TCD Physicists Shed New Light on Conical Refraction of Light first discovered by Trinity Scientists William Rowan Hamilton and Humphrey Lloyd in the 1830s

Posted on: 21 August 2009

One of Ireland’s most famous scientists, Trinity’s Andrews Professor of Astronomy, Sir William Rowan Hamilton made the prediction of conical refraction of light in 1832 and the following year the College’s Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Humphrey Lloyd observed the phenomenon for the first time. Conical refraction of light occurs in low symmetry crystals in which an input beam of light is converted into a cone of light within the crystal and emerges as a cylinder from the crystal.

Professors James Lunney and John Donegan, along with researchers Dr Yury Rakovich, Dave O’Dwyer and Ciaran Phelan at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics recently published a detailed paper on the phenomenon of conical refraction of light. With funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) under its Research Frontiers Programme this is the first comprehensive investigation of conical refraction in Trinity College Dublin  since the phenomenon was first discovered by Trinity College scientists in the 1830s.

“The availability of very high quality crystals has allowed us to make the first detailed experimental study of conical refraction at Trinity since its initial discovery. Much of the fine detail we can now observe was not visible to Lloyd in his original observation”, stated Head of the School of Physics, Professor of Physics John Donegan. “The aim of  our research is to build an optical trap in which small micron scale objects can be moved, rotated and placed in specific locations using the conical beam of light.”

Published in the international online journal, Optics Express, the paper titled ‘Conical diffraction and Bessel beam formation with a high optical quality biaxial crystal’, presents the main features of conical refraction of light from an experimental point of view, while minimising the mathematical complexity of the presentation.