The word laser stands for light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation.

THE FIRST LASER was built in 1960 by Theodore Maiman, a research scientist working for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation. His research paved the way for the development of a fantastic array of fascinating devices and very useful tools. Today, lasers are used in surveying, geophysical measurements, medical applications, electronic component manufacture, atomic fusion research, precise distance measurement and a host of other applications.

While the definition of LASER implies that lasers are amplifiers, they are generally configured as oscillators. The light radiation they produce is very 'pure' — occuring at a specific frequency (or frequencies) — and the beam is well collimated, that is, it diverges only a tiny amount rather than spreading as does the beam from a flashlight.

The unique properties of laser light make the laser a prime candidate for wide applications in technology and physical measurement. Many different types of laser have been developed but all employ the same basic principle of operation. All lasers have two fundamental components — a 'laser medium' and an energy source. The latter is used to excite the laser medium by a process called pumping — but I'll explain that further when I get into the physics behind the laser. First, let's look at the various 'breeds'.

Solid-State Lasers

The semiconductor laser comprises a gallium arsenide junction doped woth two different impurities. Construction of the junction is illustrated on the right, this is mounted on a heatsink header in the practical device, as shown on the left.

In laser physics, solid-state does not refer to semiconductor lasers but to a breed having a laser medium that is formed by doping a crystalline or glass material with an impurity material which produces the laser action when pumped. The most common of these is the ruby laser.

This type of laser consists of a central, cylindrical synthetic ruby crystal made from aluminium oxide as a base material and doped with chromium as the impurity. The crystal is mounted with mirrors at each end and is surrounded by a zenon-filled flash tube (or tubes). These xenon tubes provide optical pumping—a requirement of all solid-state lasers. One of the mirrors is 100% reflective while the other is very slightly transmissive so that a small portion of the laser light produced within the crystal is tapped off.

When the xenon flash tube is fired, laser action occurs within the ruby and laser light travels back and forth down the crystal, exciting further laser action and generating an intense pulse of light that passes through the slightly transmissive mirror.

One of the early problems with solid state lasers was to achieve a continuos output. In 1962 a solid state laser was built at Bell Telephone Laboratories. It consisted of the base material calcium tungstate, impregnated with neodymium. More recently, solid-state lasers have been built with continuous outputs of over 1000 watts.

Much experimenting has been done to optimise the method of pumping solid-state lasers. One means developed by RCA in 1962 used a 300 mm hemispherical mirror to focus sunlight onto a laser crystal of calcium fluride immersed in liquid helium. This laser produced a continuous output of 50 W, and was the first laser to use sunlight to power the devise directly.

Semiconductor Lasers

Semiconductor lasers are relatives of the common light emitting diode, or LED. The most common of these is the gallium arsenide laser, and consists of a semiconductor diode junction formed by gallium arsenide doped with two different impurities to form the p and n materials. When forward bias is applied, a large number of electrons and holes move towards the junction where they recombine and generate laser light.

Typical power outputs of gallium arsenide lasers are low, around one watt maximum, but efficiency is very high. furthermore they are easily modulated and for this reason should be of great importance in optical communications in the future.

Liquid Lasers

Most liquid lasers use an organic dye as the laser medium and are optically pumped. Their big advantage over other types lies in the fact that the frequency of light generated can be varied. For this reason they are called tunable lasers and are being used experimentally to 'steer' chemical reactions.

Often the optical pumping of liquid dye lasers is done by other lasers, such as the nitrogen gas laser which has an output in the ultraviolet spectrum.

Gas Lasers

Gas lasers are probably the most important single category. The carbon dioxide laser for example provides the highest continuous power outputs of any breed. Furthermore, its output is in the infra-red spectrum which makes it useful commercially for cutting applications.

The most common gas laser is the helium-neon type. It provides a continuous output of red laser light that has been used commercially in distance measuring equipment as well as a "straight line". It is also used extensively in laboratories for general purpose diffraction, for general optical experiments and in interferometers. It has evolved into an inexpensive and reliable device.

The HeNe laser consists of a mixture of the gases helium and neon, placed in a sealed tube at low pressure. Originally, HeNe lasers were excited by high frequency ac current (around 28 MHz) but these days high voltage dc is used. As in most other lasers, mirrors are used at each end of the tube, so that most of the light produced is trapped within the laser itself, maintaining a special condition needed for laser action called population inversion.

In order to understand the laser phenomenon in any greater depth it is necessary to look at some of the physics of atomic structure.

