Physics Factsheet Number 158

Uses of Lasers
LASER stands for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Lasers emit light in which all the photons are in step – like the soldiers at the changing of the guard ceremony in London, and quite unlike the crowd leaving a football match! This light is said to be coherent. Laser light is also monochromatic – a single frequency (or single colour if you like). First of all you need to know about the spontaneous emission of radiation before you can understand the stimulated emission of radiation. Electrons in the outer shells of atoms can be excited to higher empty energy levels by absorbing a photon of just the right energy. Normally they can only stay in this excited state for a very short time – less than a microsecond – before dropping back and emitting one or two photons in the process. This is spontaneous emission. It is usually incoherent. The sort of light you get from a filament lamp. But, there is another way! If a photon of exactly the right frequency passes an atom in an excited state it can induce the atom to emit a photon in phase (in step) with the first. One photon can create a copy of itself and these two produce copies of themselves and so on and so on, producing a kind of optical chain reaction. This is stimulated emission. It is usually coherent. The sort of light you get from a laser. To amplify the beam we need lots of excited atoms. They need to be “pumped” into excited states and then remain there for longer than normal. When there are lots of atoms in this excited state we describe it as a “population inversion”. The laser must have a material that has metastable states in which an electron can remain for milliseconds rather than microseconds. The first lasers were made using synthetic ruby. Other materials that have metastable states allowing population inversion are a mixture of helium and neon (He-Ne lasers) and semiconductors. More and more synthetic crystals are being produced to give lasers of a seemingly infinite range of frequencies.

Question 1:
Try to draw diagrams to show the difference between spontaneous and stimulated emission – there are some suggestions at the end of the sheet. Fig 2. shows the construction of a Laser.

Fig 2. Laser Structure (Nd:YAG solid state laser)
Nd: YAG crystal (laser medium) Highly reflective mirror partially reflective mirror

Flashlamp pump source

Fig 1. the difference between laser light and light from a filament bulb
LASER Coherent monochomatic laser light Optical resonator Nd: YAG is a synthetic crystal of yttrium aluminium garnet Incoherent polychromatic light from a hot filament

The pump source can vary and depends on the laser medium. It just needs to be a source of energy. Sometimes chemical reactions are used and sometimes explosions! If you can remember or have studied standing waves you should be able to see that the optical resonator can be used to set up a standing wave and so make the laser have an even smaller frequency range.

Exam Hint:– Candidates may be asked to explain what the term coherent means. In this context it means light where all the photons are in phase. The football crowd versus the marching soldiers is a good analogy to remember.


158. Uses of Lasers
Uses of lasers
Laser Scalpel
These are usually CO2 lasers which are used by surgeons instead of 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, although conventional methods are still used for larger ones. • Human tissue is a poor conductor of heat and so tissue near the beam is not affected.

Physics Factsheet
The purple coloured cells absorb the green light and are burnt away The surrounding skin, since it is a different colour absorbs very little of the beams energy and so is unaffected. The same method is used to remove tattoos Lasers can be used to remove unwanted hair. The hair absorbs the energy and the hair follicle is burnt away.

A Nd-YAG laser is used. Its power is adjusted to destroy the material in the cavity of the tooth whilst not harming the enamel. The procedure is painless since the pulse of energy delivered by the laser is so short that the nerves do not have time to respond!

Cleaning Arteries
Plaque is a tough fatty substance which lines the arteries and reduces blood flow. Conventional treatment for removal can involve opening the chest – a major operation. Using lasers an optical fibre is inserted in the blood vessel for a mini TV camera. A second fibre is then inserted to carry laser light that will burn away the plaque. The procedure is called laser angioplasty and does not involve major surgery. It does have some risks. • A misdirected beam could puncture the artery. • Debris from the burning could block smaller blood vessels.

Non Medical
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 the bars varies for a digit from 0 to 9. The laser scans across the barcode and the varying intensity of reflected light is picked up by a suitable detector which produces electrical signals which vary in the same way as the bar-code. In 1973 the Super Market Institute in the United States instituted the Universal Product Code (UPC) that assigned a unique bar-code to every product sold in all its members’ grocery stores. The UPS is now used on almost all manufactured goods as well!

Eye Surgery
The cornea at the front of the eye is transparent (obviously!) and so lets in laser light. This light can be used very accurately because it has very little divergence in the following ways: 1. The removal of extraneous and not needed blood vessels from the retina. The retina is a layer of light sensitive cells at the back of the eye which turns the light falling on it into electrical impulses 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 the eye and this can severely restrict vision. It used to be sewn back on! Now a laser beam can be used to “weld” the retina back 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 – can be relieved by a laser puncturing a small hole in the eye to allow the fluid to drain away. 4. Reshaping the cornea or LASIK (Laser Assisted In Situ Keraomileusis) can be used to reshape the cornea to fit the patient’s prescription for spectacles. This is very popular as people no longer have to wear their spectacles. It can, however cause unexpected damage and the changes are permanent whereas the way the eye works may change. A pulsed U.V. laser is usually used because it breaks covalent bonds in molecules leading to explosive evaporation from a tiny area of the surface of the eye. Pulsed lasers are called excimer lasers and because they deliver their energy in short bursts it reduced any cumulative heating effect in the tissues.

