Laser | History of Laser
A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Lasers differ from other sources of light because they emit light coherently. Its spatial coherence allows a laser to be focused to a tight spot, and this enables applications like laser cutting and laser lithography. Its spatial coherence also keeps a laser beam collimated over long distances, and this enables laser pointers to work. Laser also have high temporal coherence which allows them to have a very narrow spectrum, i.e., they only emit a single color of light. Their temporal coherence also allows them to emit pulses of light that only last a femtosecond.
Lasers have many important applications. They are used in common consumer devices such as DVD players, laser printers, and barcode scanners. They are used in medicine for laser surgery and various skin treatments, and in industry for cutting and welding materials. They are used in military and law enforcement devices for marking targets and measuring range and speed. Laser lighting displays use laser light as an entertainment medium. Lasers also have many important applications in scientific research.
FundamentalsLasers are distinguished from other light sources by their coherence. Spatial coherence is typically expressed through the output being a narrow beam which is diffraction-limited, often a so-called "pencil beam." Laser beams can be focused to very tiny spots, achieving a very high irradiance, or they can be launched into beams of very low divergence in order to concentrate their power at a large distance.
Temporal (or longitudinal) coherence implies a polarized wave at a single frequency whose phase is correlated over a relatively large distance (the coherence length) along the beam. A beam produced by a thermal or other incoherent light source has an instantaneous amplitude and phase which vary randomly with respect to time and position, and thus a very short coherence length.
Most so-called "single wavelength" lasers actually produce radiation in several modes having slightly different frequencies (wavelengths), often not in a single polarization. And although temporal coherence implies monochromaticity, there are even lasers that emit a broad spectrum of light, or emit different wavelengths of light simultaneously. There are some lasers which are not single spatial mode and consequently their light beams diverge more than required by the diffraction limit. However all such devices are classified as "lasers" based on their method of producing that light: stimulated emission. Lasers are employed in applications where light of the required spatial or temporal coherence could not be produced using simpler technologies.
A laser which produces light by itself is technically an optical oscillator rather than an optical amplifier as suggested by the acronym. It has been humorously noted that the acronym LOSER, for "light oscillation by stimulated emission of radiation," would have been more correct. With the widespread use of the original acronym as a common noun, actual optical amplifiers have come to be referred to as "laser amplifiers", notwithstanding the apparent redundancy in that designation.
The back-formed verb to lase is frequently used in the field, meaning "to produce laser light," especially in reference to the gain medium of a laser; when a laser is operating it is said to be "lasing." Further use of the words laser and maser in an extended sense, not referring to laser technology or devices, can be seen in usages such as astrophysical maser and atom laser.
Components of a typical laser:
1. Gain medium
2. Laser pumping energy
3. High reflector
4. Output coupler
5. Laser beam
1. Gain medium
2. Laser pumping energy
3. High reflector
4. Output coupler
5. Laser beam
For the gain medium to amplify light, it needs to be supplied with energy. This process is called pumping. The energy is typically supplied as an electrical current, or as light at a different wavelength. Pump light may be provided by a flash lamp or by another laser.
The most common type of laser uses feedback from an optical cavity—a pair of mirrors on either end of the gain medium. Light bounces back and forth between the mirrors, passing through the gain medium and being amplified each time. Typically one of the two mirrors, the output coupler, is partially transparent. Some of the light escapes through this mirror. Depending on the design of the cavity (whether the mirrors are flat or curved), the light coming out of the laser may spread out or form a narrow beam. This type of device is sometimes called a laser oscillator in analogy to electronic oscillators, in which an electronic amplifier receives electrical feedback that causes it to produce a signal.
Most practical lasers contain additional elements that affect properties of the emitted light such as the polarization, the wavelength, and the shape of the beam.
Stimulated emissionIn the classical view, the energy of an electron orbiting an atomic nucleus is larger for orbits further from the nucleus of an atom. However, quantum mechanical effects force electrons to take on discrete positions in orbitals. Thus, electrons are found in specific energy levels of an atom, two of which are shown below:
When an electron is excited from a lower to a higher energy level, it will not stay that way forever. An electron in an excited state may decay to a lower energy state which is not occupied, according to a particular time constant characterizing that transition. When such an electron decays without external influence, emitting a photon, that is called "spontaneous emission". The phase associated with the photon that is emitted is random. A material with many atoms in such an excited state may thus result in radiation which is very spectrally limited (centered around one wavelength of light), but the individual photons would have no common phase relationship and would emanate in random directions. This is the mechanism of fluorescence and thermal emission.
