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Article

Engineering Multi-Section Quantum Cascade Lasers
for Broadband Tuning
Steven Slivken and Manijeh Razeghi *
Center for Quantum Devices, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department,
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA; sliv@eecs.northwestern.edu
* Correspondence: razeghi@eecs.northwestern.edu; Tel.: +1-847-491-7251
Received: 1 June 2016; Accepted: 17 June 2016; Published: 27 June 2016

Abstract: In an effort to overcome current limitations to electrical tuning of quantum cascade lasers,
a strategy is proposed which combines heterogeneous quantum cascade laser gain engineering with
sampled grating architectures. This approach seeks to not only widen the accessible spectral range
for an individual emitter, but also compensate for functional non-uniformity of reflectivity and gain
lineshapes. A trial laser with a dual wavelength core is presented which exhibits electroluminescence
over a 750 cm´1 range and discrete single mode laser emission over a 700 cm´1 range. Electrical
tuning over 180 cm´1 is demonstrated with a simple sampled grating design. A path forward to even
wider tuning is also described using more sophisticated gain and grating design principles.
Keywords: monolithic tunable laser; quantum cascade laser; sampled grating

1. Introduction
One of the primary appeals of the quantum cascade laser (QCL) is its ability to access a wide
portion of the infrared spectrum (3 < λ < 11 µm) in continuous operation at room temperature [1,2].
High output power and a small form factor are also key characteristics. This makes the QCL a very
important, even enabling, technology for many applications which would benefit from portability,
such as spectroscopy. While initial development concentrated on fixed frequency (or mildly tunable)
applications, recent years have seen a resurgence in QCL development based on wide wavelength
coverage from a single device.
The first step to achieving this is to demonstrate a laser medium with an extremely broad gain
bandwidth. With a QCL, a single, homogeneously broadened emitter can exhibit several hundred
inverse centimeters of bandwidth, especially at shorter wavelengths. This is one advantage of an
intersubband emitter over a mid-infrared interband laser like the interband cascade laser (ICL). The
second advantage of the QCL relies on the intersubband gain lineshape, which has very little absorption
adjacent to the primary gain peak (when properly designed). This allows multiple wavelength emitters
to be combined within the same laser waveguide (a so-called heterogeneous QCL) without significant
cross-absorption. All emitters can emit simultaneously, or a single wavelength can be selected with the
proper feedback.
While a single homogeneous QCL might have a gain bandwidth of 200 cm´1 (24.8 meV), a
properly designed heterogeneous QCL can exhibit significantly broader bandwidth. Our group has
recently demonstrated a room temperature long wavelength infrared (LWIR) DFB laser array capable
of emission wavelengths from 5.9–10.9 µm [3]. This represents a bandwidth of 760 cm´1 (94 meV). The
waveguide core of this wafer was composed of six different emitting stages. This covers a significant
portion of mid-infrared spectral region and will be part of a new generation of tunable infrared sources.
Another, as yet unpublished, initial effort was made to generate an ultra-broadband gain region
used eight emitting stages. This wafer showed electroluminescence that covered the entire 4–12 µm

