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Optical Modulators

Definition: devices allowing one to manipulate properties of light beams, such as the optical power or phase

More specific terms: acousto-optic modulators, electro-optic modulators, Pockels cells, electroabsorption modulators, liquid crystal modulators, intensity modulators, phase modulators

German: optische Modulatoren

Categories: photonic devices, lightwave communications

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An optical modulator is a device which can be used for manipulating a property of light – often of an optical beam, e.g. a laser beam. Depending on which property of light is controlled, modulators are called intensity modulators, phase modulators, polarization modulators, spatial light modulators, etc. A wide range of optical modulators are used in very different application areas, such as in optical fiber communications, displays, for active Q switching or mode locking of lasers, and in optical metrology.

Types of Optical Modulators

There are very different kinds of optical modulators:

  • Acousto-optic modulators are based on the acousto-optic effect. They are used for switching or continuously adjusting the amplitude of a laser beam, for shifting its optical frequency, or its spatial direction.
  • Electro-optic modulators exploit the electro-optic effect in a Pockels cell. They can be used for modifying the polarization, phase or power of a beam, or for pulse picking in the context of ultrashort pulse amplifiers.
  • Plasmonic modulators are a special type of electro-optic modulators which exploit the formation of plasmons (a special type of electromagnetic excitation) at metal surfaces, which lead to surface plasmon polaritons (SPPs). They can be extremely fast while having a low energy consumption.
  • Electroabsorption modulators are intensity modulators, used e.g. for data transmitters in optical fiber communications.
  • Interferometric modulators, e.g. Mach–Zehnder modulators, are often realized in photonic integrated circuits for optical data transmission.
  • Fiber-optic modulators can exploit various physical principles. They can be true fiber devices, or contain fiber pig-tailed bulk components.
  • Liquid crystal modulators are suitable for, e.g., optical displays and ultrafast pulse shapers. They are also available as spatial light modulators, i.e. with a spatially varying transmission, e.g. for displays.
  • Chopper wheels can periodically switch the optical power of a light beam, as required for certain optical measurements (e.g. those using a lock-in amplifier). Of course, that kind of device cannot provide arbitrary modulation controlled with an electrical input signal.
  • Micromechanical modulators (which are microelectromechanical systems = MEMS), e.g. silicon-based light valves and two-dimensional mirror arrays, are particularly useful for projection displays.

Bulk-optical modulators, e.g. of the electro-optic type, can be used with large beam areas, and handle correspondingly large optical powers. On the other hand, there are fiber-coupled modulators, often realized as a waveguide modulator with fiber pigtails, which can easily be integrated into fiber-optic systems.


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 58 suppliers for optical modulators. Among them:

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See also: intensity modulators, phase modulators, acousto-optic modulators, electro-optic modulators, electroabsorption modulators, liquid crystal modulators, Pockels cells, Pockels cell drivers, optical choppers
and other articles in the categories photonic devices, lightwave communications


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