A L.A.S.E.R. is a device that emits light (electromagnetic radiation) through a process called stimulated emission. The term laser is an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Laser light is usually spatially coherent, which means that the light either is emitted in a narrow, low-divergence beam, or can be converted into one with the help of optical components such as lenses. Typically, lasers are thought of as emitting light with a narrow wavelength spectrum ("monochromatic" or coherent light). This is not true of all lasers, however: some emit light with a broad spectrum, while others emit light at multiple distinct wavelengths simultaneously. The coherence of typical laser emission is distinctive. Most other light sources emit incoherent light, which has a phase that varies randomly with time and position.
The gain medium of a laser is a material of controlled purity, size, concentration, and shape, which amplifies the beam by the process of stimulated emission. It 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 both by absorbing photons or by 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.
The 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 monochromatic established by the optical cavity design.
The optical cavity, a type of cavity resonator, contains a coherent beam of light between reflective surfaces so that the light passes through the gain medium more than once before it is emitted from the output aperture or lost to diffraction or absorption. As light circulates through the cavity, passing through the gain medium, if the gain (amplification) in the medium is stronger than the resonator losses, the power of the circulating light can rise exponentially. But each stimulated emission event returns a particle from its excited state to the ground state, reducing the capacity of the gain medium for further amplification. When this effect becomes strong, the gain is said to be saturated. 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 chosen pump power is too small, the gain is not sufficient to overcome the resonator losses, and the laser will emit only very small light powers. 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 aligned with the cavity manage to pass more than once through the medium and so have significant amplification.
The beam in the cavity and the output beam of the laser, if they occur in free space rather than waveguides (as in an optical fiber laser), are, at best, low order Gaussian beams. However this is rarely the case with powerful lasers. If the beam is not a low-order Gaussian shape, the transverse modes of the beam can be described as a superposition of Hermite-Gaussian or Laguerre-Gaussian beams (for stable-cavity lasers). Unstable laser resonators on the other hand, have been shown to produce fractal shaped beams. The beam may be highly collimated, that is being parallel without diverging. However, a perfectly collimated beam cannot be created, due to diffraction. The beam remains collimated over a distance which varies with the square of the beam diameter, and eventually diverges at an angle which varies inversely with the beam diameter. Thus, a beam generated by a small laboratory laser such as a helium-neon laser spreads to about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) diameter if shone from the Earth to the Moon. By comparison, the output of a typical semiconductor laser, due to its small diameter, diverges almost as soon as it leaves the aperture, at an angle of anything up to 50°. However, such a divergent beam can be transformed into a collimated beam by means of a lens. In contrast, the light from non-laser light sources cannot be collimated by optics as well.
Although the laser phenomenon was discovered with the help of quantum physics, it is not essentially more quantum mechanical than other light sources. The operation of a free electron laser can be explained without reference to quantum mechanics.
Modes of operation
The output of a laser may be a continuous constant-amplitude output (known as CW or continuous wave); or pulsed, by using the techniques of Q-switching, modelocking, or gain-switching. In pulsed operation, much higher peak powers can be achieved.
Some types of lasers, such as dye lasers and vibration solid-state lasers can produce light over a broad range of wavelengths; this property makes them suitable for generating extremely short pulses of light, on the order of a few femtoseconds (10-15 s).
Continuous wave operation
In the continuous wave (CW) mode of operation, the output of a laser is relatively constant with respect to time. The population inversion required for lasing is continually maintained by a steady pump source.
In the pulsed mode of operation, the output of a laser varies with respect to time, typically taking the form of alternating 'on' and 'off' periods. In many applications one aims to deposit as much energy as possible at a given place in as short time as possible. In laser ablation for example, a small volume of material at the surface of a work piece might evaporate if it gets the energy required to heat it up far enough in very short time. If, however, the same energy is spread over a longer time, the heat may have time to disperse into the bulk of the piece, and less material evaporates. There are a number of methods to achieve this.
In a Q-switched laser, the population inversion (usually produced in the same way as CW operation) is allowed to build up by making the cavity conditions (the 'Q') unfavorable for lasing. Then, when the pump energy stored in the laser medium is at the desired level, the 'Q' is adjusted (electro- or acousto-optically) to favorable conditions, releasing the pulse. This results in high peak powers as the average power of the laser (were it running in CW mode) is packed into a shorter time frame.
A modelocked laser emits extremely short pulses on the order of tens of picoseconds down to less than 10 femtoseconds. These pulses are typically separated by the time that a pulse takes to complete one round trip in the resonator cavity. Due to the Fourier limit (also known as energy-time uncertainty), a pulse of such short temporal length has a spectrum which contains a wide range of wavelengths. Because of this, the laser medium must have a broad enough gain profile to amplify them all. An example of a suitable material is titanium-doped, artificially grown sapphire (Ti:sapphire).
The modelocked laser is a most versatile tool for researching processes happening at extremely fast time scales also 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), and in ablation applications. Again, because of the short timescales involved, these lasers can achieve extremely high powers.
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 flashlamps, 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 a broad spectrum pump flash. Pulsed pumping is also required for lasers which disrupt the gain medium so much during the laser process that lasing has to cease for a short period. These lasers, such as the excimer laser and the copper vapor laser, can never be operated in CW mode.
Even the first laser was recognized as being potentially dangerous. Theodore Maiman characterized the first laser as having a power of one "Gillette" as it could burn through one Gillette razor blade. Today, it is accepted that even low-power lasers with only a few milliwatts of output power can be hazardous to human eyesight, when the beam from such a laser hits the eye directly or after reflection from a shiny surface. At wavelengths which the cornea and the lens can focus well, the coherence and low divergence of laser light means that it can be focused by the eye into an extremely small spot on the retina, resulting in localized burning and permanent damage in seconds or even less time.
Lasers are usually labeled with a safety class number, which identifies how dangerous the laser is:
- Class I/1 is inherently safe, usually because the light is contained in an enclosure, for example in cd players.
- Class II/2 is safe during normal use; the blink reflex of the eye will prevent damage. Usually up to 1 mW power, for example laser pointers.
- Class IIIa/3R lasers are usually up to 5 mW and involve a small risk of eye damage within the time of the blink reflex. Staring into such a beam for several seconds is likely to cause (minor) eye damage.
- Class IIIb/3B can cause immediate severe eye damage upon exposure. Usually lasers up to 500 mW, such as those in cd and dvd burners.
- Class IV/4 lasers can burn skin, and in some cases, even scattered light can cause eye and/or skin damage. Many industrial and scientific lasers are in this class.
The indicated powers are for visible-light, continuous-wave lasers. For pulsed lasers and invisible wavelengths, other power limits apply. People working with class 3B and class 4 lasers can protect their eyes with safety goggles which are designed to absorb light of a particular wavelength.
Certain infrared lasers with wavelengths beyond about 1.4 micrometers are often referred to as being "eye-safe". This is because the intrinsic molecular vibrations of water molecules very strongly absorb light in this part of the spectrum, and thus a laser beam at these wavelengths is attenuated so completely as it passes through the eye's cornea that no light remains to be focused by the lens onto the retina. The label "eye-safe" can be misleading, however, as it only applies to relatively low power continuous wave beams and any high power or Q-switched laser at these wavelengths can burn the cornea, causing severe eye damage.