Photonics 2016, 3, 41; doi:10.3390/photonics3030041

www.mdpi.com/journal/photonics

another approach is under investigation. the resultant coupled cavity can exhibit single mode output. 3 < λ < 5 µm) shortly after the first SGDFB QCL. This can lead to very wide envelopes. Adjusting current or temperature in one of the sections causes a shift in the overlap. When the comb spacing of the two sections is different. 3. Combining Broadband Gain and Electrical Tuning The next evolutionary step in tunable QCL development is the combination of broadband gain media with Vernier-type feedback. and was demonstrated for the QCL in 2012 [8]. This was utilized recently as an on-chip pump source for room temperature. Other interesting configurations are also being investigated. like the superstructure grating (SSG). Precise optical alignment is also required to maintain smooth operation. shifts in the output wavelength. multiple demonstrations of this technology have been made. was demonstrated on a similar broadband wafer that can emit at almost any wavelength within the 6–10 µm wavelength range. an array of SGDFB lasers has even a wider range. this technique relies on multiple optical components beyond the QCL gain medium [4]. leading to mid-infrared lasers with published pulsed and continuous wave tuning ranges of 243 cm´1 and 120 cm´1 from individual lasers. have significantly increased the tuning speed using MEMs or acousto-optic elements. 41 2 of 6 wavelength region (>1600 cm´1 ). When the grating reflectivity envelope is properly aligned to the gain bandwidth of the laser. with a full width at half maximum (FWHM) up to 500 cm´1 for Ng = 4. A standard sampled grating has a reflectivity envelope width (of the central lobe) that is inversely proportional to the number of gratings periods (Ng ) within one sampling period. Single mode power output has also been increased significantly. with predicted tuning limited only by the gain bandwidth of the laser itself [11]. and showed a pulsed wavelength coverage of 351 cm´1 at room temperature in pulsed mode [12]. While one SGDFB has a broad range. and it has been applied to heterogeneous QCLs in the past. which leads to non-uniform threshold gain for a . this is very successful.10]. Overall. One of the more common methods of doing this relies on external cavity feedback via a diffraction grating. the laser is composed of at least two sections with comb-like reflectivity behavior. Though this is impressive. single mode. however. the combs do not overlap perfectly. Additionally. one of the most successful for the QCL at present is the sampled grating distributed feedback (SGDFB) laser. wavelength-selective feedback.25 W) tunable peak (continuous wave) output power demonstrated from single devices [10]. respectively [9. it has a somewhat complex control scheme. an on-chip beam combiner was developed which emits all light out of a single aperture. tunable continuous wave THz emission [13]. The first demonstration builds on the 6-core laser design from [3]. combining the SGDFB with an additional distributed Bragg reflector section has been used to generate a tunable dual wavelength laser. the tuning is traditionally mechanical in nature. Some recent demonstrations.Photonics 2016. which has a limited tuning speed. If spectral coverage is preferred over continuous tuning. controllable. 2. This architecture is similar to that developed for electrical tuning of telecom lasers [7]. Also. although some additional optimization is necessary to flatten the gain distribution. the reflectivity is peaked. Though there are many geometries that can exhibit the Vernier effect. The laser was incorporated into a system capable of rapid scanning over the whole tuning range [14]. An 8-laser SGDFB array. improvement in tuning was demonstrated compared to traditional single mode DFB QCLs. Finally. The more robust alternative that many groups are now developing is tuning via the Vernier effect. However. Even wider tuning is possible with more advanced grating designs. with over 5 W (1. which can lead to a large. In this arrangement. This was demonstrated in the mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR. but the other restrictions still apply [5. each with a shifted central wavelength. The consequence is the need for a longer cavity (more sampling periods) in order to build up sufficient grating reflectivity for single mode operation.6]. Also. and only certain wavelength have strong feedback in both sections. The second step to achieving broadband emission from a laser is to provide a means of adjustable. Over an order of magnitude. Since then.

