Mathematical descriptions of opacity: Wikis


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When an electromagnetic wave travels through a medium in which it get absorbed (this is called an "opaque" or "attenuating" medium), as described by the Beer-Lambert law, there are a wide array of mathematical descriptions of the parameters involved in the propagation and attenuation of the wave. This article describes the mathematical relationships among:

Note that in many of these cases there are multiple, conflicting definitions and conventions in common use. This article is not necessarily comprehensive or universal in that respect.


Background: Unattenuated wave

A electromagnetic wave propagating in the +z-direction is conventionally described by the equation:  \mathbf{E}(z,t) = \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)}) where

E0 is a vector in the x-y plane, with the units of an electric field (the vector is in general a complex vector, to allow for all possible polarizations and phases),
ω is the angular frequency of the wave,
k is the angular wavenumber of the wave,
Re indicates real part.
e is Euler's number; see the article Complex exponential for information about how e is raised to complex exponents.

The wavelength, in this case, is

 \lambda = \frac{2\pi}{k}

while the vacuum wavelength (the wavelength which a wave of this frequency would have if it were in vacuum) is

 \lambda_0 = \frac{2\pi c}{\omega}.

The index of refraction (also called refractive index) is the ratio of these two, i.e.

n = \frac{\lambda_0}{\lambda} = \frac{ck}{\omega}.

The intensity of the wave is proportional to the square of the amplitude, time-averaged over many oscillations of the wave, which amounts to:

 I(z) \propto |\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)}|^2 = |\mathbf{E}_0|^2 .

Note that this intensity is independent of the location z, a sign that this wave is not attenuating with distance. We define I0 to equal this constant intensity:

 I(z) = I_0 \propto |\mathbf{E}_0|^2.

Absorption coefficient

One way to incorporate attenuation into the mathematical description of the wave is via an absorption coefficient:[1]

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = e^{-\alpha_{abs} z / 2} \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)})

where αabs is the absorption coefficient. The intensity in this case satisfies:

I(z) \propto |e^{-\alpha_{abs} z/2}\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)}|^2 = |\mathbf{E}_0|^2 e^{-\alpha_{abs} z}


I(z) = I_0 e^{-\alpha_{abs} z}

The absorption coefficient, in turn, is simply related to another of other quantities:

  • Attenuation coefficient is essentially (but not quite always) synonymous with absorption coefficient; see absorption coefficient for details.
  • Molar absorption coefficient or Molar extinction coefficient, also called molar absorptivity, is the absorption coefficient divided by molarity (and usually multiplied by ln(10), i.e. decadic); see Beer-Lambert law and molar absorptivity for details.
  • Mass attenuation coefficient, also called mass extinction coefficient, is the absorption coefficient divided by density; see mass attenuation coefficient for details.
  • Absorption cross section and scattering cross section are both quantitatively related to the absorption coefficient (or attenuation coefficient); see absorption cross section and scattering cross section for details.
  • The absorption coefficient is also sometimes called opacity; see opacity (optics).

Penetration depth, skin depth

A very similar approach uses the penetration depth:[2]

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = e^{-z / (2 \delta_{pen})} \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)})
I(z) = I_0 e^{-z/\delta_{pen}}

where δpen is the penetration depth.

The skin depth δskin is defined so that the wave satisfies:[3][4]

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = e^{-z / \delta_{skin} } \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(k z - \omega t)})
I(z) = I_0 e^{-2z/\delta_{skin}}

where δskin is the skin depth.

Physically, the penetration depth is the distance which the wave can travel before its intensity reduces by a factor of 1/e \approx 0.37. The skin depth is the distance which the wave can travel before its amplitude reduces by that same factor.

The absorption coefficient is related to the penetration depth and skin depth by

αabs = 1 / δpen = 2 / δskin

Complex wavenumber, propagation constant

Another way to incorporate attenuation is to use essentially the original expression:

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(\tilde{k} z - \omega t)})

but with a complex wavenumber (as indicated by writing it as \tilde{k} instead of k).[3][5] Then the intensity of the wave satisfies:

 I(z) \propto |\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i(\tilde{k} z - \omega t)}|^2


I(z) = I_0 e^{-2z \mathrm{Im}(\tilde{k})}

Therefore, comparing this to the absorption coefficient approach,[1]

 \mathrm{Im}(\tilde{k}) = \alpha_{abs}/2 ,     \mathrm{Re}(\tilde{k}) = k

(k is the standard (real) angular wavenumber, as used in any of the previous formulations.)

A closely-related approach, especially common in the theory of transmission lines, uses the propagation constant:[6]

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{-\gamma z + i \omega t})
I(z) = I0e − 2zRe(γ)

where γ is the propagation constant. (The exponential here has the time-dependence + iωt, not iωt; this is the more common convention for alternating current, see electrical impedance.)

Comparing the two equations, the propagation constant and complex wavenumber are related by:

\gamma^* = -i\tilde{k}

(where the * denotes complex conjugation), or more specifically:

\mathrm{Re}(\gamma) = \mathrm{Im}(\tilde{k}) = \alpha_{abs}/2

(This, the real part of the propagation constant, is also called the attenuation constant, sometimes denoted α.)

\mathrm{Im}(\gamma) = \mathrm{Re}(\tilde{k}) = k

(This, the imaginary part of the propagation constant, is also called the phase constant, sometimes denoted β.)

