Total Internal Reflection / Critical Angle


Total internal reflection is an optical phenomenon that occurs when a ray of light 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, no light can pass through and all of the light is reflected. The critical angle is the angle of incidence above which the total internal reflection occurs.

When light crosses a boundary between materials with different refractive indices, the light beam will be partially refracted at the boundary surface, and partially reflected. However, if the angle of incidence is greater (i.e. the ray 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 light will stop crossing the boundary altogether and instead be totally reflected back internally. This can only occur where light travels from a medium with a higher [n1=higher refractive index] to one with a lower refractive index [n2=lower refractive index]. For example, it will occur when passing from glass to air, but not when passing from air to glass.

Definition provided by Wikipedia

 For any angle of incidence larger than the critical angle, Snell's law will not be able to be solved for the angle of refraction, because it will show that the refracted angle has a sine larger than 1, which is not possible. In that case all the light is totally reflected off the interface, obeying the law of reflection

 In the example of light traveling through water towards the boundary with a less dense material such as air. When the angle of incidence in water reaches a certain critical value, the refracted ray lies along the boundary, having an angle of refraction of 90-degrees. This angle of incidence is known as the critical angle; it is the largest angle of incidence for which refraction can still occur. For any angle of incidence greater than the critical angle, light will undergo total internal reflection.

Definition by Physics Classroom 

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