When an intense laser beam passes through a material, the electric field of the beam can induce a change in the refractive index of the material that is proportional to the intensity of the beam. This nonlinear effect is called the Kerr effect. The total refractive index of the material is the sum of the refractive index, n0, with no laser beam present and the term n2 I, where n2 is the second-order nonlinear refractive index and I is the intensity of the beam.

n = n0 + n2 I

The change in refractive index can be positive or negative. Values of n2 are generally small (e.g. approximately 3 x 10-16 cm2 W-1 for silica), so that high beam intensities are required to have a significant effect.

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