use of the Kramers-Kronig relations. For example, one can determine a material's full complex refractive index as a function of wavelength from an absorption spectrum of the material.


The refractive index of certain media may be different depending on the polarization and direction of propagation of the light through the medium. This is known as birefringence or anisotropy and is described by the field of crystal optics. In the most general case, the dielectric constant is a rank-2 tensor (a 3 by 3 matrix), which cannot simply be described by refractive indices except for polarizations along principal axes.

In magneto-optic (gyro-magnetic) and optically active materials, the principal axes are complex (corresponding to elliptical polarizations), and the dielectric tensor is complex-Hermitian (for lossless media); such materials break time-reversal symmetry and are used e.g. to construct Faraday isolators.


The strong electric field of high intensity light (such as output of a laser) may cause a medium's refractive index to vary as the light passes through it, giving rise to nonlinear optics. If the index varies quadratically with the field (linearly with the intensity), it is called the optical Kerr effect and causes phenomena such as self-focusing and self phase modulation. If the index varies linearly with the field (which is only possible in materials that do not possess inversion symmetry), it is known as the Pockels effect.


If the refractive index of a medium is not constant, but varies gradually with position, the material is known as a gradient-index medium and is described by gradient index optics. Light travelling through such a medium can be bent or focussed, and this effect can be exploited to produce lenses, some optical fibers and other devices. Some common mirages are caused by a spatially-varying refractive index of air.


The refractive index of a material is the most important property of any optical system that uses refraction. It is used to calculate the focusing power of lenses, and the dispersive power of prisms.

For a solution of sugar, the refractive index can be used to determine the sugar content (see Brix). The refractive index is also used in chemistry to determine the purity of chemicals.

External link

See also

ca:Índex de refracció da:Brydningsindeks de:Brechzahl es:Índice de refracción eo:Refrakta indico fr:Indice de réfraction gl:Índice de refracción it:Indice di rifrazione he:מקדם שבירה nl:Brekingsindex ja:屈折率 ru:Показатель преломления sv:Brytningsindex th:ดัชนีหักเห zh:折射率