An external electromagnetic field at a frequency associated with a transition can affect the quantum mechanical state of the atom. As the electron in the atom makes a transition between two stationary states (neither of which shows a dipole field), it enters a transition state which does have a dipole field, and which acts like a small electric dipole, and this dipole oscillates at a characteristic frequency. In response to the external electric field at this frequency, the probability of the atom entering this transition state is greatly increased. Thus, the rate of transitions between two stationary states is enhanced beyond that due to spontaneous emission. Such a transition to the higher state is called absorption, and it destroys an incident photon (the photon's energy goes into powering the increased energy of the higher state). A transition from the higher to a lower energy state, however, produces an additional photon; this is the process of stimulated emission.
Gain medium and cavity
A helium-neon laser demonstration at the Kastler-Brossel Laboratory at Univ. Paris 6. The pink-orange glow running through the center of the tube is from the electric discharge which produces incoherent light, just as in a neon tube. This glowing plasma is excited and then acts as the gain medium through which the internal beam passes, as it is reflected between the two mirrors. Laser radiation output through the front mirror can be seen to produce a tiny (about 1mm in diameter) intense spot on the screen, to the right. Although it is a deep and pure red color, spots of laser light are so intense that cameras are typically overexposed and distort their color.
Spectrum of a helium neon laser illustrating its very high spectral purity (limited by the measuring apparatus). The .002 nm bandwidth of the lasing medium is well over 10,000 times narrower than the spectral width of a light-emitting diode with the bandwidth of a single longitudinal mode being much narrower still.
The gain medium is excited by an external source of energy into an excited state. In most lasers this medium consists of population of atoms which have been excited into such a state by means of an outside light source, or an electrical field which supplies energy for atoms to absorb and be transformed into their excited states.
The gain medium of a laser is normally a material of controlled purity, size, concentration, and shape, which amplifies the beam by the process of stimulated emission described above. This material can be of any state: gas, liquid, solid, or plasma. The gain medium absorbs pump energy, which raises some electrons into higher-energy ("excited") quantum states. Particles can interact with light by either absorbing or emitting photons. Emission can be spontaneous or stimulated. In the latter case, the photon is emitted in the same direction as the light that is passing by. When the number of particles in one excited state exceeds the number of particles in some lower-energy state, population inversion is achieved and the amount of stimulated emission due to light that passes through is larger than the amount of absorption. Hence, the light is amplified. By itself, this makes an optical amplifier. When an optical amplifier is placed inside a resonant optical cavity, one obtains a laser oscillator.
In a few situations it is possible to obtain lasing with only a single pass of EM radiation through the gain medium, and this produces a laser beam without any need for a resonant or reflective cavity (see for example nitrogen laser). Thus, reflection in a resonant cavity is usually required for a laser, but is not absolutely necessary.
The optical resonator is sometimes referred to as an "optical cavity", but this is a misnomer: lasers use open resonators as opposed to the literal cavity that would be employed at microwave frequencies in a maser. The resonator typically consists of two mirrors between which a coherent beam of light travels in both directions, reflecting back on itself so that an average photon will pass through the gain medium repeatedly before it is emitted from the output aperture or lost to diffraction or absorption. If the gain (amplification) in the medium is larger than the resonator losses, then the power of the recirculating light can rise exponentially. But each stimulated emission event returns an atom from its excited state to the ground state, reducing the gain of the medium. With increasing beam power the net gain (gain minus loss) reduces to unity and the gain medium is said to be saturated. In a continuous wave (CW) laser, the balance of pump power against gain saturation and cavity losses produces an equilibrium value of the laser power inside the cavity; this equilibrium determines the operating point of the laser. If the applied pump power is too small, the gain will never be sufficient to overcome the resonator losses, and laser light will not be produced. The minimum pump power needed to begin laser action is called the lasing threshold. The gain medium will amplify any photons passing through it, regardless of direction; but only the photons in a spatial mode supported by the resonator will pass more than once through the medium and receive substantial amplification.
