The term maser was coined in the 1950s to describe a device that used stimulated emission to amplify microwaves. When a device using similar principles amplified visible light in 1960, it was termed an optical maser. However, that term is now obsolete, having been replaced with laser. This term is always printed in lowercase letters, even though it is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
The invented verb to lase is derived from laser and is used to describe the process of generating laser light, with the past participle lased and present participle lasing some- times being used.
What It Does
A laser generally emits a thin beam of intense light, often in the visible spectrum, and usually in such a narrow range of wavelengths, it can be considered monochromatic. The light is also coherent, as explained below.
Light output from a laser has three important at- tributes:
• Intensity. A high-powered laser can deliver energy to a very small, well-defined area, where it may be capable of burning, cutting, welding, or drilling. Large lasers may also be used as weapons, or for power transmission.
• Collimation. This term describes a beam of light that has parallel boundaries, and there- fore does not disperse significantly when passing through a transparent medium such as air, glass, or a vacuum. A laser beam can have such excellent collimation, it can be used in precision measuring devices, and has been transmitted over very long distances, even from the Earth to the Moon, where astronauts placed reflectors during the Apollo missions.
• Controllability. Because the beam can be generated with eletrical power, its intensity can be modulated rapidly with relatively simple electronic circuits, enabling applications such as burning microscopic pits in the plastic of a CD-ROM or DVD.
Laser diodes are now more common than all other forms of lasers. They are found in pointers, printers, barcode readers, scanners, computer mice, fiber-optic communications, surveying tools, weapon sights, and directional lighting sources. They are also used as a light source to trigger more powerful lasers.
No generic symbol is used for a laser, but a laser diode is often represented with the same symbol that is used for a light-emitting diode. See Figure 22-2 in the entry for LED indicators.
Initially, an input of energy provides stimulation for some atoms in the gain medium. This is known as pumping the laser. The energy input can come from a powerful external light source, or from an electric current.
Stimulation of an atom raises the quantum energy level of an electron associated with the atom. When the electron collapses back to its former energy state, it releases a photon. This is known as spontaneous emission.
If one of the photons encounters an atom that has just been excited by the external energy source, the atom may release two photons. This is known as stimulated emission. Beyond a thresh- old level, the number of released photons can increase at an exponential rate.
If two parallel reflectors are mounted at opposite ends of the gain medium, they form a resonant cavity. Light bounces to and fro between the reflectors, while pumping and stimulated emission amplifies the light during each pass. If one of the mirrors is partially transparent, some of the light will escape through it in the form of a laser beam. The partially transparent mirror is known as the output coupler.
A laser diode contains an LED. (See “How It Works” on page 207 for a more detailed description of the function of an LED.) The p-n junction of the diode functions as the resonant cavity of the la- ser. Forward bias injects charges into the junction, causing spontaneous emission of photons. The photons, in turn, cause other electrons and electron-holes to combine, creating more photons in the process of stimulated emission. When this process crosses a threshold level, current passing through the diode causes it to lase.
The original patent for a laser diode was filed by Robert N. Hall of General Electric in 1962, and the diagram in Figure 21-1 is derived from the draw- ing in that patent, with color added for clarity.
Figure 21-1. The original design for a laser diode, from the patent filed in 1962.
In the figure, the junction shown as a yellow layer forms the resonant cavity in which lasing occurs. It measures only 0.1 microns thick (the diagram is not drawn to scale). Its vertical front side is highly polished, and is parallel to the back side, which is also highly polished. Thus, photons reflect between these two vertical sides. The slan- ted face visible in the figure, and the other slanted face opposite it, are oriented and roughened to minimize internal reflection between them.
Figure 21-2 shows a simplified cross-section of the laser diode.
Figure 21-2. Simplified cross-section of a laser diode.
Figure 21-3 shows a cross-section of the diode installed in a component sold as a laser. It in- cludes a photodiode to sense the intensity of light emerging through the polished rear end of the laser diode. External electronics are necessa- ry to control the intensity of the laser, using feed- back from the photodiode.
The component has three pins (shown pale yel- low in the figure), one connecting to the photo- diode, another connecting to the p-type layer of the laser diode, and the third being common to the n-type layer of the laser diode and the ground side of the photodiode.
In Figure 21-5, a laser is shown with a surface- mount chip adjacent to the solder pad connect- ing the blue wire. The presence of this chip, with only two wires, indicates that this component has its own control electronics and requires only a DC power supply.
Figure 21-3. A laser diode is typically mounted with a photodiode to provide feedback for a driver circuit, to control the current consumed by the laser.
The emission of coherent light by a laser is often explained by suggesting that wavelengths are synchronized with each other. In fact, there are two forms of coherence that can be described approximately as spatial coherence and wave- length coherence.
If an observer looks up at a cloudy sky, the eye will perceive light radiating chaotically from many distances and directions. Thus, the light is not spatially coherent. The light also consists of many wavelengths, and thus it is not wavelength-coherent.
The filament of an incandescent lamp is a much smaller source of light, but still large enough to generate a profusion of light emissions that are spatially incoherent. The light also includes many different wavelengths.
Suppose a barrier containing a very tiny hole is placed in front of the incandescent lamp. If the aperture is very small, an observer on the far side will see the light as a point source. Consequently, the light that emerges from it is now spatially coherent, and will not have chaotically overlapping waves. If the light then passes through a filter, its wavelengths also will become coherent. This is suggested in Figure 21-6 where the light source is an incandescent lamp emitting a wide range of wavelengths.
