How electro-optical modulators work

Learn about electro-optical modulators (EOMs) and how they work. Explore their types and applications in telecommunications and quantum optics.

Understanding Electro-Optical Modulators

Electro-optical modulators (EOMs) are devices that can alter the polarization state or refractive index of a light beam using an external electric field. These modulators find applications in various fields such as telecommunications, microwave photonics, and quantum optics. In this article, we will explore the working principle of EOMs and their types.

Working Principle of Electro-Optical Modulators

The working principle of EOMs is based on the electro-optic effect, which is the change in the refractive index of a material due to the application of an external electric field. This effect can be observed in crystals such as lithium niobate, lithium tantalate, and potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP).

The EOMs consist of a crystal placed between two electrodes. When an electric field is applied to the electrodes, the refractive index of the crystal changes, and this causes a phase shift in the light passing through the crystal. The amount of phase shift is proportional to the strength of the electric field and the length of the crystal.

The phase shift can be used to modulate the amplitude, frequency, or polarization state of the light beam. For example, if the light is polarized, the EOM can change the polarization state by applying an electric field in the orthogonal direction, causing a phase shift between the two polarization components. This is known as the Pockels effect.

Types of Electro-Optical Modulators

There are several types of EOMs, and they differ in the mechanism used to modulate the light beam. Some of the commonly used EOMs are:

Acousto-Optic Modulators (AOMs)

AOMs use the interaction between sound waves and light to achieve modulation. The modulator consists of a crystal that is subjected to a high-frequency acoustic wave. This creates a periodic variation in the refractive index of the crystal, which causes a diffraction of the light passing through it. The diffraction angle is proportional to the frequency of the acoustic wave and the length of the crystal.

AOMs find applications in laser beam steering, frequency shifting, and pulse shaping.

Mach-Zehnder Modulators (MZMs)

MZMs use the interference of two parallel light beams to achieve modulation. The modulator consists of two waveguides that are placed in parallel and separated by a small gap. The gap is filled with a material that exhibits the electro-optic effect.

When an electric field is applied to the material, the refractive index changes, and this causes a phase shift in one of the waveguides. This results in interference between the two waveguides, and the output intensity is modulated. MZMs find applications in high-speed optical communication systems.

Electro-optical modulators are essential components in many optical systems, and their versatility makes them suitable for a wide range of applications.

Lithium Niobate Modulators (LNMs)

LNMs are based on the Pockels effect and use lithium niobate crystals as the electro-optic material. The crystal is sandwiched between two electrodes, and when an electric field is applied, the polarization state of the light passing through it is rotated.

LNMs are widely used in optical communication systems due to their high modulation speeds and low insertion losses. They are also used in microwave photonics and quantum optics experiments.


In conclusion, electro-optical modulators are crucial components in modern optical systems. They allow for the modulation of light beams by altering their polarization state, refractive index, or phase. There are several types of EOMs, including acousto-optic modulators, Mach-Zehnder modulators, and lithium niobate modulators, each with their own unique advantages and applications.