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Jan 1, 2002

Light is one of the most important phenomena in the universe. The Creator designed many mechanisms, such as eyes, that use light as a communication tool. Given light's importance, many researchers have studied it. This article introduces one of the most developed applications of light: lasers, an acronym meaning light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.

A brief history of lasers

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientists made many improvements to our life. One of the most important was a more accurate understanding of light, currently defined as traveling electromagnetic waves. Like the ocean's waves, light also has an amplitude (which determines its power) and a frequency (which determines its color and energy). The better we understand light, the more uses we find for it in our life. For example, today we are faced with many technological devices based on light, such as printers, CD writers and readers, and fiber optic devices for telecommunications.

Many scientists are very interested in photons, for they can be used in communication, computation, and many other fields. Also, many researchers think that the technology of the future will be built on optoelectronics”photons and electrons.

The invention of lasers is a very important step in the science of optics. While lasers started out as a major component of science fiction stories, science fiction is rapidly becoming scientific reality due to continual improvements and discoveries.

Lasers defined

By definition, a laser is amplified light. However, its amplification is very different from a normal amplification, for this amplification makes the photons coherent by causing them to have the same energy and same direction. Such coherence enables a laser light to travel over long distances without diverging. If the laser beam is kept in a dispersionless media, theoretically it can keep the same waist size forever. However, the only media that currently can serve as a dispersionless media is a vacuum.

In a laser system, many atoms have to have electrons in the same high energy levels. If this is the case, any effect that stimulates the atoms' system will emit coherent light. For the emission to continue, the system should be constructed so that there are always some electrons changing their energy level.

Observing several laser systems will give us a clearer understanding of lasers.

Ruby lasers

The first lasing structure was the ruby crystal (see Figure 1), devised by Dr. T. H. Maiman in 1960. This was a surprising development, for researchers thought that gases would be the first lasers. The ruby crystal is Al2O3 (called sapphire), and has an impurity level of 0.05% Cr+3 ions.

The ruby laser consists of a ruby crystal surrounded by a flash tube enclosed within an aluminum cylindrical cavity that is cooled by forced air. The laser cavity is pumped by a flash light. When the light's power exceeds a certain limit, it begins to re-excite some ions inside the ruby crystal to higher state. The cavity ends are coated with evaporated silver. However, one side has a lower reflection ability so that some light can pass through it.

Gas lasers

Most elements and many molecules can be made to lase in a gaseous state. The first example of a gas laser is the HeNe (helium neon) laser, as depicted in Figure 2. In a high voltage tube, colliding helium and neon atoms transfer energy to neon atoms, which then assume a meta-stable state. After this, spontaneous emission occurs when neon atoms transit from a higher energy level to lower energy level. Like other lasers, the HeNe laser also needs to have a population inversion. The high population for neon's meta-stable state is achieved by applying a high voltage to the tube. Although the stimulated emission decreases the number of atoms in the meta-stable state, the high voltage pumps the system back into the population inversion condition.

Having many different wavelengths (colors), HeNe laser are useful for all sorts of applications, from semiconductor technology to construction leveling.

Improvements in semiconductor technology have made many contributions to laser technology. Data storage on CDs, computer, printers, and telecommunication tools are just a few examples of the places where semiconductor lasers are used.

Semiconductor lasers

Three different materials have the properties necessary to serve as electron (carrier) conductors: metals, insulators, and semiconductors. Metals are good conductors for carriers, whereas insulators do not conduct electricity. In a solid state material, electrons stay in the bands determined by the attraction between positive and negative charges (electrons and nucleus). The further band for an electron is called the conduction band. In metals, the conduction band is partially filled, while in insulators the conduction band is totally empty. There is also a very large energy difference between the conduction band the valence band (the band just before conduction band). Thus, a large amount of energy has to be supplied in order to produce some carriers in the conduction band.

Conduction occurs when electrons are present in a conduction band, for they are somehow free in that band. They are not so free that they can escape it, but they are free enough to walk around in it. Research is revealing many other surprises or gifts that the All-Wise Creator has put in front of us.Our discovery of certain materials' ability to serve as insulators and/or conductors has made our life much easier.

A very important step in the field of semiconductors is the use of optics during experiments. The electron in the conduction band can loose energy by radiating light, and one can use this energy to build lasers. The laser's wavelength mainly depends on the energy gap between the conduction and the valence bands. If this energy gap is known, researchers can grow appropriate semiconductor structures to lase.

As growth techniques for semiconductors improve, the quality and variety of semiconductor lasers increase. Early semiconductor lasers were built from bulk structures. But after the 1980s, scientists discovered that layering different semiconductors could increase optical efficiency. The commercial state-of-art now is semiconductor quantum well lasers. In these structures, the electron's mobility is restricted on a plane, giving carriers a two-dimensional freedom. Lasers using quantum dots (quasi-zero dimensional structures with superior optical properties) also have appeared during the last 5 years.


To see how our life will change via improvements in optics, just look at how fast communication has become, thanks to telecommunication lasers. Old thick and slow copper wires are being replaced by fast thin fibers. A computer and a camera gives one access to visual telecommunication via the Internet. All of this used to belong to science fiction. Not any more!

I believe that one we will develop a technology to transport material instantly, as stated in Qur'an: One who had knowledge of the Book said: I will bring it to you within the twinkling of an eye! When (Solomon) saw it placed firmly before him, he said: This is by the Grace of my Lord! - to test me whether I am grateful or ungrateful! If anyone is grateful, truly his gratitude is (a gain) for his own soul. But if any is ungrateful, truly my Lord is free of all needs, supreme in honor! (27:40).

In conclusion, we have to learn how to read the Book of the Universe and to understand it so that we can make even more beneficial discoveries.


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