The beam diameter or beam width of an electromagnetic beam is the diameter along any specified line that is perpendicular to the beam axis and intersects it. Since beams typically do not have sharp edges, the diameter can be defined in many different ways. Five definitions of the beam width are in common use: D4σ, 10/90 or 20/80 knifeedge, 1/e^{2}, FWHM, and D86. The beam width can be measured in units of length at a particular plane perpendicular to the beam axis, but it can also refer to the angular width, which is the angle subtended by the beam at the source.
Beam diameter is usually used to characterize electromagnetic beams in the optical regime, and occasionally in the microwave regime, that is, cases in which the aperture from which the beam emerges is very large with respect to the wavelength.
Beam diameter usually refers to a beam of circular cross section, but not necessarily so. A beam may, for example, have an elliptical cross section, in which case the orientation of the beam diameter must be specified, for example with respect to the major or minor axis of the elliptical cross section. The term "beam width" may be preferred in applications where the beam does not have circular symmetry.
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Width definitions
Full width at half maximum
The simplest way to define the width of a beam is to choose two diametrically opposite points at which the irradiance is a specified fraction of the beam's peak irradiance, and take the distance between them as a measure of the beam's width. An obvious choice for this fraction is ½ (3 dB), in which case the diameter obtained is the full width of the beam at half its maximum intensity (FWHM). This is also called the halfpower beam width (HPBW).
1/e^{2} width
In many cases, it makes more sense to take the distance between points where the intensity falls to 1/e^{2} = 0.135 times the maximum value. If there are more than two points that are 1/e^{2} times the maximum value, then the two points closest to the maximum are chosen. The 1/e^{2} width is important in the mathematics of Gaussian beams.
Measurements of the 1/e^{2} width only depend on three points on the marginal distribution, unlike D4σ and knifeedge widths that depend on the integral of the marginal distribution. 1/e^{2} width measurements are noisier than D4σ width measurements. For multimodal marginal distributions (a beam profile with multiple peaks), the 1/e^{2} width usually does not yield a meaningful value and can grossly underestimate the inherent width of the beam. For multimodal distributions, the D4σ width is a better choice. For an ideal singlemode Gaussian beam, the D4σ and the 1/e^{2} width measurements would give the same value.
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