What is Acousto-Optic (AO) Effect?

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- GoPhotonics

Apr 12, 2023

The Acousto-optic (AO) Effect is a phenomenon that occurs when light (optics) interacts with sound (acoustic) waves in a material. This effect was first discovered by Brillouin in 1922 and it involves sound waves that cause diffraction of light. The AO effect has been widely studied and applied in various fields, including telecommunications, spectroscopy, and laser technology.

The acousto-optic effect arises from the photo-elasticity of the medium. Photoelasticity is a property of certain transparent materials to exhibit changes in optical properties when subjected to mechanical stress. A sound wave can alter the refractive index of the medium, creating a grating with varying refractive indices.

Working of AO Effect

Figure 1: Working of Acousto-optic modulator

The acousto-optic effect is the working principle of an acousto-optic modulator. It works by using a piezoelectric transducer that is attached to a photo-elastic medium to introduce a sound wave into a material. 

When an electric field is applied to the transducer, a sound wave is created that propagates through the material and causes periodic variations in the refractive index of the material. When a light beam is introduced into the material, it interacts with the sound wave. The refractive index variations caused by the sound wave lead to diffraction or scattering of the light beam. This diffraction is similar to that of Bragg diffraction. Figure 1 shows the schematic of an acousto-optic modulator.

The amount of light diffracted or scattered depends on the frequency and amplitude of the sound wave, as well as the properties of the material. The diffraction angle can be controlled by adjusting the frequency and amplitude of the sound wave. 

Condition for Diffraction

The diffraction of acousto-optic modulator is similar to Bragg diffraction as it operates under Bragg condition. That is, if the incident light is at Bragg angle, the obtained diffraction pattern satisfies the following condition:

Where Λ is the wavelength of the sound, θ is the diffraction angle, m=...,−2,−1,0,+1,+2,.. is the integer representing the order of diffraction, and n is the refractive index of the material.


The acousto-optic effect is used in fiber-optic communication systems to control the direction and amplitude of light beams. This allows for the modulation and switching of light signals, enabling high-speed data transmission.

It is used in spectroscopy to analyze the properties of materials by measuring the scattering or diffraction of light waves. This allows for the identification and characterization of different materials based on their optical properties.

This effect is used in laser technology to control the direction and intensity of laser beams. It helps in the creation of complex laser patterns and the manipulation of laser beams for various applications.

The AO effect also has applications in heterodyning techniques, acousto-optic momentum matching, guided wave effects, and Bragg diffraction imaging.