A laser 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" 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 first working laser was demonstrated on 16 May 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories. Since then, lasers have become a multi-billion dollar industry. By far the largest single application of lasers is in optical storage devices such as compact disc and DVD players, in which a semiconductor laser less than a millimeter wide scans the surface of the disc. The second-largest application is fiber-optic communication. Other common applications of lasers are bar code readers, laser printers and laser pointers.
In manufacturing, lasers are used for cutting, bending, and welding metal and other materials, and for "marking"—producing visible patterns such as letters by changing the properties of a material or by inscribing its surface. In science, lasers are used for many applications. One of the more common is laser spectroscopy, which typically takes advantage of the laser's well-defined wavelength or the possibility of generating very short pulses of light. Lasers are used by the military for range-finding, target designation, and illumination. Lasers have also begun to be used as directed-energy weapons. Lasers are used in medicine for surgery, diagnostics, and therapeutic applications.
A laser consists of a gain medium inside a highly reflective optical cavity, as well as a means to supply energy to the gain medium. The gain medium is a material with properties that allow it to amplify light by stimulated emission. In its simplest form, a cavity consists of two mirrors arranged such that light bounces back and forth, each time passing through the gain medium. Typically one of the two mirrors, the output coupler, is partially transparent. The output laser beam is emitted through this mirror.
Light of a specific wavelength that passes through the gain medium is amplified (increases in power); the surrounding mirrors ensure that most of the light makes many passes through the gain medium, being amplified repeatedly. Part of the light that is between the mirrors (that is, within the cavity) passes through the partially transparent mirror and escapes as a beam of light.
The process of supplying the energy required for the amplification is called pumping. The energy is typically supplied as an electrical current or as light at a different wavelength. Such light may be provided by a flash lamp or perhaps another laser. Most practical lasers contain additional elements that affect properties such as the wavelength of the emitted light and the shape of the beam.
The word laser originated as an acronym for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. The word light in this phrase is used in the broader sense, referring to electromagnetic radiation of any frequency, not just that in the visible spectrum. Hence there are infrared lasers, ultraviolet lasers, X-ray lasers, etc. Because the microwave equivalent of the laser, the maser, was developed first, devices that emit microwave and radio frequencies are usually called masers. In early literature, particularly from researchers at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the laser was often called the optical maser. This usage has since become uncommon, and as of 1998 even Bell Labs uses the term laser.
The back-formed verb to lase means "to produce laser light" or "to apply laser light to". The word "laser" is sometimes used to describe other non-light technologies. For example, a source of atoms in a coherent state is called an "atom laser".
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 monochromaticity 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.
Some types of lasers, such as dye lasers and vibronic 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).
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 favourable 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.
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.
In 1928, Rudolph W. Landenburg confirmed the existence 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 made the first demonstration of stimulated emission.
In 1950, Alfred Kastler (Nobel Prize for Physics 1966) proposed the method of optical pumping, which was experimentally confirmed by Brossel, Kastler and Winter two years later.
Townes reports that he encountered opposition from a number of eminent colleagues who thought the maser was theoretically impossible -- including Niels Bohr, John von Neumann, Isidor Rabi, Polykarp Kusch, and Llewellyn H. Thomas
Townes, Basov, and Prokhorov shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964 "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".
At the same time Gordon Gould, a graduate student at Columbia University, was working on a doctoral thesis on the energy levels of excited thallium. Gould and Townes met and had conversations on the general subject of radiation emission. Afterwards Gould made notes about his ideas for a "laser" in November 1957, including suggesting using an open resonator, which became an important ingredient of future lasers.
In 1958, Prokhorov independently proposed using an open resonator, the first published appearance of this idea. Schawlow and Townes also settled on an open resonator design, apparently unaware of both the published work of Prokhorov and the unpublished work of Gould.
The term "laser" was first introduced to the public in Gould's 1959 conference paper "The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". Gould intended "-aser" to be a suffix, to be used with an appropriate prefix for the spectrum of light emitted by the device (x-rays: xaser, ultraviolet: uvaser, etc.). None of the other terms became popular, although "raser" was used for a short time to describe radio-frequency emitting devices.
Gould's notes included possible applications for a laser, such as spectrometry, interferometry, radar, and nuclear fusion. He continued working on his idea and filed a patent application in April 1959. The U.S. Patent Office denied his application and awarded a patent to Bell Labs in 1960. This sparked a legal battle that ran 28 years, with scientific prestige and much money at stake. Gould won his first minor patent in 1977, but it was not until 1987 that he could claim his first significant patent victory when a Federal judge ordered the government to issue patents to him for the optically-pumped laser and the gas discharge laser.
The first working laser was made by Theodore H. Maiman in 1960 at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, beating several research teams including those of Townes at Columbia University, Arthur Schawlow at Bell Labs, and Gould at a company called TRG (Technical Research Group). Maiman used a solid-state flashlamp-pumped synthetic ruby crystal to produce red laser light at 694 nanometres wavelength. Maiman's laser, however, was only capable of pulsed operation due to its three-level pumping scheme.