The waveguide core starts with 22 periods were also made to a few other layers just to adjust alignment of the energy levels. 3. The MWIR dualcore core QCLhas has been designed the proposed methodology. Both pieces then had the upper cladding and cap layers depositedpiece had diffraction Uniform DFB DFBgratings gratings had diffraction gratingsfabricated fabricatedby bye-beam e-beamlithography lithography and and plasma etching. A MWIR dual core QCL has been designed to test the proposed methodology. emitter) QCL. whose modal gain can be engineered to partially for the varying grating reflectivity. Initially. These wavelengths are appropriate monolayers) werethis alsolaser madedesign to a few other layers just to adjust of the energy(1–2 levels. cascade laser (QCL) to a broadband dual core SGDFB.Photonics 2016.9 μmdemonstrated laser demonstrated by our group.2 µm) These wavelengths appropriate considering active region from 5 (λ = 5. Initially. emission.2. whose modal gain can be engineered totocompensate partially forfor thethe varying grating The progression from a simplefrom SGDFB to this dual core approach isapproach shown in Figure 1. However. The primary change tothe shift theefficiency wavelength is adjustment of the 1st quantum well inprimary theThe in laser the laser core are based high = the 4. 3 of 63 of 6 standard QCL.two which is also of theThe waveguide. This asymmetry is due the of the longer wavelength and the shorter emitter. (a) (b) Figure 2. epitaxy the cap layer.grating distributed feedback (SGDFB) quantum Figure 1. Left (a) (b) axis: Threshold current density of DFB lasers according to targeted emission wavenumber. These altered designs monolayers) were also made to a few other layers just to adjust alignment of the energy levels. the . Pointsat at thetop topleft leftrepresent representDFB DFBlasers laserswhich whichexhibit exhibitonly onlymultimode multimode emission. These of the longer wavelength emitter and 18 periods of the shorter wavelength emitter. (b) (b) Right Right axis:Normalized Normalizedelectroluminescence electroluminescence and and Fabry Fabry Perot Perot laser laser emission axis: emission from from the the dual dual core core wafer. 41 3 of 6 Photonics 2016.2 μm) to 2 (λ = 4. Figure 1. is due the without presence ofupper a 450 cladding nm thickand GaInAs grating layer. design is typically 400–500 cm−1. wavelength emitter and 18emitter periods of theperiods shorterofwavelength emitter. two pieces were set The first epitaxy without the upper cladding and cap layer.2 μm) to 2 (λ = 4. Schematic of original sampled cascade laser (QCL) to a broadband dual core SGDFB. which is also part of the waveguide. waveguide core with is due the presence of a 450 nm thick GaInAs grating layer. this can be efficiently compensated for by using a dual core (dual emitter) QCL. This asymmetry have notdesigns yet been optimized for efficiency. are Minor adjustments (1–2 region from 5 (λ = 5. The progression aa simple SGDFB this dualcore core approach is shown in Figure reflectivity. pieces werepart set aside. The emitters used the coredesign are based onused theonhigh efficiency λ = 4. which is also part of the waveguide.9λµm laser by our group. Minor adjustments monolayers) considering the of gain FWHM of thisislaser design is typically 400–500 cm−1. Figure (a)Schematic Schematic layer structure of dual core core mid-wavelength mid-wavelength infrared Figure 2.9 μm laser demonstrated byThe our group. Uniform by MOCVD. wafer.Both Both pieces pieces then then had had the the upper upper cladding and cap by byMOCVD. (b) Right axis: Normalized electroluminescence and Fabry Perot laser emission from the dual core wafer. Initially. The progression from simple SGDFB totothis dual is shown in 1.2 μm) monolayers. 1. 3. (a) Schematic layer structure of dual core mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR) QCL. The emitters used MWIR QCL been designed tototest the proposed methodology.2 µm) to 2 (λ = 4. Figure reflectivity. Schematic evolution of original sampled grating distributed feedback (SGDFB) quantum cascade laser (QCL)evolution to a broadband dual core SGDFB. Points at the top left represent DFB lasers whichof exhibit only multimode emission. Left Left axis: Threshold current density of DFB lasers according to targeted emission wavenumber.2 μm) monolayers. Points axis: Threshold current density of DFB lasers according to targeted emission wavenumber. two pieces aside. active region from 5 (λ = 5. 4141 Photonics 2016. defined. The first piece of varying period were defined. whose modal gain can engineered partiallycompensate compensate varying grating emitter) QCL. Schematic evolution of original sampled grating distributed feedback (SGDFB) quantum Figure 1. Uniform molecular DFB gratings epitaxy without the upper cladding and cap layer. gratings ofofvarying cap layers layers deposited deposited varyingperiod periodwere weredefined.(a) layer structure dual infrared (MWIR) (MWIR) QCL. 3. These the gain FWHM typically 400–500 cm´1alignment . QCL. waveguideThe core starts with 22 starts periods of 22 theperiods longer altered have not yet been optimizedThe for efficiency. This asymmetry The layer structure (as shown in 18 Figure 2) was grown on n-wavelength InP by gas-source molecular beam presence of a 450 nm thick GaInAs grating layer. These wavelengths are appropriate design change used to shift the wavelength is the adjustment of the 1st quantum well in the active primary design change used to shift the wavelength is the adjustment of the 1st quantum well in the considering the gain FWHM of this lasermonolayers. emitters used in inAA the laserdual core are based on the high efficiency λtest = 4. first piece The layer shown in nby gas-source molecular beam The layerstructure structure (as shownby inFigure Figure 2) 2) was was grown grown on n.InP InP beam had diffraction gratings(as fabricated e-beam lithography andon plasma etching. Minor adjustments (1–2 altered designs have not yet been optimized for efficiency. MOCVD.