Laser Communication
Laser beams can be used to communicate directly through the atmosphere. A signal can be carried by the beam if it is modulated or pulsed. It requires direct line of sight and good atmospheric conditions which makes it too unreliable. Optical fibres are now used as light guides. New very clear glass makes the transmission very efficient and signals can be sent hundreds of kilometres without the need to amplify them. Semiconductor lasers are used which emit light in the near infrared, at wavelengths that are only very weakly absorbed by the glass. Reception of satellite TV can be disrupted by atmospheric conditions but these have no effect on a signal sent through a cable.

Information Storage
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 from the centre of the disc and contains a series of pits. The laser is focussed onto the disc and made to follow the track. As it passes over the step at the edge of a pit, light reflected from the top interferes with light reflected from the bottom. The pit is one quarter of the wavelength of the laser light deep. This gives a path difference of half a wavelength for the two reflected beams. Destructive interference occurs, reducing the intensity of the reflected signal. The signal falls onto a photodiode where the changing intensity is converted to a digital electronic signal. CDs use lasers with a typical wavelength of 780nm and DVDs use 600nm. The wavelength determines the maximum size of the pits due to diffraction which limits the area the laser beam can be focussed onto. Since blue light is diffracted less the development of the new “Blu-ray” system means even more information can be stored on these discs. A 12cm single layer “Blu-ray” disc can store 25GB of information.

Cosmetic Surgery
The removal of birthmarks or the so called “port wine stain” is effectively done with laser light. The birthmarks are reddish purple blotches on the skin. A green laser is used. Lasers are particularly good here because of the monochromatic nature of the light they produce.


158. Uses of Lasers
Question 2: You can estimate roughly how much information is stored if you assume each bit of information occupies an area equal to the square of the laser wavelength. Have a go but remember only about one quarter of these bits is used for retrievable information, the rest is used for codes and synchronisation information etc. Calculation of the estimate is at the end of this paper. • •

Physics Factsheet
Optical Tweezers: Lasers are used to hold and manipulate very small items. Nuclear Fusion: Energy like that from the Sun available on Earth. This is the dream of those working on fusion. Lasers are used to supply the energy to start this process which is still under development. Cutting and welding: High powered lasers are used to shape and join metal. Laser printers work in exactly the same way as photocopiers and the narrow beam enables the printing to be very clear

• •

A normal photograph records the intensity of light scattered from different parts of an object to create an image A hologram records both the intensity and the phase of the scattered light and so can create a 3D image. The basic set up for making a hologram is set out below.

Answers to questions
1. Suggested diagram to show the difference between spontaneous and stimulated emission:
Before After

Fig 3. Experment set up to make a hologram
Spontaneous emission object object beam Simulated emission laser reference beam hologram

2. Estimate of the amount of information stored on a CD. Area of one bit = (wavelength) 2 = (780nm)2 = 6×10-13 m2 Area of disc = ðr2 = ð × 62 = 1.1 × 10-2 m2 Useful area estimated at about 0.5 of disc area = 2.25 × 10-2 m2 Number of bits = = = = Useful Area/ Are of one bit 5.5 × 10-3 / 6 × 10-13 9.2 × 109 bits 9.2 GB

The half silvered mirror allows some of the beam to pass straight through - this is called the reference beam. The rest is reflected onto the object. The laser light scattered from the object onto the hologram is called the object beam. As both beams meet at the hologram they interfere and create a pattern. This pattern contains all the information to make a 3D image and, when magnified, it looks like a series of dots. To create this interference pattern the beams of light have to be coherent over quite large distances and lasers are ideal in this respect. When illuminated by a laser beam the dots act as a diffraction grating and a 3D image can be seen. Amazingly each part of the hologram contains the information for the whole image. This means the hologram can be cut into strips and each strip can produce the whole image, although as the strips or pieces get smaller the quality of the image rapidly deteriorates.

This is an estimate and a little on the high side as other material has to be included on the disc. It would be interesting to repeat the calculation for a Blu-ray disc.

Practice Questions
1. What properties of laser light make it suitable for use in communications? 2. Why is ultraviolet light able to break covalent bonds in matter but infra red laser light cannot? 3. What is the main advantage of using an excimer laser rather than a continuous laser during laser surgery on the cornea? 4. Use your knowledge of absorption and reflection of light to explain why a green laser is used to remove birthmarks.

Other uses
• Weaponry: The US has developed a chemically powered laser that is carried by a Boeing 747 and is to be used to shoot down missiles. Battlefield lasers carried by tanks are still under development. Cameras: Lasers are being used to make very high speed cameras. The quite famous picture of a bullet cutting through a playing card was taken by such a camera. It can take about 6 million frames per second.


Hints for answers to questions 1. List the properties of laser light and for each one consider its application to communications. Answer using bullet points. 2. Your answer should show you know how to calculate the energy if a photon of light. 3. Show you know what an excimer laser is and consider the heating effects of a laser beam. 4. What colour are birthmarks likely to be. What does this say about reflected and absorbed light.
Acknowledgements: This Physics Factsheet was researched and written by Mel Jays The Curriculum Press,Bank House, 105 King Street,Wellington, Shropshire, TF1 1NU

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