Later in 1960 the Iranian physicist Ali Javan, working with William R. Bennett and Donald Herriot, made the first gas laser using helium and neon. Javan later received the Albert Einstein Award in 1993.
The concept of the semiconductor laser diode was proposed by Basov and Javan. The first laser diode was demonstrated by Robert N. Hall in 1962. Hall's device was made of gallium arsenide and emitted at 850 nm in the near-infrared region of the spectrum. The first semiconductor laser with visible emission was demonstrated later the same year by Nick Holonyak, Jr. As with the first gas lasers, these early semiconductor lasers could be used only in pulsed operation, and indeed only when cooled to liquid nitrogen temperatures (77 K).
In 1970, Zhores Alferov in the Soviet Union and Izuo Hayashi and Morton Panish of Bell Telephone Laboratories independently developed laser diodes continuously operating at room temperature, using the heterojunction structure.
Since the early period of laser history, laser research has produced a variety of improved and specialized laser types, optimized for different performance goals, including:
and this research continues to this day.
Lasing without maintaining the medium excited into a population inversion, was discovered in 1992 in sodium gas and again in 1995 in rubidium gas by various international teams. This was accomplished by using an external maser to induce "optical transparency" in the medium by introducing and destructively interfering the ground electron transitions between two paths, so that the likelihood for the ground electrons to absorb any energy has been cancelled.
In 1985 at the University of Rochester's Laboratory for Laser Energetics a breakthrough in creating ultrashort-pulse, very high-intensity (terawatts) laser pulses became available using a technique called chirped pulse amplification, or CPA, discovered by Gérard Mourou. These high intensity pulses can produce filament propagation in the atmosphere.
The helium-neon laser (HeNe) emits at a variety of wavelengths and units operating at 633 nm are very common in education because of its low cost.
Argon-ion lasers emit light in the range 351-528.7 nm. Depending on the optics and the laser tube a different number of lines is usable but the most commonly used lines are 458 nm, 488 nm and 514.5 nm.
A nitrogen transverse electrical discharge in gas at atmospheric pressure (TEA) laser is an inexpensive gas laser producing UV Light at 337.1 nm.
Metal ion lasers are gas lasers that generate deep ultraviolet wavelengths. Helium-silver (HeAg) 224 nm and neon-copper (NeCu) 248 nm are two examples. These lasers have particularly narrow oscillation linewidths of less than 3 GHz (0.5 picometers), making them candidates for use in fluorescence suppressed Raman spectroscopy.
Solid-state laser materials are commonly made by "doping" a crystalline solid host with ions that provide the required energy states. For example, the first working laser was a ruby laser, made from ruby (chromium-doped corundum). The population inversion is actually maintained in the "dopant", such as chromium or neodymium. Formally, the class of solid-state lasers includes also fiber laser, as the active medium (fiber) is in the solid state. Practically, in the scientific literature, solid-state laser usually means a laser with bulk active medium, while wave-guide lasers are caller fiber lasers.
"Semiconductor lasers" are also solid-state lasers, but in the customary laser terminology, "solid-state laser" excludes semiconductor lasers, which have their own name.
Neodymium is a common "dopant" in various solid-state laser crystals, including yttrium orthovanadate (Nd:YVO4), yttrium lithium fluoride and yttrium aluminium garnet (). All these lasers can produce high powers in the infrared spectrum at 1064 nm. They are used for cutting, welding and marking of metals and other materials, and also in spectroscopy and for pumping dye lasers. These lasers are also commonly frequency doubled, tripled or quadrupled to produce 532 nm (green, visible), 355 nm (UV) and 266 nm (UV) light when those wavelengths are needed.
Ytterbium, holmium, thulium, and erbium are other common "dopants" in solid-state lasers. Ytterbium is used in crystals such as Yb:YAG, Yb:KGW, Yb:KYW, Yb:SYS, Yb:BOYS, Yb:CaF2, typically operating around 1020-1050 nm. They are potentially very efficient and high powered due to a small quantum defect. Extremely high powers in ultrashort pulses can be achieved with Yb:YAG. Holmium-doped YAG crystals emit at 2097 nm and form an efficient laser operating at infrared wavelengths strongly absorbed by water-bearing tissues. The Ho-YAG is usually operated in a pulsed mode, and passed through optical fiber surgical devices to resurface joints, remove rot from teeth, vaporize cancers, and pulverize kidney and gall stones.
Thermal limitations in solid-state lasers arise from unconverted pump power that manifests itself as heat and phonon energy. This heat, when coupled with a high thermo-optic coefficient (dn/dT) can give rise to thermal lensing as well as reduced quantum efficiency. These types of issues can be overcome by another novel diode-pumped solid-state laser, the diode-pumped thin disk laser. The thermal limitations in this laser type are mitigated by utilizing a laser medium geometry in which the thickness is much smaller than the diameter of the pump beam. This allows for a more even thermal gradient in the material. Thin disk lasers have been shown to produce up to kilowatt levels of power.