The light emittedThe light generated by stimulated emission is very similar to the input signal in terms of wavelength, phase, and polarization. This gives laser light its characteristic coherence, and allows it to maintain the uniform polarization and often monochromaticity established by the optical cavity design.
The beam in the cavity and the output beam of the laser, when travelling in free space (or a homogenous medium) rather than waveguides (as in an optical fiber laser), can be approximated as a Gaussian beam in most lasers; such beams exhibit the minimum divergence for a given diameter. However some high power lasers may be multimode, with the transverse modes often approximated using Hermite-Gaussian or Laguerre-Gaussian functions. It has been shown that unstable laser resonators (not used in most lasers) produce fractal shaped beams. Near the beam "waist" (or focal region) it is highly collimated: the wavefronts are planar, normal to the direction of propagation, with no beam divergence at that point. However due to diffraction, that can only remain true well within the Rayleigh range. The beam of a single transverse mode (gaussian beam) laser eventually diverges at an angle which varies inversely with the beam diameter, as required by diffraction theory. Thus, the "pencil beam" directly generated by a common helium-neon laser would spread out to a size of perhaps 500 kilometers when shone on the Moon (from the distance of the earth). On the other hand the light from a semiconductor laser typically exits the tiny crystal with a large divergence: up to 50°. However even such a divergent beam can be transformed into a similarly collimated beam by means of a lens system, as is always included, for instance, in a laser pointer whose light originates from a laser diode. That is possible due to the light being of a single spatial mode. This unique property of laser light, spatial coherence, cannot be replicated using standard light sources (except by discarding most of the light) as can be appreciated by comparing the beam from a flashlight (torch) or spotlight to that of almost any laser.
Quantum vs. classical emission processes
The mechanism of producing radiation in a laser relies on stimulated emission, where energy is extracted from a transition in an atom or molecule. This is a quantum phenomenon discovered by Einstein who derived the relationship between the A coefficient describing spontaneous emission and the B coefficient which applies to absorption and stimulated emission. However in the case of the free electron laser, atomic energy levels are not involved; it appears that the operation of this rather exotic device can be explained without reference to quantum mechanics.
Continuous and pulsed modes of operation
A laser can be classified as operating in either continuous or pulsed mode, depending on whether the power output is essentially continuous over time or whether its output takes the form of pulses of light on one or another time scale. Of course even a laser whose output is normally continuous can be intentionally turned on and off at some rate in order to create pulses of light. When the modulation rate is on time scales much slower than the cavity lifetime and the time period over which energy can be stored in the lasing medium or pumping mechanism, then it is still classified as a "modulated" or "pulsed" continuous wave laser. Most laser diodes used in communication systems fall in that category.
Continuous wave operationSome applications of lasers depend on a beam whose output power is constant over time. Such a laser is known as continuous wave (CW). Many types of lasers can be made to operate in continuous wave mode to satisfy such an application. Many of these lasers actually lase in several longitudinal modes at the same time, and beats between the slightly different optical frequencies of those oscillations will in fact produce amplitude variations on time scales shorter than the round-trip time (the reciprocal of the frequency spacing between modes), typically a few nanoseconds or less. In most cases these lasers are still termed "continuous wave" as their output power is steady when averaged over any longer time periods, with the very high frequency power variations having little or no impact in the intended application. (However the term is not applied to mode-locked lasers, where the intention is to create very short pulses at the rate of the round-trip time).
For continuous wave operation it is required for the population inversion of the gain medium to be continually replenished by a steady pump source. In some lasing media this is impossible. In some other lasers it would require pumping the laser at a very high continuous power level which would be impractical or destroy the laser by producing excessive heat. Such lasers cannot be run in CW mode.
Pulsed operationPulsed operation of lasers refers to any laser not classified as continuous wave, so that the optical power appears in pulses of some duration at some repetition rate. This encompasses a wide range of technologies addressing a number of different motivations. Some lasers are pulsed simply because they cannot be run in continuous mode.
In other cases the application requires the production of pulses having as large an energy as possible. Since the pulse energy is equal to the average power divided by the repetition rate, this goal can sometimes be satisfied by lowering the rate of pulses so that more energy can be built up in between pulses. In laser ablation for example, a small volume of material at the surface of a work piece can be evaporated if it is heated in a very short time, whereas supplying the energy gradually would allow for the heat to be absorbed into the bulk of the piece, never attaining a sufficiently high temperature at a particular point.
