Self-focusing is often observed when radiation generated by femtosecond lasers propagates through many solids, liquids and gases. Depending on the type of material and on the intensity of the radiation, several mechanisms produce variations in the refractive index which result in self-focusing: the main cases are Kerr-induced self-focusing and plasma self-focusing.
Kerr-induced self-focusing was first predicted in the 1960s and experimentally verified by studying the interaction of ruby lasers with glasses and liquids. Its origin lies in the optical Kerr effect, a non-linear process which arises in media exposed to intense electromagnetic radiation, and which produces a variation of the refractive index as described by the formula , where n0 and n2 are the linear and non-linear components of the refractive index, and I is the intensity of the radiation. Since n2 is positive in most materials, the refractive index becomes larger in the areas where the intensity is higher, usually at the centre of a beam, creating a focusing density profile which potentially leads to the collapse of a beam on itself. Self-focusing beams have been found to naturally evolve into a Townes profile regardless of their initial shape.
Self-focusing occurs if the radiation power is greater than the critical power
where λ is the radiation wavelength in vacuum and α is a constant which depends on the initial spatial distribution of the beam. Although there is no general analytical expression for α, its value has been derived numerically for many beam profiles. The lower limit is α ≈ 1.86225, which corresponds to Townes beams, whereas for a Gaussian beam α ≈ 1.8962. For air, n0 ≈ 1, n2 ≈ 4×10-23 m2/W for λ = 800 nm, and the critical power is Pcr ≈ 2.4 GW, corresponding to an energy of about 0.3 mJ for a pulse duration of 100 fs. For silica, n0 ≈ 1.453, n2 ≈ 2.4×10-20 m2/W, and the critical power is Pcr ≈ 1.6 MW.
Kerr induced self-focusing is crucial for many applications in laser physics, both as a key ingredient and as a limiting factor. For example, the technique of chirped pulse amplification was developed to overcome the nonlinearities and damage of optical components that self-focusing would produce in the amplification of femtosecond laser pulses. On the other hand, self-focusing is a major mechanism behind Kerr-lens modelocking, laser filamentation in transparent media, self-compression of ultrashort laser pulses, parametric generation, and many areas of laser-matter interaction in general.
The evaluation of the contribution and interplay of these processes is a complex task, but a reference threshold for plasma self-focusing is the relativistic critical power
Self-focusing in a plasma can balance the natural diffraction and channel a laser beam. Such effect is beneficial for many applications, since it helps increasing the length of the interaction between laser and medium. This is crucial, for example, in laser-driven particle acceleration, laser-fusion schemes and high harmonic generation.