Based section −1. purpose wasprevious to try and produce a more ideal grating by reducing parasitic main purpose was try and produce a more ideal grating of reflectivity reducing reflections from thetowaveguide sidewalls. which insufficient reflectivity at shorter wavelength to suppress emission from the longer wavelength peak. A cross-section a finishedby device (w =parasitic 8. Lasers were with a pulse width of 100 ns and a 5% Lasers were tested tested in inpulsed pulsedmode modeatatroom roomtemperature temperature with a pulse width of 100 ns and a duty cycle (pulse width/period). Most of the lasers behaved as expected. This is the widest tuning up to 183 cm´1 using a standard SGDFB short period grating design (Ng = 8. an early dual acore SGDFB also fabricated fromThe the same wafer. The The number of sampling periods (Ns ) was between 7 and 20 per section. however. The tuning behavior is shown in Figure 3b as3ba as function of the density in one section to the other. The most noticeable is that the EL shows twoofpeaks. While the threshold behavior fairly flat over thisemission range. 41 41 Photonics of 66 44 of The first sample was fabricated into several identical arrays of DFB lasers. with theoretical tuning ranges from ranges from cm−1. and the of number gratingper periods per sampling periods varied from 8 toon 12. same Unlike SGDFB fabrication. 92–180 cm´192–180 . a buriedreflectivity ridge geometry was utilized.reflections is shown from the waveguide sidewalls. The most noticeable feature is that(EL). second piece arrays was fabricated into circular mesas for Perot (FP) reference lasers (no DFB grating).48 µm). with some exhibiting up to 183 cm−1 using a standard SGDFB short period grating design (Ng = 8. The FWHM the EL is over −1 matched fairly well by the dual peaked multimode emission from the FP laser. on this initial wafer testing. stage dual core SGDFB was also fabricated from the Based on this initial wafer testing. All designs were based on 5 mm long. this translates to comb spacings between 5 and 13 cm . (c) Several different different grating grating periods periods and and ratios ratios of of sampling sampling periods periods between between sections sections were used to to Several were used explore the tuning behavior. 3. 2016. laser. which is fairly well bydual the dual multimode emissionfeature from the FP laser. which matched pieces of the core peaked wafer. the step has a spacing of ~12 cm−1. the spectrum gradually became multimode. In this case. ). in Figure 3. but the measured values range from 10–20 dB. As the minimize the side mode suppression ratio in this experiment. however. in order to get explore the tuning behavior. buried ridgewas geometry was utilized. Ns = 20). Λs = sampling period (b) SEM cross-section of a buried ridge SGDFB laser. Most of the lasers behaved as expected. in order to get as as much as possible. (a) Figure (a) Top Top view view schematic schematic of of two two section section laser laser with with sampled sampled grating grating design design specifics. that broadband (>250 cm´1 ) tuning will benefit . Also shown are the threshold current densities from two identical DFB arrays as a function 1 . The second piece was fabricated into circular mesas measurement of intersubband electroluminescence (EL).5 µm wavelength range (700 cmnecessary. The FWHM of the EL 750 cm . Λ s = sampling period (b) SEM cross-section of a buried ridge SGDFB Λg = grating period. shows insufficient reflectivity at shorter wavelength to suppress emission from the longer wavelength This indicates. While the threshold behavior is fairly flat over this range. which shows 10–20 dB. specifics. A cross-section of a finished device (w = 8.5 μm function of the targeted wavenumber. Λ g = grating period. number of sampling periods (Ns)varied was varied between 7 and 20 per much datadata as possible. uncoated cavities. The emission wavelength is tuned by changing the current density 5% duty cycle (pulse width/period). The measuring current was not carefully optimized to minimize the side tuning behavior has a spacing of ~12 cm´1 . This tuning reported for a SGDFB QCL with a single grating basis. Ns = 20). some ´ 1 the 4–5.Photonics 2016. The DFB arrayisshowed single mode over wavelength range (700 emission cm−1). As the grating period reduced. that broadband (>250 cm−1) tuning will benefit from a peak. laser. The DFB array showed single mode emission over the 4–5. Figure 3. 3. as with the DFB measurement.stage however. is shown in Figure 3. The tuning behavior is shown in Figure a function of difference in current density (ΔJ). Figure 2 shows testing data for these pieces for measurement of intersubband electroluminescence Figure 2 shows testing datais for these of the dual core wafer. In this case.the Based on and the number gratingofperiods sampling periods was variedwas from 8 to 12. uncoated cavities. section. as with the DFB measurement. The main wafer. the step tuning behavior is the widest tuning reported for a SGDFB QCL with a single grating basis. however. with some Fabry Perot first sample was DFB fabricated intoThe several identical of DFB lasers. with theoretical tuning the section lengths. 3. This indicates. the EL shows two peaks. The emission wavelength is tuned by changing the current in one section relativerelative to the other. The measuring current was not carefully optimized to mode suppression ratio in this experiment. All designs were based on 5 mm long. improvement in gain balancing is still someBased improvement in gain balancing is an stillearly necessary. with some exhibiting tuning the difference in current density (∆J). but the measured values range from grating period reduced. this translates to comb spacings between 5 and 13 cm ´ 1 lengths. Unlike previous SGDFB fabrication. the spectrum gradually became multimode. (c) Tuning Tuning characteristic characteristic of of aa dual dual core core SGDFB SGDFB laser. Also shown are the threshold current densities from two identical DFB arrays as a is 750 cm´emission of over the targeted wavenumber.48 μm). with some Fabry (FP) The reference lasers (no grating).

