Download the PDF version
In optical systems often it is necessary to isolate a single state of polarization of light. Many
interferometric and spectroscopic systems are sensitive to polarization. Polarization can even
play a role in laser-based cutting, for example, in which the shape of the cutting region becomes
highly anisotropic when polarized light is used. Linear and even circular polarization can be
obtained using a “polarizer,” or a component that transmits a single state of polarization while
absorbing, reflecting, or deviating light with the orthogonal state of polarization. Optical
applications that depend on good polarization control include laser materials processing,
polarization diversity detection in communications and rangefinding, liquid crystal device
characterization and manufacturing, fluorescence polarization assays and imaging, secondharmonic-
generation imaging, polarized Raman spectroscopy, and a wide variety of laboratory
laser applications based on holography, interferometry, etc., to name a few.
There are many types of polarizers and polarizing beamsplitters available, but none of them
solves every problem. There are important applications for which there is still no ideal
polarization component. This article compares the strengths and weaknesses of some of the
most popular component solutions on the market today, and then explains how Semrock’s
advanced optical filter technology is being applied to a new class of polarization components
designed specifically for lasers. This new class of filters is filling some key gaps in the
polarization component market.
2. Myriad polarization components
A perfect polarizer exhibits 100% transmission of the desired state of polarization and
complete extinction of the undesired state. Often the most important parameter that describes a
real polarizer is the “contrast ratio,” or the ratio of the transmission through a pair of identical
aligned polarizers to the transmission through the same pair of crossed polarizers. (The
“extinction ratio” is the inverse of the contrast ratio.) Contrast ratios typically vary from about
100:1 to as large as 100,000:1.
Probably the most well-known type of polarizer is the polymer sheet polarizer, based on the
original “H-Sheet” invented by E.H. Land of Polaroid fame in 1938. These are a type of
“absorbing polarizer,” which eliminates the undesired polarization via absorption, as opposed to
reflection. Polymer sheet polarizers – including versions with the sheets sandwiched between
glass plates – are a good solution for lower-end applications, like polarized sunglasses, but they
suffer from low contrast, low transmission, and low optical damage thresholds.
Glass film polarizers are a newer, higher-performance type of absorbing polarizer in which
asymmetric silver nanoparticles are embedded in a thick soda-lime glass film that is sandwiched
between two glass substrates (see Figure 1, top left). The nanoparticles selectively absorb one
orientation of linearly polarized light more strongly than the other, resulting in very high contrast
performance. They also offer larger apertures and good optical quality, but the transmission of
these and all absorbing polarizers tends to be fairly poor, and they cannot withstand very high
Figure 1: Examples of some of the main types of polarizers and polarizing beamsplitters.
In birefringent crystal polarizers (see Figure 1, top right) different polarizations of light rays
incident on an interface at an oblique angle are deviated by different amounts. Light is incident
at certain angles on the two interfaces formed by a gap between two birefringent crystals, such
that these angles are near or equivalent to Brewster’s angle for “p” polarized light, which is
therefore nearly completely transmitted, whereas at these angles “s” polarized light is totally
internally reflected. For example, in “Glan” Calcite polarizers, extinction is achieved by total
internal reflection of s-polarized light at a crystal-air gap (Glan-laser) or crystal-epoxy gap (Glan-
Thompson). Birefringent crystal polarizers achieve high contrast ratios, high transmission, and
high optical damage thresholds. However, main drawbacks include a limited aperture size due
to the high cost of growing good optical quality crystals, and they are not well suited for precise
laser delivery and imaging applications – they are very thick, and thus prone to optical wavefront
distortion, scattering, and beam deviation that causes walk during rotation.
Conventional optical thin-film polarizers achieve discrimination through interference in a
dielectric optical thin-film coating. These filters generally operate near the edge of a “stopband”
region of high reflection (as results from a quarter-wave stack of layers, or a nearly quarterwave
stack of layers). When light is incident on such a coating at a non-normal angle of
incidence, the width of the stopband for “p” polarized light becomes narrower than the width of
the stopband at normal incidence, while the width of the band for “s” polarized light becomes
wider, such that the edge “splits” and there is a narrow range of wavelengths for which there is
high-transmission of “p” polarized light (just outside the stopband for “p”) but high reflection
(attenuation) of “s” polarized light (just inside the stopband for “s”). Such coatings can be
applied to the hypotenuse of a right-angle prism which is combined with a second such prism to
create a cube-shaped component (so-called “cube beamsplitter polarizers”), or to a single
substrate (so-called “plate polarizers”).
Figure 2: Shows how different wavelengths of light are selectively transmitted and reflected by a
thin-film plate (or prism) polarizer.