Quite often, the fiber laser is designed as a double-clad fiber. This type of fiber consists of a fiber core, an inner cladding and an outer cladding. The index of the three concentric layers is chosen so that the fiber core acts as a single-mode fiber for the laser emission while the outer cladding acts as a highly multimode core for the pump laser. This lets the pump propagate a large amount of power into and through the active inner core region, while still having a high numerical aperture (NA) to have easy launching conditions.
Pump light can be used more efficiently by creating a fiber disk laser, or a stack of such lasers.
Fiber lasers have a fundamental limit in that the intensity of the light in the fiber cannot be so high that optical nonlinearities induced by the local electric field strength can become dominant and prevent laser operation and/or lead to the material destruction of the fiber. This effect is called photodarkening. In bulk laser materials, the cooling is not so efficient, and it is difficult to separate the effects of photodarkening from the thermal effects, but the experiments in fibers show that the photodarkening can be attributed to the formation of long-living color centers.
Commercial laser diodes emit at wavelengths from 375 nm to 1800 nm, and wavelengths of over 3 µm have been demonstrated. Low power laser diodes are used in laser printers and CD/DVD players. More powerful laser diodes are frequently used to optically pump other lasers with high efficiency. The highest power industrial laser diodes, with power up to 10 kW (70dBm), are used in industry for cutting and welding. External-cavity semiconductor lasers have a semiconductor active medium in a larger cavity. These devices can generate high power outputs with good beam quality, wavelength-tunable narrow-linewidth radiation, or ultrashort laser pulses.
Vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) are semiconductor lasers whose emission direction is perpendicular to the surface of the wafer. VCSEL devices typically have a more circular output beam than conventional laser diodes, and potentially could be much cheaper to manufacture. As of 2005, only 850 nm VCSELs are widely available, with 1300 nm VCSELs beginning to be commercialized, and 1550 nm devices an area of research. VECSELs are external-cavity VCSELs. Quantum cascade lasers are semiconductor lasers that have an active transition between energy sub-bands of an electron in a structure containing several quantum wells.
The development of a silicon laser is important in the field of optical computing, since it means that if silicon, the chief ingredient of computer chips, were able to produce lasers, it would allow the light to be manipulated like electrons are in normal integrated circuits. Thus, photons would replace electrons in the circuits, which dramatically increases the speed of the computer. Unfortunately, silicon is a difficult lasing material to deal with, since it has certain properties which block lasing. However, recently teams have produced silicon lasers through methods such as fabricating the lasing material from silicon and other semiconductor materials, such as indium(III) phosphide or gallium(III) arsenide, materials which allow coherent light to be produced from silicon. These are called hybrid silicon laser. Another type is a Raman laser, which takes advantage of Raman scattering to produce a laser from materials such as silicon.
Space-based X-ray lasers pumped by a nuclear explosion have also been proposed as antimissile weapons. Such devices would be one-shot weapons.
When lasers were invented in 1960, they were called "a solution looking for a problem". Since then, they have become ubiquitous, finding utility in thousands of highly varied applications in every section of modern society, including consumer electronics, information technology, science, medicine, industry, law enforcement, entertainment, and the military.
The first application of lasers visible in the daily lives of the general population was the supermarket barcode scanner, introduced in 1974. The laserdisc player, introduced in 1978, was the first successful consumer product to include a laser, but the compact disc player was the first laser-equipped device to become truly common in consumers' homes, beginning in 1982, followed shortly by laser printers.
Some of the other applications include:
In 2004, excluding diode lasers, approximately 131,000 lasers were sold world-wide, with a value of US$2.19 billion. In the same year, approximately 733 million diode lasers, valued at $3.20 billion, were sold.
The continuous or average power required for some uses:
Examples of pulsed systems with high peak power:
Hobbyists also have been taking surplus pulsed lasers from retired military applications and modifying them for pulsed holography. Pulsed Ruby and Pulsed YAG lasers have been used.
Even the first laser was recognized as being potentially dangerous. Theodore Maiman characterized the first laser as having a power of one "_Laser_power"; 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:
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 micrometres 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.
Though laser beams are perhaps most famously employed as weapon systems in science fiction, the first scientific demonstration of laser technology was in 1960. The general idea of laser-beam weaponry is to hit a target object with a short burst/beam of light typically burning the surface layer and the interior of the target.
The power needed to project a high-powered laser beam of this kind surpasses current mobile power technology, thus such weapons are not anticipated to be produced in any near time.
Lasers of all but the lowest powers can potentially be used as incapacitating weapons, through their ability to produce temporary or permanent vision loss in varying degrees when aimed at the eyes. The degree, character, and duration of vision impairment caused by eye exposure to laser light varies with the power of the laser, the wavelength(s), the collimation of the beam, the exact orientation of the beam, and the duration of exposure. Lasers of even a fraction of a watt in power can produce immediate, permanent vision loss under certain conditions, making such lasers potential non-lethal but incapacitating weapons. The extreme handicap that laser-induced blindness represents makes the use of lasers even as non-lethal weapons morally controversial.
In the field of aviation, the hazards of exposure to ground-based lasers deliberately aimed at pilots have grown to the extent that aviation authorities have special procedures to deal with such hazards.