What is laser?
“Laser” is an acronym word, the five letter of this word comes from the initial letter of the phrase of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”.
What is Stimulated Emission？
In 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(figure 1):
An electron in an atom can absorb energy from light (photons) or heat (phonons) only if there is a transition between energy levels that matches the energy carried by the photon or phonon. For light, this means that any given transition will only absorb one particular wavelength of light. Photons with the correct wavelength can cause an electron to jump from the lower to the higher energy level. The photon is consumed in this process.
When an electron is excited from one state to that at a higher energy level with energy difference ΔE, it will not stay that way forever. Eventually, a photon will be spontaneously created from the vacuum having energy ΔE . Conserving energy, the electron transitions to a lower energy level which is not occupied, with transitions to different levels having different time constants. This process is called “spontaneous emission”. Spontaneous emission is a quantum-mechanical effect and a direct physical manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The emitted photon has random direction, but its wavelength matches the absorption wavelength of the transition. This is the mechanism of fluorescence and thermal emission.
A photon with the correct wavelength to be absorbed by a transition can also cause an electron to drop from the higher to the lower level, emitting a new photon. The emitted photon exactly matches the original photon in wavelength, phase, and direction. This process is called stimulated emission.
Lasers do not occur in nature. However, we have figured ways to artificially create this special type of light. Lasers produce a narrow beam of light in which all of the light waves have very similar wavelengths. The laser’s light waves travel together with their peaks all lined up, or in phase. This is why laser beams are very narrow, very bright, and can be focused into a very tiny spot. Because laser light stays focused and does not spread out much (like a flashlight would), laser beams can travel very long distances. They can also concentrate a lot of energy on a very small area.
So we already know that laser is powerful because laser beam can be focused to very tiny spots, achieving a very high irradiance (heat and temperature), and laser beam can stay narrow over great distances, with these characteristics, laser can be used in various applications, such as laser cutting, laser engraving, lithography, laser pointer and lidar.
Pulsed 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. 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, while 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.
How laser beam is generated?
Using laser cavity.
The laser cavity, or resonator, is at the heart of the system. A single transit through a collection of excited atoms or molecules is sufficient to initiate laser action in some high-gain devices such as excimer lasers; however, for most lasers, it is necessary to further enhance the gain with multiple passes through the laser medium. This is implemented along an optical axis defined by a set of cavity mirrors that produce feedback (Figure 2). The lasing medium (a crystal, a semiconductor, or gas enclosed in an appropriate confinement structure) is placed along the optical axis of the resonator. This unique axis with very high optical gain becomes also the direction of propagation of the laser beam. A somewhat different example of a uniquely long (and flexible!) gain axis is the fiber laser.
Some commonly used types and operating principles of laser
Following the invention of the HeNe gas laser, many other gas discharges have been found to amplify light coherently. Gas lasers using many different gases have been built and used for many purposes. Commercial carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers can emit many hundreds of watts in a single spatial mode which can be concentrated into a tiny spot. This emission is in the thermal infrared at 10.6 µm; such lasers are regularly used in industry for cutting and welding.
2. Semiconductor lasers/Diode Laser
Semiconductor lasers are diodes which are electrically pumped. Recombination of electrons and holes created by the applied current introduces optical gain. Reflection from the ends of the crystal form an optical resonator, although the resonator can be external to the semiconductor in some designs.Commercial laser diodes emit at wavelengths from 375 nm to 3500 nm. Low to medium power laser diodes are used in laser pointers, laser printers and CD/DVD players. Laser diodes are also frequently used to optically pump other lasers with high efficiency. The highest power industrial laser diodes, with power up to 20 kW, 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.
3. Fiber lasers
Solid-state lasers or laser amplifiers where the light is guided due to the total internal reflection in a single mode optical fiber are instead called fiber lasers. Guiding of light allows extremely long gain regions providing good cooling conditions; fibers have high surface area to volume ratio which allows efficient cooling. In addition, the fiber’s waveguiding properties tend to reduce thermal distortion of the beam. Erbium and ytterbium ions are common active species in 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.