Visual Encyclopedia

Total internal reflection

Total internal reflection is the phenomenon which occurs when a propagated wave strikes a medium boundary at an angle larger than a particular critical angle with respect to the normal to the surface. If the refractive index is lower on the other side of the boundary and the incident angle is greater than the critical angle, the wave cannot pass through and is entirely reflected. The critical angle is the angle of incidence above which the total internal reflection occurs. This is particularly common as an optical phenomenon, where light waves are involved, but it occurs with many types of waves, such as electromagnetic waves in general or sound waves. When a wave reaches a boundary between different materials with different refractive indices, the wave will in general be partially refracted at the boundary surface, and partially reflected. However, if the angle of incidence is greater (i.e. the direction of propagation is closer to being parallel to the boundary) than the critical angle – the angle of incidence at which light is refracted such that it travels along the boundary – then the wave will not cross the boundary, but will instead be totally reflected back internally. This can only occur when the wave in a medium with a higher refractive index (n1) reaches a boundary with a medium of lower refractive index (n2). For example, it will occur with light reaching air from glass, but not when reaching glass from air.

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The incident angle of the laser light onto the inner surface of the water/plastic is larger than the critical angle of the fore mentioned medium. If the refractive index of the material the light is in is higher than the outside material, then the reflection occurs.

Contributed by Kyle Scaffidi

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