An electromagnetic study of the staircase approximation of arbitrary shaped gratings is conducted with three different grating theories. Numerical results on a deep aluminum sinusoidal grating show that the staircase approximation introduces sharp maxima in the local field map close to the edges of the profile. These maxima are especially pronounced in TM polarization and do not exist with the original sinusoidal profile. Their existence is not an algorithmic artifact, since they are found with different grating theories and numerical implementations. Since the number of the maxima increases with the number of the slices, a greater number of Fourier components is required to correctly represent the electromagnetic field, and thus a worsening of the convergence rate is observed. The study of the local field map provides an understanding of why methods that do not use the staircase approximation (e.g., the differential theory) converge faster than methods that use it. As a consequence, a 1% accuracy in the efficiencies of a deep sinusoidal metallic grating is obtained 30 times faster when the differential theory is used in comparison with the use of the rigorous coupled-wave theory. A theoretical analysis is proposed in the limit when the number of slices tends to infinity, which shows that even in that case the staircase approximation is not well suited to describe the real profile.
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