Biot’s sugar experiment

Of all experiments in optics, one can make a case that none pack more pedagogical punch then optical rotation in sugar. In one beautiful and simple experiment we learn about the physics of light scattering, polarization, chiral chemistry, and fluorescence.


Optical rotation was first discovered by Jean-Baptiste Biot in 1815, and has an almost immediate impact by providing a quantitative measure of the purity of sugar. [1] In 1848 Louis Pasteur establsihed chiral chemistry by using Biot’s optical rotation technique to distinguish between left- and right-handed tartrate crystals.


The modern variant of the experiment is to send a laser beam through a sugar solution, for example, corn syrup which is liquid at room temperature and about 1/3 glucose by weight.

For the laser we use the Hexa-beam laser which has the advantages of 6 colours in one box. Below we show photographs of first a green laser and second a blue laser passing through a tube of corn syrup.



In both cases we can see the laser beam as it propagages through the sugar but oddly the green laser seems to oscillate between bright green and a fainter orange, whereas the blue laser oscillates between blue and green. What is going on?

Light scattering

Given that we should never look directly at a laser beam we only ever see laser light because it is scattered. This light scattering effect is the same as we see in the sky. We are not looking at the sunlight directly, only sunlight that is scattered by molecules in the atmosphere (which scatter more blue than red, see p. 223 in Optics f2f).

If the light is propagating across our field of view and we are observing from the side then we only vertically polarized light is scattered. This is illustrated below for the case of unpolarized light propoaging from left to right and we observed vertically polarized light.


This effect is well known to landscape photographers who may exploit this effect using a polarizing filter. The images on the left and right below are taken with the polarizer aligned vertically and horizontally, respectively, allowing first vertical and second horizontally polarized light to pass. When we detect horizontal light (right image) the sky looks very dark because the scattered light is mostly vertically polarized and does not pass through the polarizer.


The difference in the sugar experiment is that the input is linearly polarized and we will only see scattered light from the side if the polarization is vertical and remains vertical. The fact that scattered green and blue in the experiment sometimes disappears suggests that the polarization might be changing as the light propagates.

Optical rotation

In fact, what happens is that the axis of linear polarization rotates, as shown in this figure.


The light starts out vertically polarized and we can see vertically polarized scattered light but then rotates to horizontal and we see nothing (in microscopic terms the electric charges in the sugar, cannot emit light in the direction of their oscillation, i.e. in the direction of the observer). As the light continues it rotates back to vertical and we see scattered light again. This explains the bands of light and dark observed in the experiment.

The reason for this rotation is that the sugar molecules are chiral (see p. 62 in Optics f2f).

As in landscape photography, we can verify the polarization of the scattered light by placing a linear polarizer between the object and the detector. Below we show what happens if we view the sugar experiment through both vertical (on the left) and horizontal (on the right) polarizing sheets. We have overlapped the two sheets slightly to show that through crossed polarizers we really do see nothing.


Through the vertical polarizers there is not much change, whereas through the horizontal polarizer all the scattered light (which is vertically polarized) is blocked and we see nothing. Well, not quite nothing. In fact we see some light of a different colour. This is fluorescence.


In fluorescence, the incident light is absorbed (not scattered), both the polarization and the wavelength of the emitted light can be different to the input. In this example the fluorescence is unpolarized which is why we can see it through both the vertical and linear polarizers. By energy conversation the wavelength of the emission cannot be shorter than that of the input which explains why the green and blue lasers produce orange and green fluorescence, respectively.

[1] According to The Shadow of Enlightenment
Optical and Political Transparency in France 1789-1848
Theresa Levitt, “the price of a batch of sugar was determined directly by its polarimeter reading”.


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