Two special cases of the Kerr effect are normally considered: the Kerr electro-optic effect, or DC Kerr effect, and the optical Kerr effect, or AC Kerr effect.
Some polar liquids, such as nitrotoluene (C7H7NO2) and nitrobenzene (C6H5NO2) exhibit very large Kerr constants. A glass cell filled with one of these liquids is called a Kerr cell. These are frequently used to modulate light, since the Kerr effect responds very quickly to changes in electric field. Light can be modulated with these devices at frequencies as high as 10 GHz. Because the Kerr effect is relatively weak, a typical Kerr cell may require voltages as high as 30 kV to achieve complete transparency. This is in contrast to Pockels cells, which can operate at much lower voltages. Another disadvantage of Kerr cells is that the best available material, nitrobenzene, is poisonous. Some transparent crystals have also been used for Kerr modulation, although they have smaller Kerr constants.
For a nonlinear material, the electric polarization field P will depend on the electric field E:
where ε0 is the vacuum permittivity and χ(n) is the n-th order component of the electric susceptibility of the medium. The ":" symbol represents the scalar product between matrices. We can write that relationship explicitly; the i-th component for the vector P can be expressed as:
where . It is often assumed that , i.e. the component parallel to x of the polarization field; and so on.
For a linear medium, only the first term of this equation is significant and the polarization varies linearly with the electric field.
For materials exhibiting a non-negligible Kerr effect, the third, χ(3) term is significant, with the even-order terms typically dropping out due to inversion symmetry of the Kerr medium. Consider the net electric field E produced by a light wave of frequency ω together with an external electric field E0:
where Eω is the vector amplitude of the wave.
Combining these two equations produces a complex expression for P. For the DC Kerr effect, we can neglect all except the linear terms and those in :
which is similar to the linear relationship between polarization and an electric field of a wave, with an additional non-linear susceptibility term proportional to the square of the amplitude of the external field.
For non-symmetric media (e.g. liquids), this induced change of susceptibility produces a change in refractive index in the direction of the electric field:
where λ0 is the vacuum wavelength and K is the Kerr constant for the medium. The applied field induces birefringence in the medium in the direction of the field. A Kerr cell with a transverse field can thus act as a switchable wave plate, rotating the plane of polarization of a wave travelling through it. In combination with polarizers, it can be used as a shutter or modulator.
In the optical or AC Kerr effect, an intense beam of light in a medium can itself provide the modulating electric field, without the need for an external field to be applied. In this case, the electric field is given by:
where Eω is the amplitude of the wave as before.
Combining this with the equation for the polarization, and taking only linear terms and those in χ(3)|Eω|3:
As before, this looks like a linear susceptibility with an additional non-linear term:
where n0=(1+χLIN)1/2 is the linear refractive index. Using a Taylor expansion since χNL << n02, this give an intensity dependent refractive index (IDRI) of:
where n2 is the second-order nonlinear refractive index, and I is the intensity of the wave. The refractive index change is thus proportional to the intensity of the light travelling through the medium.
The values of n2 are relatively small for most materials, on the order of 10-20 m2 W-1 for typical glasses. Therefore beam intensities (irradiances) on the order of 1 GW cm-2 (such as those produced by lasers) are necessary to produce significant variations in refractive index via the AC Kerr effect.
The optical Kerr effect manifests itself temporally as self-phase modulation, a self-induced phase- and frequency-shift of a pulse of light as it travels through a medium. This process, along with dispersion, can produce optical solitons.
Spatially, an intense beam of light in a medium will produce a change in the medium's refractive index that mimics the transverse intensity pattern of the beam. For example, a Gaussian beam results in a Gaussian refractive index profile, similar to that of a gradient-index lens. This causes the beam to focus itself, a phenomenon known as self-focusing.