however. Conclusions Conclusions In conclusion.Photonics 2016. which will require only minor modification of the number of emitting periods.which whichwill willfollow followthe theprocedure proceduredeveloped developedin in[3]. Discussion 3. a tailored SSG canthis be architecture’s true potential. Figure Figure 4. the change in gain peak position is withtotemperature temperature the Bragg peak As position. an combination. Optimization of of the gain curve must then be achieved which now been investigated extensively in LWIR the LWIR the gain curve must then be achieved which hashas now been investigated extensively in the for for heterogeneous QCLs. lineshape can bedesigns. however. Though goal described above was to a combine a dual core QCL with a simple Though the initial goal described above wasrange. tuning mechanism of the laser. this architecture will general idea idea is sketched in Figure 4. basis. As the in gain curve peakinposition is fasterwhich with are related tothan the current density. Discussion One challenge with the dual core method presented above is maintaining alignment between Onegain challenge withthe thesampled dual core method presented above The is maintaining alignment between the laser curve and grating reflectivity function. the laser gain curve and the sampled grating reflectivity function. from a more balanced gain lineshape.5Electrical μm). [3]. this this method method shows promise for a much wider spectral range. Some optimization willwill be be required totoarrive efficiency. this´1is) small compared the gaintoFWHM (~750the cmfull ´ 1 tuning thebelaser. a tailored SSG can be adapted adapted to compensate for aBeyond more general lineshape. tuning is also demonstrated over a a180 range single grating grating basis. is actually enabled by change local temperature changes the waveguide which are related to the current density. −1 and DFB laser 1 and750 architecture. However. 3. to a combine core QCL with simple sampled sampled grating to produce a very wide tuning there isa adual more elegant path aforward to reach grating to produce a very wide tuning range. but the approach can be adapted fromfrom priorprior related efforts [15]. a small (<10 curve cm−1) misalignment is faster expected occur over −1). 3. Evolution Evolution of of electrically electrically tunable tunable QCL QCL design design for for extreme extreme spectral coverage. Optimization This not trivial. while controlled electrically. 41 Photonics 2016. In addition. there is a more elegant path forward to reach this architecture’s true potential. 4. sacrificing device efficiency. The first task is to develop the SSG basis using discretized grating periods and phase shifts. The first task is to develop the SSG basis using discretized grating periods and phase features. The The general is sketched in Figure 4. shifts. 41 5 of 6 5 of 6 more balanced gain lineshape. tailored In to tailored to produce nearly arbitrary lineshape with thethe usegain of multiple emitter produce a nearly arbitrary gain lineshape the use multiplewith emitter designs. which can potentially cover the entire MWIR or LWIR spectral range. Besides improving power uniformity. The tuning mechanism of the laser. this architecture will also also make alignment thecomponents two components and reflectivity curves) less critical asare there no make alignment of theoftwo (gain (gain and reflectivity curves) less critical as there no are sharp sharp features. In addition. or power output. With range with with aa single single SGDFB SGDFB laser laser with with aa single With further further refinement. refinement. Electrical tuning is also demonstrated over 180cm cm´−11 emission over 700 cm λ < (4 5. thanfull thetuning Braggrange peak of position. the gain lineshape can be to compensate for a amore general gain gain lineshape. but the approach can be adapted related efforts [15]. Besides improving power uniformity. A dual wafer is demonstrated with an FWHM of´over cm A dual core wafer is core demonstrated with an EL FWHM ofEL over 750 cm DFB laser single mode −1 ´ 1 single mode emission over (4 700<cm λ < 5. The flatflat gain andand reflectivity across the the tuning range of interest. The main maingoal goalwill willbebetotoachieve achieve gain reflectivity across tuning range of interest. the use gain of a simple grating basis. 3.is This is not trivial. this thispaper paperhas haspresented presented a plan to increase electrical tuning range accessible In conclusion.5< µm). Some optimization required arriveatatthe theproper proper shape shape without heterogeneous QCLs. . However. periods in thethe twoinitial sections. 4. and and therange error of can corrected by athis small increase in the grating period and (~750 carefulcm choice of the error can be corrected by a small increase in the grating period and careful choice of the sampling sampling periods in the two sections. an extremely broad spectralwith range can beofaccessed minimal variation in threshold extremely broad spectral range can be accessed with minimal variation in threshold or power output. is actually enabled by local temperature changes in the waveguide while controlled electrically. a small (<10 cm misalignment is to expected occur over the the laser. is small compared to the gain FWHM ). 4. Beyond the use of a simple grating basis. a plan to increase thethe electrical tuning range accessible with with QCLs by optimizing the design of both gain and reflectivity lineshape within a SGDFB QCLs by optimizing the design of both gain and reflectivity lineshape within a SGDFB architecture. In combination. which will require only minor modification of the number of emitting periods.

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