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Wave Vector

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Definition: a vector indicating the direction of wave propagation and the phase delay per unit length

Category: general optics

How to cite the article; suggest additional literature

The wave vector (or k vector) of a plane wave is a vector which points in the direction in which the wave propagates. It is always perpendicular to the wavefronts. Its magnitude is the wavenumber as defined by


where λ is the wavelength in the medium (not the vacuum wavelength).

In non-isotropic media, the direction of energy flow can deviate from that of the wave vector. This phenomenon is called spatial walk-off.

In media with absorption or gain, the wave vector can have complex components. In case of an evanescent wave (→ total internal reflection), it can even have a purely imaginary component.

See also: wavenumber, spatial walk-off
and other articles in the category general optics

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