Quantum physics

When studying the universe we apparently find two fundamentally different types of quantities, those quantities with a continuum of values and those with only a discrete or 'quantised' number of values. For instance, the speed of an object can range from zero up to the speed of light and seems to consist of an infinite number of possibilities. Similarly, the set of all numbers in infinite. These are examples of continuous quantities, but not all quantities are continuous. A dice can only show 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 on its upper face and this is a quantised quantity.

Similarly, standing waves on a violin string, resonances of a quartz crystal, or harmonics of a square wave are all quantised - they occur only at fixed frequencies.

Quantum physics is based on the discovery that a large number of quantities involved with molecular, atomic and sub-atomic physics are quantised. Many of these quantities. were assumed to be continuous in "classical physics" and it has only been through the recognition of their quantised nature that modern physics has been able to achieve a Reasonably workable model of atomic structure.

Most light sources today consist of either a solid (like a tungsten filament) or a gas (as in the fluorescent tube) through which an electric current is passed. This current heats the filament or gas to incandescence and light is emitted. Using a spectrometer, it is possible to measure the relative intensities of the different light wavelengths emitted. If the temperature of the heated objects is varied the relative intensities change. All of these results can be plotted to make a family of curves on a graph like Figure 1. Each curve represents a different temperature and the shape of these curves is related to the particular material that is being heated.

The number of variables in the case of a heated solid makes any mathematical analysis unnecessarily complicated so scientists sought an idealised heated solid. They called this a cavity radiator, and the light emitted proved to be largely independent of the material used to make the cavity radiator. Furthermore, the light emitted was found to vary in a fairly simple way as the temperature was varied.



Practical cavity radiators simply consist of a hollow container with a small hole drilled in one side (see Figure 2). If the cavity radiator is heated, more light is emitted from the hole than from the outside walls. The light emitted from the hole is called cavity radiation (sometimes called black body radiation) and was of intense interest in the later part of the nineteenth century.

The explanation of the related intensities of the various wavelengths emitted in cavity radiation was one of the outstanding problems for classical physics. Several attempts had been made but all of these had only fitted the experimental data partially.

In 1900, a German physicist, Max Planck, derived a formula that fitted cavity radiation perfectly. He was forced to the conclusion that the atoms inside the cavity radiator were acting like tiny electromagnetic oscillators. They could emit light into the cavity and absorb light energy from it, but only at certain characteristic frequencies.

Planck was forced to make the radical assumption that an oscillator cannot have a continuum of different energies. These energies were quantised so that the only possible values were given by the equation.

where 'E' is the energy
'n' is an integral number, i.e: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.
'h' is a constant (now called Planck's constant)
and 1/' is the frequency of the oscillator

The oscillators could not radiate light continuously but only in jumps, or 'quanta', and only when the atom jumped from a high energy state to a lower one. If the atom jumped just one energy state then 'n' in the above equation becomes equal to one, and the equation becomes:


This is known as Planck's equation and is one of the more important equations in modern physics.

This was the start of quantum physics. A physical event could only be explained by assuming that atoms radiate integral amounts of energy.

Planck's ideas were reinforced several years later by Albert Einstein who applied the concepts of quantisation to another area of physics that was to revolutionise our understanding of the nature of light. Up to this time, light was thought of as an electromagnetic wave. Even though Planck had quantised the energies of atomic oscillators in the cavity walls, he still regarded the radiation within the cavity as a wave. This wave picture of light had been enormously successful in explaining light phenomena up to that time, but Einstein was to point out its inadequacy in some circumstances.

The Photo-electric Effect

This effect was another experiment which had not been satisfactorily explained in terms of classical physics. Figure 3 shows a circuit diagram for the apparatus used in the photo-electric experiment. If light is shone onto a clean metal surface some electrons are liberated from the metal. If the metal is laced in an evacuated glass cylinder, the liberated electrons ( called photoelectrons) can be made to constitute a current flow, which will register on the meter. If the other electrode is now made negative with respect to the first, by connecting the two to a power supply, the negative electrode will tend to repel the photo-electrons and decrease current flow. When the voltage is great enough, the photo-electrons can be brought to a stop. If the voltage is increased even further the photoelectrons are turned back toward the anode. The voltage applied to the plates is called the retarding potential and can be used to measure the energy of the photo-electrons.

When the experiment is carried out it is found that photo-electrons are emitted almost instantaneously when the light is turned on. If the wavelength of the incident light and the retarding potential are kept constant, then the current flowing is found to be proportional to the intensity of the light beam. Furthermore, for any particular metal the energy of the photo-electrons is found to be independent of light intensity, but varies with frequency of the light.

These results were difficult, if not impossible, to explain on the basis of the wave theory of light. Since light was thought of as a continuous wave, the energy absorbed on the photoelectric surface should have been proportional to the light intensity. If the intensity was decreased enough it should have taken a certain amount of time for sufficient energy to be absorbed by the electrons before any emission could start. So the wave theory of light could not explain why photo-electric emission starts instantaneously, even if the intensity of light is decreased.

Similarly, the fact that the energy of the photo-electrons varies with the frequency of the light and is in no way affected by the intensity of the light, cannot be explained by the classical theory.

A quantum approach

In 1905, Albert Einstein applied quantum theory to the problem of photo-electric emission and obtained a theory that explained all the observed characteristics. He postulated that light was not a continuous wave but consisted of small quanta of light called photons. Each photon has an energy, 'E', that is related to the wavelength of the light by Planck's equation.

Any single photon can interact with a single electron so the energy imparted to this electron will depend only on the energy of the photon. i.e: its frequency. Increasing the intensity of the light beam increases the number of photons and will only increase the number of photo-electrons emitted. Emission will start instantaneously, as all the energy needed for a photo-electron to escape the surface of the metal is contained in any single photon.

The photo-electric effect occurs because the energy imparted to the photoelectron by the photon has exceeded that needed by the electron to break bonds that normally bind it to the metal surface; but it is not the only example of electron-photon interactions. In the photo-electronic effect the electron struck is a bound electron, inside an atom. The photon disappears and the electron is dislodged. However if the electron is a free electron it will recoil and cause the generation of a second photon of lower energy. This is called the Compton effect.

Another set of electron-photon interactions are called pair production and pair annihilation. If a photon is given enough energy it can convert into an electron and a positron when passing another heavy particle. A positron is an antimatter electron. It has all the properties of a normal electron except that it has a positive instead of a negative charge. This process is called pair production. Pair annihilation occurs when a positron and an electorn interact. Both are annihilated and two photons are generated.

All these electron-photon interactions are manifestations of a single process, the exchange of photons, called virtual photons, between charged particles. Indeed, it is this effect that gives rise to the attractive and repulsive forces between charged objects. The study of photo-electron interactions is called quantum electrodynamics and is one of the major fields of research in modern physics.

Spontaneous and stimulated emission

When a photon interacts with a bound electron it may not have sufficient energy to overcome the binding forces. In this case the photon is absorbed by the electron, as would happen in the photo-electric effect, but the electron is not liberated from the atom. Instead, it jumps up to a higher energy level or orbit. Quantum physics has determined that electorns cannot have a continuum of different energy levels, only energy levels that are integral multiples of a fixed amount. When the electrons of an atom are in their minimum energy states the atom is said to be in its ground state. If an atom is in its ground state, say with energy E , it can be forced to a higher energy (level, say E2, by absorption of a photon.
If the photons absorbed have energy E = hv
then the increase in electron energy will
be exactly hv, i.e: E2
be exactly hv, i.e: E2—E=hv.

After a certain amount of time, approximately 10-8 seconds, the electron will drop back down to its lower energy level, automatically emitting a photon, again with energy hv.

The excited atom was initially at rest and has no preferred direction in space. As a result the photon can be radiated in any direction while the atom recoils in the opposite direction. This process is called spontaneous emission. If a group of atoms are excited in this way they will generate photons in all directions randomly, as excited atoms return to their ground states; see Figure 4.

If an electron at energy level E2 interacts with another photon of energy hv, the electron is forced to return to its ground state with the emission of a second photon. This process is called stimulated emission and is the basis of laser action.

The most important point about stimulated emission is that both photons leave the atom with the same phase and direction as the incoming photon, see Figure 5. The two photons are said to be cohernet. It is essential that the two photons be coherent. If they were even slightly out of phase cancellation would occure between them, violating the law of conservation of energy. If a group of atoms is excited in this way the initial beam of photons will be augmented by additional photons, so the beam is amplified.

Population inversion

If a material is in thermal equilibrium at a temperature T, the distribution of atoms in a lower energy state to those in a higher energy state is normally accented heavily toward the lower energy state. If N1 is the density of atoms in the lower state and N2ithe density of atoms in the more excited state, then the ratio of N2 to N1 is given by the equation


where "T" is the temperature of the material in Kelvin
and "k" is Boltzmann's constant.
If the material is at 103K, then:

So Only one atom in 10-5 is in the excited state

The condition in which the number of excited atoms exceeds the number of atoms at the ground state is a non- equilibrium condition called population inversion, but it is precisely this condition that is needed to maintain laser action. If the vast majority of atoms are in the non-excited state, only spontaneous absorption followed by spontaneous emission, can occur. If, on the other hand, a population inversion can be maintained then stimulated emission will occur leading to photon multiplication. Pumping is simply the process used to maintain the population inversion.

A closer look at the HeNe laser

In the helium-neon laser, population inversion is maintained by generating a glow discharge in a low pressure mixture of helium and neon gases. Figure 6 is a simplified energy diagram for a HeNe laser.

The helium energy levels at 20.61 and 19.82 electron volts (eV) are called metastable levels. Once at a metastable energy level an atom cannot move to a lower state by the emission of a photon. It can only be de-excited by some other process. A transition from a metastable level to a lower level is called a forbidden transition and the fact that these transitions are not permitted is predicted by quantum theory. So, once an atom has been excited to one of these energy levels it will stay at that energy level for a relatively long period of time, approximately 10-3 seconds, hence large metastable populations can exist.

Two of the energy levels of neon closely coincide with those of the metastable levels of helium, these are at 20.66 and 19.78 eV. An energy transfer will occur between helium metastable atoms and neon ground state atoms, exciting neon atoms to the 20.66 and 19.78 eV energy levels. As a result, very large populations of excited neon atoms are produced. The population of neon atoms in these energy levels vastly exceeds that achievable from direct excitation by the electric discharge. Below these two highly populated energy levels there are two lower neon levels that are only populated by direct excitation and consequently have much smaller populations, and this is a population inversion.

Whenever an excited neon atom jumps to one of these lower energy levels a photon is emitted, and the frequency of the photon will depend on the difference in energy between the two levels. The three possible transitions are shown in Figure 6 and are: 20.66

eV to 20.3 eV (3391 nm in the far infrared), 19.78 eV to 18.7 eV (1152 nm in the infrared), 20.66 eV to 18.7 eV (633 nm in the visible spectrum).

Figure 7 shows the basic elements of a helium neon laser. The tube contains roughly 90% helium and 10% neon gas at a pressure of three torr.

Basic construction of a gas laser. A glass cylinder, containing a gas at a low pressure, has two mirrors placed at either end — one is totally reflective, the other slightly transmissive. When current is passed through the gas, population inversions of the atoms occur and laser action results.

When a current is passed through the tube a variety of collision processes take place. Among these are the collisions that lead to population inversion. As neon and helium atoms jump between higher and lower energy levels, photons are emitted randomly in all directions. However, since there are large populations of neon atoms at the 20.66 and 19.78 eV energy levels, any photon with one of the above three wavelengths has a high probability of causing stimulated emission of a second, identical, photon. Those photons travelling parallel to the axis of tube are reflected back and forth between the two end mirrors, and each pass through the tube gives rise to further identical photons by the process of stimulated emission. A limit is finally reached when the rate of production of neon atoms at the higher energy levels equals the rate of stimulated emission.

If one of the mirrors is made a few percent transparent, (i.e: slightly transmissive) a portion of the coherent radiation can escape from the tube and this is the laser output. The word laser stands for light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation, but the helium neon laser is not really a amplfier, its more of an oscillator generating coherant electromagnetic readiation at three distinct frequencies.

A practical HeNe laser tube

A practical HeNe laser tube is shown in the diagram. It features a number of improvements over the basic system. The cathode consists of a large metal cylinder instead of a single wire electrode. This decreases the current density around the cathode and increases the rate of excitation of helium atoms to metastable states. Plane mirrors are very difficult to align accurately and a common system used to overcome this difficulty is the use of slightly concave mirrors, separated by their radius of curvature.

Another configuration employed, and the one used in the tube for the project, is referred to as a "hemispherical" configuration. This uses a totally reflective, flat-backed mirror and a concave front mirror with a radius of curvature of around 1.4 times the tube length. The mirrors used are designed specifically for laser use and constitute a significant portion of the cost of the device. The mirrors are used as bandpass filters to optimise the particular output required. The tube specified for the project uses a system like this to enhance tube operation at the 633 nm emission wavelength and to suppress operation at the other two dominant wavelengths. The front mirror is approximately 0.9% transmissive at 633 nm but considerably less transmissive at the two longer wavelengths. The rear mirror is almost totally reflective at 633 nm, but more transmissive at longer wavelengths. HeNe tubes often employ

a "Brewster angle polarizing filter': This is a glass disc placed in the light beam at an angle determined by its refractive index. Light of the correct polarization is transmitted through the filter. All other polarizations suffer high reflections and are attenuated. This does not cause any loss in the light output of the laser since any one polarization will be amplified by stimulated emission to produce a full output intensity coherent laser beam with a single polarization.

Revised 2013 by Larry Gentleman