Figure 21-6. An incandescent lamp, at the bottom of the figure, emits incoherent light at many wavelengths (exaggerated here for clarity). When it passes through a pin- hole, it becomes spatially coherent. When it then passes through a colored filter, it becomes wavelength coherent.
The small amount of light emerging through a pinhole is inevitably much dimmer than light from the original source. A laser, however, amplifies its light output, as well as tending to be- have like a point source. The “hall of mirrors” effect of the parallel reflective surfaces in the resonant cavity causes much of the light to shuttle to and fro over a long distance before it emerges through the output coupler. Any light that deviates significantly from the axis of the laser will not escape at all, because the deviations will be cumulative with each reflection. Thus, the light from a laser appears to come from a point source at an almost infinite distance.
Because of the particular geometry of a light- emitting diode, the output from a laser diode is not naturally collimated, and tends to spread by an angle of around 20 degrees. A lens must be used to focus the beam.
The output power of a laser is measured in watts (or milliwatts). This should not be confused with the power consumed by the device.
In the United States, any device sold as a laser pointer is limited to a power output of 5mW.
The gain medium is primarily carbon dioxide but also contains helium and nitrogen, with some- times hydrogen, water vapor, and/or xenon. The laser is electrically pumped, causing a gas dis- charge. Nitrogen molecules are excited by the discharge and transfer their energy to the CO2 molecules when colliding with them. Helium helps to return the nitrogen to base energy state and transfer heat from the gas mixture.
CO2 lasers are infrared, and are commonly used in surgical procedures, including ophthalmology. Higher powered versions have industrial applications in cutting a very wide range of materials.
Light is pumped via diodes and amplified in purpose-built glass fibers. The resulting beam has a very small diameter, providing a greater intensity than CO2 lasers. It can be used for metal engraving and annealing, and also for working with plastics.
Like fiber lasers, they are pumped by diodes. These compact lasers are available in a very wide variety of wavelengths, covering the whole visible spectrum, infrared, and ultraviolet. They find applications in holography, biomedicine, interferometry, semiconductor inspection, and material processing.
However, laser diodes packaged similarly to laser pointers can be mail-ordered with an output of 200mW or more. The legal status of these lasers may be affected by regulations that vary state by state.
In a CD-RW drive that is capable of burning a disc, the diode may have a power of around 30mW. A laser mounted in a CD-ROM assembly is shown in Figure 21-7.
Figure 21-7. An assembly incorporating a laser for reading a CD-ROM.
Lasers have such a narrow range of wavelengths, they are given specific output values in nanometers. A laser in an optical mouse may have a wavelength of 848nm; in a CD drive, 785nm; in a
bar-code reader, 670nm; in a modern laser pointer, 640nm; in a Bluray disc player, 405nm.
While powerful lasers in a laboratory setting have exotic applications, a typical low-power laser di- ode has become so affordable (costing less than $5 in some instances, at the time of writing) it can be considered merely as a useful source of a clearly defined light beam, ideal for detecting the position of a movable mechanical component or the presence of an intruder.
Generic light-emitting diodes are made with a view angle (i.e., a dispersion angle) as low as 3 degrees, but the beam is soft-edged compared with the precise boundary of a laser beam, and cannot be used reliably in conjunction with sensors at a distance of more than a few inches.
Laser diodes that are sold as components may or may not have current-limiting control electronics built in. Applying power to the laser diode directly will result in thermal runaway and rapid destruction of the component. Drivers for laser diodes are available separately as small, preassembled circuits on breakout boards.
For many applications, it may be simpler and cheaper to buy a laser diode as an off-the-shelf product. A laser pointer provides an easy way to get a source of laser light, and if it would normally be driven by two 1.5V batteries, it can be adapted to run off a 5V supply by using a 3.3V voltage regulator.
• Astronomy. A high-powered laser beam is visible even in clear air as a result of interaction with air molecules. This is known as Rayleigh scattering. The phenomenon allows one person to point out a star (or planet) for another person. Because celestial objects are
so far away, parallax error is not detectable by two people viewing the beam while standing next to each other. A laser pointer may also be mounted on a telescope to assist in aiming the telescope at an object of inter- est. This is easier than searching for an object through an eyepiece.
• Target acquisition. Lasers are commonly used on firearms to assist in targeting, especially in low-light conditions. Infrared lasers can be used in conjunction with infrared viewing goggles.
• Survival. A small laser can be included in emergency supplies to signal search teams. A laser can also be used to repel predatory animals.
What Can Go Wrong
Risk of Injury
Lasers are potentially dangerous. Those that have an infrared or ultraviolet output are more dangerous than those with a visible beam, as there is no visual warning that the laser is active. A laser is capable of scarring the retina, although controversy exists regarding the power output that should be considered a high risk.
If a project incorporates a laser, it should be switched off while building or testing the device. It may be advisable to wear protective glasses that block laser light even when an experimenter feels confident that a laser is switched off.
Active lasers should never be pointed at people, vehicles, animals (other than dangerous animals), or oneself.
Inadequate Heat Sink
Lasers may be designed and rated for intermit- tent use. The burner assembly for a CD-ROM drive, for instance, will be rated for pulsed power, not continuous power. Read datasheets carefully, and provide an adequate heat sink.
Both the light-emitting diode and the photo- diode in a three-pin laser package can be damaged by incorrect polarity of applied power. Pin functions should be checked carefully against datasheets.