The basic principle of a thin-film polarizer is illustrated in Figure 2. Notice that typically thinfilm
polarizers operate only over a particular wavelength range – for wavelengths shorter than
this range both polarizations are reflected, while for wavelengths longer than this range both
polarizations are transmitted. Thin-film cemented or air-spaced prism-cube polarizers and thinfilm
plate polarizers both offer larger apertures and good optical quality, so they work well for
precise laser delivery systems and for imaging, but a main drawback is that the contrast is
3. Something new under the sun? Semrock polarizers are unique.
Semrock has developed new polarization components based on the thin-film plate polarizer
geometry. Like all thin-film plate polarizers, Semrock’s polarizers offer excellent performance in
terms of high transmission and optical quality, high reliability and laser damage thresholds, and
large apertures. But now these fundamental advantages have been married with Semrock’s
ability to deposit many hundreds of thin-film coating layers with high precision using ion-beam
sputtering – widely considered to be the highest-quality thin-film coating technology. The result
is breakthrough improvements in performance. Foremost among these is contrast – Semrock’s
polarizers are guaranteed to achieve higher than 1,000,000-to-1 contrast (extinction less than
10-6), rivaled only by the low-transmission, low-optical-damage-threshold glass-film polarizers.
And because of the steep edges and sharp spectral features achieved by thin-film coatings with
many hundreds of precisely deposited layers, Semrock can also maximize the wavelength
ranges over which these polarizers function, thus addressing the other key limitation of thin-film
Perhaps the most unique Semrock polarization component is the polarizing bandpass filter.
Like the name suggests, this component is a highly efficient polarizer and a bandpass filter in a
single component. Both functions come from the coatings on a single glass substrate – it is not
two components packaged in a single “box.” More specifically the polarizing bandpass filter is
an optical thin-film filter that operates at an oblique angle of incidence and exhibits high
transmission of light with “p” polarization and simultaneously deep attenuation of light with “s”
polarization within a certain wavelength range (the passband), with a p-to-s polarization contrast
ratio better than 106:1. Outside of the passband, the filter exhibits deep blocking – better than
optical density (OD) 6 – for light of all states of polarization. Therefore, the filter is effectively a
bandpass filter for “p” polarization and a broadband blocking filter for “s” polarization.
Figure 3: Shows how different wavelengths of light are selectively transmitted and reflected
by a polarizing bandpass filter. Note that all polarization states of light outside the passband
The principle of operation of the polarizing bandpass filter is shown in Figure 3. Comparing
this figure to Fig. 2, we observe a key difference is that only light of the desired polarization is
transmitted through the filter, whereas for a conventional thin-film plate polarizer light of the
undesired polarization is transmitted at wavelengths slightly longer than the operating range
(red ray in Fig. 2). Also, what is not apparent from this simplified diagram is that the operating
range itself (the passband of the filter) can be substantially broader for the polarizing bandpass
filter than that of a comparable thin-film plate polarizer. A broader operating range enables a
wider range of laser or incoherent wavelengths, and also allows a very wide angular acceptance
angle for a given wavelength within the passband.
Figure 4 shows the measured transmission for both p-polarized (solid blue curve) and spolarized
(dashed red curve) light through a polarizing bandpass filter designed for use with 532
nm laser light. This filter has a passband width of about 30 nm, and an angular acceptance
range of 45 ± 7º at 532 nm. It achieves exceptionally high transmission for p-polarized light, has
excellent optical quality (imaging-quality, with low scatter, wavefront distortion, and beam
deviation), and the durability and high laser damage threshold expected from a highperformance
laser-grade optic. But perhaps most remarkable is that contrast measured with
crossed polarizers is guaranteed to exceed 1,000,000-to-1. In other words, the s-polarized light
within the passband is blocked with optical density (OD) > 6. Blocking outside the passband for
both polarizations also exceeds OD 6 in the visible wavelength range, and the filter has at least
OD 2 blocking from the UV all the way up to 1100 nm (the full Si-detector sensitivity range).
Figure 4: Example of the spectral performance of a polarizing bandpass
filter. Actual measured data is shown for a filter designed to operate at
or near 532 nm.
4. Semrock polarization filters compared to other polarization components
Table 1 contains a qualitative summary of the relative performance of different types of
polarizers and polarizing beamsplitters in terms of their key performance metrics. The
conventional components have well-understood strengths and weaknesses, making each
suitable for some applications but not necessarily for others.
Table 1: Relative comparison of major types of polarizers and polarizing beamsplitters (listed in the lefthand
column) in terms of key performance parameters (listed across the top row). Leading performance
is highlighted in blue, while disadvantageous features are highlighted in red.
Thin-film plate polarizers generally have a number of unique advantages relative to other
types of polarizers. They can achieve the highest transmission of any polarizer. They can
exhibit the best optical quality in terms of low scattering and wavefront distortion and negligible
beam deviation (a critical parameter for polarizers due to beam walk during rotation). They can
be made with excellent environmental reliability and the highest laser damage thresholds. Thinfilm
plate polarizer aperture sizes can be quite large (inches). And they naturally function as a
beamsplitter with a 90º beam deviation of the blocked polarization.
Unlike birefringent crystal polarizers, thin-film plate polarizers tend to have a strong
wavelength dependence since they operate on the principle of multiwave interference. Because
they function over only a range of wavelengths, they are best suited for laser applications or for
systems that limit signal light to a band of wavelengths. Glass film polarizers also have a limited
wavelength range, though not as limited as thin-film plate polarizers.
