Ellipsometry is a sensitive optical technique for determining
properties of surfaces and thin films. If linearly polarized light of a
known orientation is reflected at oblique incidence from a surface then the reflected
light is elliptically polarized. The shape and
orientation of the ellipse depend on the angle of incidence, the direction of the
polarization of the incident light, and the reflection
properties of the surface. We can measure the polarization of the reflected light
with a quarter-wave plate followed by an analyzer;
the orientations of the quarter-wave plate and the analyzer are varied until no
light passes though the analyzer. From these
orientations and the direction of polarization of the incident light we can
calculate the relative phase change, D, and the relative
amplitude change, Y, introduced by reflection from the surface.
An ellipsometer measures the changes in the polarization state of light when it is reflected from a sample. If the sample undergoes a change, for example a thin film on the surface changes its thickness, then its reflection properties will also change. Measuring these changes in the reflection properties can allow us to deduce the actual change in the film's thickness.
Since the instrument measures changes in polarization it probably should have been given the name `polarimeter'; however, at the time when the ellipsometer was named the term polarimeter was already in use as the name of an instrument for measuring the specific rotation of optically active materials, which is something different from the reflection properties of a film-covered surface. Since the general polarization state of polarized light reflected from a surface is elliptical, the term ellipsometer was chosen.
The most important application of ellipsometry is to study thin films. In the context of ellipsometry a thin film is one that ranges from essentially zero thickness to several thousand Angstroms, although this range can be extended in some cases. If a film is thin enough that it shows an interference color then it will probably be a good ellipsometric sample. The sensitivity of an ellipsometer is such that a change if film thickness of a few Angstroms is usually easy to detect.
A schematic diagram of a nulling ellipsometer with the quarter-wave plate placed before the light is reflected from the sample. L: the light source; P: the polarizing prism; Q: the quarter-wave plate compensator; S: the sample under study; A: the analyzer prism; D: the light detector.
Other related sites about ellipsometery
A Closer Look at Nulling Ellipsometry