Note that conflicting terminologies are in use: In particular, the parameter \tilde{k} is sometimes called "propagation constant".[7]

Complex refractive index, extinction coefficient

Recall that in nonattenuating media, the refractive index and wavenumber are related by:

n = \frac{ck}{\omega}

A complex refractive index can therefore be defined in terms of the complex wavenumber defined above:

\tilde{n} = \frac{c\tilde{k}}{\omega}.

In other words, the wave is required to satisfy

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{i\omega((\tilde{n} z/c) - t)}).

Comparing to the preceding section, we have

\mathrm{Re}(\tilde{n}) = \frac{ck}{\omega}, and \mathrm{Im}(\tilde{n}) = \frac{c \alpha_{abs}}{2\omega}=\frac{\lambda_0 \alpha_{abs}}{4\pi}.

The real part of \tilde{n} is often (ambiguously) called simply the refractive index. The imaginary part is called the extinction coefficient.

An alternate, equally-valid convention[8] is to write

 \mathbf{E}(z,t) = \mathrm{Re} (\mathbf{E}_0 e^{-i\omega((\tilde{n} z/c) - t)})

where the time-dependence is + iωt instead of iωt. Under this convention, the real part of \tilde{n} would be unchanged, but the imaginary part would change signs; in other words, the extinction coefficient would be negative the imaginary part of \tilde{n}.

Complex permittivity

In nonattenuating media, the permittivity and refractive index are related by:

n = c \sqrt{\mu \epsilon} (SI),     n = \sqrt{\mu \epsilon} (cgs)

where μ is the permeability and ε is the permittivity. In attenuating media, the same relation is used, but the permittivity is allowed to be a complex number, called complex permittivity:[1]

\tilde{n} = c \sqrt{\mu \tilde{\epsilon}} (SI),     \tilde{n} = \sqrt{\mu \tilde{\epsilon}} (cgs).

Squaring both sides and using the results of the previous section gives:[5]

\mathrm{Re}(\tilde{\epsilon}/\epsilon_0) = \frac{c^2}{(\omega^2)(\mu/\mu_0)}(k^2-\frac{\alpha_{abs}^2}{4})
\mathrm{Im}(\tilde{\epsilon}/\epsilon_0) = \frac{c^2}{(\omega^2)(\mu/\mu_0)}(k\alpha_{abs})

(this is in SI; in cgs, drop the ε0 and μ0).

This approach is also called the complex dielectric constant; the dielectric constant is synonymous with ε / ε0 in SI, or simply ε in cgs.

AC conductivity

Another way to incorporate attenuation is through the conductivity, as follows.[9]

One of the equations governing electromagnetic wave propagation is the Maxwell-Ampere law:

\nabla \times \mathbf{H} = \mathbf{J} + \frac{d\mathbf{D}}{dt} (SI)     \nabla \times \mathbf{H} = \frac{4\pi}{c} \mathbf{J} + \frac{1}{c}\frac{d\mathbf{D}}{dt} (cgs)

where D is the displacement field. Plugging in Ohm's law and the definition of (real) permittivity

\nabla \times \mathbf{H} = \sigma \mathbf{E} + \epsilon \frac{d\mathbf{E}}{dt} (SI)     \nabla \times \mathbf{H} = \frac{4\pi \sigma}{c} \mathbf{E} + \frac{\epsilon}{c}\frac{d\mathbf{E}}{dt} (cgs)

where σ is the (real, but frequency-dependent) conductivity, called AC conductivity. With sinusoidal time dependence on all quantities, i.e. \mathbf{H} = \mathrm{Re}(\mathbf{H}_0 e^{-i\omega t}) and \mathbf{E} = \mathrm{Re}(\mathbf{E}_0 e^{-i\omega t}), the result is

\nabla \times \mathbf{H}_0 = -i\omega\mathbf{E}_0(\epsilon + i\frac{\sigma}{\omega}) (SI)     \nabla \times \mathbf{H}_0 = \frac{-i\omega}{c} \mathbf{E}_0(\epsilon + i\frac{4\pi \sigma}{\omega}) (cgs)

If the current J was not included explicitly (through Ohm's law), but only implicitly (through a complex permittivity), the quantity in parentheses would be simply the complex permittivity. Therefore,

\tilde{\epsilon} = \epsilon + i \frac{\sigma}{\omega} (SI)     \tilde{\epsilon} = \epsilon + i\frac{4\pi \sigma}{\omega} (cgs).

Comparing to the previous section, the AC conductivity satisfies

\sigma = \frac{k\alpha_{abs}c^2}{(\omega)(\mu/\mu_0)} (SI)     \sigma = \frac{k\alpha_{abs}c^2}{4\pi\omega\mu} (cgs).

References and footnotes

  • Jackson, John David (1999). Classical Electrodynamics (3rd ed. ed.). New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-30932-X.  
  • Griffiths, David J. (1998). Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-805326-X.  
  • J. I. Pankove, Optical Processes in Semiconductors, Dover Publications Inc. New York (1971).
  1. ^ a b c Griffiths, section 9.4.3.
  2. ^ IUPAC Compendium of Chemical Terminology
  3. ^ a b Griffiths, section 9.4.1.
  4. ^ Jackson, Section 5.18A
  5. ^ a b Jackson, Section 7.5.B
  6. ^ "Propagataion constant", in ATIS Telecom Glossary 2007
  7. ^ See, for example, Encyclopedia of laser physics and technology
  8. ^ Pankove, pp. 87-89
  9. ^ Jackson, section 7.5C


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