Other applications rely on the peak pulse power (rather than the energy in the pulse), especially in order to obtain nonlinear optical effects. For a given pulse energy, this requires creating pulses of the shortest possible duration utilizing techniques such as Q-switching.
The optical bandwidth of a pulse cannot be narrower than the reciprocal of the pulse width. In the case of extremely short pulses, that implies lasing over a considerable bandwidth, quite contrary to the very narrow bandwidths typical of CW lasers. The lasing medium in some dye lasers and vibronic solid-state lasers produces optical gain over a wide bandwidth, making a laser possible which can thus generate pulses of light as short as a few femtoseconds (10−15 s).
In a Q-switched laser, the population inversion is allowed to build up by introducing loss inside the resonator which exceeds the gain of the medium; this can also be described as a reduction of the quality factor or 'Q' of the cavity. Then, after the pump energy stored in the laser medium has approached the maximum possible level, the introduced loss mechanism (often an electro- or acousto-optical element) is rapidly removed (or that occurs by itself in a passive device), allowing lasing to begin which rapidly obtains the stored energy in the gain medium. This results in a short pulse incorporating that energy, and thus a high peak power.
Mode-lockingA mode-locked laser is capable of emitting extremely short pulses on the order of tens of picoseconds down to less than 10 femtoseconds. These pulses will repeat at the round trip time, that is, the time that it takes light to complete one round trip between the mirrors comprising the resonator. Due to the Fourier limit (also known as energy-time uncertainty), a pulse of such short temporal length has a spectrum spread over a considerable bandwidth. Thus such a gain medium must have a gain bandwidth sufficiently broad to amplify those frequencies. An example of a suitable material is titanium-doped, artificially grown sapphire (Ti:sapphire) which has a very wide gain bandwidth and can thus produce pulses of only a few femtoseconds duration.
Such mode-locked lasers are a most versatile tool for researching processes occurring on extremely short time scales (known as femtosecond physics, femtosecond chemistry and ultrafast science), for maximizing the effect of nonlinearity in optical materials (e.g. in second-harmonic generation, parametric down-conversion, optical parametric oscillators and the like) due to the large peak power, and in ablation applications. Again, because of the extremely short pulse duration, such a laser will produce pulses which achieve an extremely high peak power.
Another method of achieving pulsed laser operation is to pump the laser material with a source that is itself pulsed, either through electronic charging in the case of flash lamps, or another laser which is already pulsed. Pulsed pumping was historically used with dye lasers where the inverted population lifetime of a dye molecule was so short that a high energy, fast pump was needed. The way to overcome this problem was to charge up large capacitors which are then switched to discharge through flashlamps, producing an intense flash. Pulsed pumping is also required for three-level lasers in which the lower energy level rapidly becomes highly populated preventing further lasing until those atoms relax to the ground state. These lasers, such as the excimer laser and the copper vapor laser, can never be operated in CW mode.
In 1917, Albert Einstein established the theoretical foundations for the laser and the maser in the paper Zur Quantentheorie der Strahlung (On the Quantum Theory of Radiation); via a re-derivation of Max Planck's law of radiation, conceptually based upon probability coefficients (Einstein coefficients) for the absorption, spontaneous emission, and stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation; in 1928, Rudolf W. Ladenburg confirmed the existences of the phenomena of stimulated emission and negative absorption; in 1939, Valentin A. Fabrikant predicted the use of stimulated emission to amplify "short" waves; in 1947, Willis E. Lamb and R. C. Retherford found apparent stimulated emission in hydrogen spectra and effected the first demonstration of stimulated emission; in 1950, Alfred Kastler (Nobel Prize for Physics 1966) proposed the method of optical pumping, experimentally confirmed, two years later, by Brossel, Kastler, and Winter.Maser
Townes reports that several eminent physicists – among them Niels Bohr, John von Neumann, Isidor Rabi, Polykarp Kusch, and Llewellyn Thomas — argued the maser violated Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and hence could not work. In 1964 Charles H. Townes, Nikolay Basov, and Aleksandr Prokhorov shared the Nobel Prize in Physics, "for fundamental work in the field of quantum electronics, which has led to the construction of oscillators and amplifiers based on the maser–laser principle".