Encyclopedia … combined with a great Buyer's Guide!

Kerr Lens

Author: the photonics expert

Definition: a lensing effect arising from the Kerr nonlinearity

Categories: article belongs to category nonlinear optics nonlinear optics, article belongs to category physical foundations physical foundations

DOI: 10.61835/v1l   Cite the article: BibTex plain textHTML

When a short optical pulse propagates through a nonlinear medium, the Kerr effect leads to an optical phase delay which is largest on the beam axis (where the optical intensity is highest) and smaller outside the axis. This is similar to the action of a lens: the wavefronts are deformed, so that the pulse is focused (assuming a positive nonlinear index <$n_2$>). This effect is called self-focusing and has important implications for passive mode locking of lasers (→ Kerr lens mode locking) and for optical damage of media (catastrophic self-focusing). For negative <$n_2$>, the nonlinearity is self-defocusing.

When a Gaussian beam with optical power <$P$> and beam radius <$w$> propagates through a thin piece (thickness <$d$>) of a nonlinear medium with nonlinear index <$n_2$>, the dioptric power (inverse focal length) of the Kerr lens is

$${f^{ - 1}} = \frac{{8{n_2}d}}{{\pi {w^4}}}P$$

when considering only the phase changes near the beam axis in a parabolic approximation. This equation can be derived by calculating the radially dependent nonlinear phase change and comparing it with that of a lens.

The equation shows that for a given optical power Kerr lensing becomes more important for stronger beam focusing: this increases the optical intensities and even more so the intensity gradients.

Calculator for Kerr Lens

Beam radius:
Nonlinear index:
Thickness of medium:
Optical power:
Focal length:calc

Enter input values with units, where appropriate. After you have modified some inputs, click the “calc” button to recalculate the output.

More to Learn

Encyclopedia articles:


[1]P. A. Belanger and C. Pare, “Self-focusing of Gaussian beams: an alternate derivation”, Appl. Opt. 22 (9), 1293 (1983); https://doi.org/10.1364/AO.22.001293
[2]F. Salin et al., “Modelocking of Ti:sapphire lasers and self-focusing: a Gaussian approximation”, Opt. Lett. 16 (21), 1674 (1991); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.16.001674
[3]V. Magni et al., “Astigmatism in Gaussian-beam self-focusing and in resonators for Kerr-lens mode locking”, J. Opt. Soc. Am. B 12 (3), 476 (1995); https://doi.org/10.1364/JOSAB.12.000476
[4]J. H. Marburger, “Self-focusing: theory”, in Progress in Quantum Electronics, J. H. Sanders and S. Stenholm, eds. (Pergamon, Oxford, 1977), Vol. 4, pp. 35–110 (1977)
[5]Y. R. Shen, “Self-focusing: experimental”, in Progress in Quantum Electronics, J. H. Sanders and S. Stenholm, eds. (Pergamon, Oxford, 1977), Vol. 4, pp. 1–34 (1977)

(Suggest additional literature!)

Questions and Comments from Users


Regarding the formula above there is a difference by a factor of 2 between the printed book and the online Encyclopedia. Which formula is correct?

The author's answer:

The formula here is correct. Sorry for the mistake in the printed book.


Could you provide the reference from which the formula is derived?

The author's answer:

That was my own calculation, although surely one could also find it elsewhere in the literature.


What happens if the thickness in the calculator is set too long, for instance, longer than the focal length?

The author's answer:

As is indicated in the text, the formula works only for thin pieces. Outside that regime, calculations would be substantially more difficult.

Here you can submit questions and comments. As far as they get accepted by the author, they will appear above this paragraph together with the author’s answer. The author will decide on acceptance based on certain criteria. Essentially, the issue must be of sufficiently broad interest.

Please do not enter personal data here. (See also our privacy declaration.) If you wish to receive personal feedback or consultancy from the author, please contact him, e.g. via e-mail.

Spam check:

By submitting the information, you give your consent to the potential publication of your inputs on our website according to our rules. (If you later retract your consent, we will delete those inputs.) As your inputs are first reviewed by the author, they may be published with some delay.


Share this with your network:

Follow our specific LinkedIn pages for more insights and updates: