158. Uses of Lasers
Uses of lasers
These are usually CO
lasers which are used by surgeons insteadof conventional scalpels.A laser scalpel has several advantages:
It will give a consistent depth of cut if the beam is consistent.
Its hot beam cauterises (seals off) small blood vessels, althoughconventional methods are still used for larger ones.
Human tissue is a poor conductor of heat and so tissue near thebeam is not affected.
Plaque is a tough fatty substance which lines the arteries andreduces blood flow. Conventional treatment for removal can involveopening the chest – a major operation. Using lasers an optical fibreis inserted in the blood vessel for a mini TV camera. A second fibreis then inserted to carry laser light that will burn away the plaque.The procedure is called laser angioplasty and does not involvemajor surgery.It does have some risks.
A misdirected beam could puncture the artery.
Debris from the burning could block smaller blood vessels.
The cornea at the front of the eye is transparent (obviously!) andso lets in laser light.This light can be used very accurately because it has very littledivergence in the following ways:1.The removal of extraneous and not needed blood vessels fromthe retina. The retina is a layer of light sensitive cells at the back of the eye which turns the light falling on it into electricalimpulses that it sends to the brain. The blood vessels block off light and the laser is used to burn them away.2.Sometimes the retina becomes detached from the back of theeye and this can severely restrict vision. It used to be sewnback on! Now a laser beam can be used to “weld” the retinaback in place. Amazingly Gordon Gould, one of the inventors of the laser, had this treatment later in his life.3.The symptoms of glaucoma – a build up of fluid in the eye – canbe relieved by a laser puncturing a small hole in the eye to allowthe fluid to drain away.4.Reshaping the cornea or LASIK (Laser Assisted In SituKeraomileusis) can be used to reshape the cornea to fit thepatient’s prescription for spectacles. This is very popular aspeople no longer have to wear their spectacles. It can, howevercause unexpected damage and the changes are permanentwhereas the way the eye works may change. A pulsed U.V. laseris usually used because it breaks covalent bonds in moleculesleading to explosive evaporation from a tiny area of the surfaceof the eye. Pulsed lasers are called excimer lasers and becausethey deliver their energy in short bursts it reduced any cumulativeheating effect in the tissues.
The removal of birthmarks or the so called “port wine stain” iseffectively done with laser light. The birthmarks are reddish purpleblotches on the skin. A green laser is used. Lasers are particularlygood here because of the monochromatic nature of the light theyproduce.The purple coloured cells absorb the green light and are burnt awayThe surrounding skin, since it is a different colour absorbs verylittle of the beams energy and so is unaffected. The same method isused to remove tattoosLasers can be used to remove unwanted hair. The hair absorbs theenergy and the hair follicle is burnt away.
A Nd-YAG laser is used. Its power is adjusted to destroy the materialin the cavity of the tooth whilst not harming the enamel. Theprocedure is painless since the pulse of energy delivered by thelaser is so short that the nerves do not have time to respond!
One of the first mass markets for lasers was as bar-code readers.The bar-code is a series of parallel black bars. The thickness of thebars varies for a digit from 0 to 9. The laser scans across the bar-code and the varying intensity of reflected light is picked up by asuitable detector which produces electrical signals which vary inthe same way as the bar-code. In 1973 the Super Market Institute inthe United States instituted the Universal Product Code (UPC) thatassigned a unique bar-code to every product sold in all its members’grocery stores. The UPS is now used on almost all manufacturedgoods as well!
Laser beams can be used to communicate directly through theatmosphere. A signal can be carried by the beam if it is modulated orpulsed. It requires direct line of sight and good atmosphericconditions which makes it too unreliable. Optical fibres are nowused as light guides. New very clear glass makes the transmissionvery efficient and signals can be sent hundreds of kilometres withoutthe need to amplify them. Semiconductor lasers are used which emitlight in the near infrared, at wavelengths that are only very weaklyabsorbed by the glass. Reception of satellite TV can be disruptedby atmospheric conditions but these have no effect on a signalsent through a cable.
The most common use for lasers currently is to read CDs and DVDs.In both cases information is stored on a track that spirals out fromthe centre of the disc and contains a series of pits. The laser isfocussed onto the disc and made to follow the track.As it passes over the step at the edge of a pit, light reflected fromthe top interferes with light reflected from the bottom. The pit is onequarter of the wavelength of the laser light deep. This gives a pathdifference of half a wavelength for the two reflected beams.Destructive interference occurs, reducing the intensity of thereflected signal. The signal falls onto a photodiode where thechanging intensity is converted to a digital electronic signal.CDs use lasers with a typical wavelength of 780nm and DVDs use600nm. The wavelength determines the maximum size of the pitsdue to diffraction which limits the area the laser beam can be focussedonto. Since blue light is diffracted less the development of the new“Blu-ray” system means even more information can be stored onthese discs. A 12cm single layer “Blu-ray” disc can store 25GB of information.