However, birefringent crystal polarizers tend to be very limited in aperture size due to the
high cost of growing good optical-quality crystals, and because they can also distort, scatter,
and deviate the optical beam, they are not well suited for imaging applications. The main
limitations of glass film polarizers and other absorptive polarizers are low transmission of the
desired light and low optical damage threshold, making them unsuitable for many laser
Semrock’s ion beam sputtering technology has enabled breakthrough improvements to the
performance of traditional thin-film plate polarizers. Foremost among these is contrast –
Semrock polarizers are guaranteed to achieve higher than 1,000,000:1 contrast, rivaled only by
the lower-transmission and low optical damage-threshold glass film polarizers. And, only
Semrock polarizers can achieve unique spectral performance like the polarizing bandpass
5. Applications for polarizing bandpass filters
What makes these filters unique is that they combine a polarizer and a bandpass filter
together into one, single-substrate component. Linear polarization with a contrast ratio better
than 106:1 is realized over a desired wavelength range (the passband), outside of which the
filter has deep attenuation better than OD 6 for both polarizations. Such a unique spectral
property, which, to the best of our knowledge, has not been realized before, has a variety of
applications, all of which benefit from reduced optomechanical system complexity, higher overall
transmission, decreased system weight, and, as a result, lower overall cost.
Some specific examples of applications and systems include:
- A complete laser clean-up filter which passes a single, desired polarization output from a
laser at the desired laser wavelength while blocking both light at the laser wavelength of the
orthogonal polarization as well as light of all polarization states at wavelengths adjacent to
the laser line. All of the blocked light is considered “noise” in systems based on such lasers,
and the better these noise sources can be blocked, the better the signal-to-noise ratio of the
- A laser communication detection system, designed to receive a laser signal of a single
polarization, in which it is necessary to block all light at wavelengths other than the laser
wavelength (especially the ambient light from the sun and other sources), as well as the
undesired orthogonally polarized light at the laser wavelength; in such systems the large
ratio between filter transmission and blocking, as well as the high polarization contrast ratio,
lead directly to improved signal-to-noise ratio of the communication system.
- A harmonic-generation imaging system used for material characterization or biological
research. For example, in second-harmonic-generation (SHG) microscopy for biological
imaging a laser is used to illuminate the sample of interest (e.g., at around 810 nm), and the
microscope collects and images the SHG light at one half of the illumination wavelength
(e.g., at around 405 nm). The efficiency of the SHG process as well as the polarization
dependence can be used to determine unique characteristics of the biological material not
easily measurable with standard or even fluorescence microscopy. High-fidelity images
require good isolation of the frequency-doubled wavelength as well as good polarization
extinction from a component that does not distort the high-quality imaging path.
- A fluorescence detection system which measures the degree of polarization of the
fluorescence emission, thus indicating whether or not one species binds to another species
with a fluorescent label attached. The principle behind such systems is based on a
polarized excitation source exciting a certain orientation (dipole moment) of the fluorescent
molecules so that ideally they would also emit polarized fluorescence, except they are very
quickly depolarized due to motion. However, when another species binds to the labeled
target, the target becomes much less mobile so that the degree of polarization of the emitted
light increases. Even more information can be obtained by measuring the degree of
polarization as a function of time. This technique is used in both high-speed fluorescence
detection (e.g., microplate readers) as well as in fluorescence microscopy.
- A simultaneous polarization and wavelength multiplexing system. For high-power laser
applications such as laser cutting and machining, one of the important challenges is power
scaling of the laser – obtaining higher and higher total power without sacrificing brightness
(which is the power per unit area, per unit wavelength interval, per unit beam solid angle).
One way to increase brightness is to combine many laser beams together, each with a
slightly different wavelength (so-called “wavelength multiplexing”), and using two orthogonal
polarizations at each wavelength (so-called “polarization multiplexing”). Polarizing bandpass
filters are ideally suited for achieving simultaneous polarization and wavelength multiplexing.
6. Concluding remarks
While there are a number of mature polarizer technologies that have been on the market for
a long time, none of them solves every polarization problem. By applying advanced ion-beam
sputtering optical filter technology to polarization control, Semrock is now able to make
polarizers and polarizing beamsplitters that achieve exceptionally high contrast (> 1,000,000:1),
excellent image-quality transmission, high laser damage threshold and environmental reliability,
and availability in larger sizes for larger beams. And this same technology is being applied to
other novel polarization components, such as multi-wavelength thin-film plate polarizers that will
cover the fundamental and primary harmonics of a Nd:YAG laser in a single component.
 “Understanding Polarization,” Semrock White Paper Series, www.semrock.com.
Turan Erdogan, Ph.D., is a co-founder and CTO at Semrock, Inc., A Unit of IDEX Corporation.
e-mail: email@example.com; Tel: (585) 594-7001; Fax: (585) 594-7095