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Achromatic prisms and lenses

When light passes through a prism the
amount of deviation depends on the
refractive index, and since the refractive
index is different for different wavelengths
the deviation differs for different colours of

If a beam of white light is shone on a prism

as shown in Figure 1 the refracted beam is
separated into a spectrum (for the present
we will restrict ourselves to a consideration
of the visible spectrum).

This spreading of the beam is called

dispersion and can be shown to depend
both on the refracting angle of the prism and on the refractive index of the material of which it is
If nR and nB are the refractive indices for red and blue light at the extreme ends of the visible
spectrum, then the deviations for red and blue light are:

dR = (nR - 1)A and dB = (nB - 1)A respectively.

Therefore for a prism of small angle the angular dispersion (φ) is given by the formula:

Dispersion (φ) = dR - dB = (nB - nR)A

The mean deviation for a prism is taken as being that produced with yellow light and is given by:

Mean deviation (dY) = (nY - 1)A

where nY is the refractive index of the glass of the prism for yellow light.

'Blue', 'red' and 'yellow' are rather vague terms, however, since each colour represents a range of
wavelengths and so for accurate work we choose one particular wavelength within each area of the

for red, the C line of hydrogen with a wavelength of 656 nm

for yellow, the D line of sodium with a wavelength of 589 nm
for blue, the F line of hydrogen with a wavelength of 486 nm

The refractive indices of two types of glass for these three standard wavelengths are given in the 1/4
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table below:

nC nD nF
Crown glass 1.5150 1.5175 1.5233
Flint glass 1.6434 1.6550 1.6648

The accurate definition for mean deviation therefore becomes:

Mean deviation (dD) = (nD - 1)A

Example problem
Calculate the angular dispersion produced by a flint glass prism of refracting angle 20o.
(Take the refractive indices for red and blue right to be as shown in the table above.)

Angular dispersion = (1.6648 - 1.6434) x 20 = 0.428o

Dispersive power
A useful property to consider when calculating the dispersion is the dispersive power of a material.
This depends only on the type of material of which a prism or lens is made and not on its shape.
Dispersive power is defined as:

Dispersive power (ω) = angular dispersion/mean deviation = (nF – nC)/(nD

- 1)

Achromatic prisms and lenses

Although the dispersion of white light is useful when we want to look at the spectrum of the light it is
a real problem in optical instruments such as telescopes. The lenses in these instruments disperse
different colours by different amounts and so bring the different colours to different foci. The images
formed are coloured and blurred. It is therefore necessary to deviate the light without dispersing it,
and prisms and lenses that do this are called achromatic (Greek, 'without colour').

(a) The achromatic prism

Such a prism is a compound prism made of two prisms of materials with different refractive indices,
say n and n'.
The dispersion for prism 1 will be: dR - dB = (nB - nR)A
and that for prism 2: d'R - d'B = (n'B - n'R)A'.

For there to be zero dispersion the algebraic sum of these two dispersions must be zero, and
(dR - dB) + (d'R - d'B) = (nB - nR)A + (n'B - n'R)A' = 0

Therefore: A/A'= -[n'B - n'R]/[nB - nR]

The negative sign indicates that the prisms must be placed as shown in Figure 2

A single ray of white light passing through an achromatic prism will give rise to a parallel beam of
light which when brought to a focus will appear white again. If we take more than one incident ray
then the colours will overlap, giving a white centre with coloured edges. 2/4
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Example problem
A crown glass prism of refracting angle 6o is combined with a flint
glass prism to give an achromatic combination.

Calculate the refracting angle of the flint glass prism. What

deviation will the compound prism produce? (Take the refractive
indices to be those in the table above.)

Let A be the angle of the flint glass prism. Then:

A/6 = - [ 1.523 - 1.515]/[1.665 - 1.643] giving A = - 2.2o

Deviation of red light = (1.515 - 1) x 6 - (1.643 - 1) x 2.2 =


(b) The achromatic lens

The dispersion of lenses can be a serious problem in large astronomical instruments - for example,
the difference in focal length for red and blue light for a telescope with a mean focal length of around
15 m can be as much as 45 cm. (An exaggerated version of the defect is shown in Figure 3). Such a
difference is obviously quite unacceptable when a clearly focused image is required.

This defect of lenses is known as chromatic aberration.

For a lens to be achromatic the focal length for red light (FR) must be the same
as that for blue light (FB). As with the achromatic prism this can be produced by
using a 'doublet' made of two thin lenses of different refractive indices (Figure 4).

For blue light: 1/FB = 1/fB + 1/fB' For red light: 1/FR = 1/fR + 1/fR'

and also we have for each lens:

1/fB - 1/fR = (nB – nR)(1/R1 + 1/R2) and 1/fy = (nY – 1)(1/R1 + 1/R2)


1/fB - 1/fR = w/fY and 1/fB' – 1/fR' = w'/fY' This gives: w/fY + w'/fY' = 0


ω/fY + ω'/fY' = 0 3/4
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In this formula the negative sign means that one of the lenses is convex and the other concave.
Notice that we have only made the lens truly achromatic for two colours, red and blue. There will still
be a spread of colour due to the other wavelengths.

It is possible to make an achromatic lens using two thin lenses of the same material if they are
separated by a distance equal to the mean of their focal lengths.

Defects of lenses
In addition to chromatic aberration described above, lenses suffer from several other defects.
(a) Spherical aberration
This is a result of the inner and outer portions of a lens having different focal lengths, that of the
outside being shorter than that of the centre.
One way of reducing this is to make the deviation at the two surfaces as nearly equal as possible.
Spherical aberration is therefore particularly marked when using a piano-convex lens with parallel
light hitting the plane face.
Spherical aberration is also reduced by decreasing the aperture of a lens and by increasing its focal

(b) Coma
This defect produces a comet-like tail added to all images. It results from off-axis objects coupled
with the different magnifications of different zones of the lens.
The rays from the vertical plane intersect in a horizontal line while those from a horizontal plane
intersect in a vertical line.

(c) Astigmatism
If the object point lies off the axis of the lens then the rays from the horizontal and vertical planes
come to a focus at different distances from the lens.

(d) Distortion
The magnification of the lens varies from its centre to its edge and so the magnification of the image
will vary as well. This gives rise to distortion.

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© Keith Gibbs 2013 4/4