A collimated beam of light is a beam (typically a laser beam) which has a low beam divergence, so that the beam radius does not undergo significant changes within moderate propagation distances. In the simple (and frequently encountered) case of Gaussian beams, this means that the Rayleigh length must be long compared with the envisaged propagation distance. For example, a 1064-nm beam with a 1-mm beam radius at its beam waist has a Rayleigh length of ≈ 3 m in air, so that it can be considered as being collimated within a normal laboratory setup. Note that the Rayleigh length scales with the square of the beam waist radius, so that large beam radii are essential for long propagation distances.
When describing a collimated beam with light rays, it consists of essentially parallel rays only. However, the ray picture cannot account for the phenomenon of beam divergence and is therefore of limited value.
How to Collimate a Beam
A divergent beam can be collimated with a beam collimator device, which in simple case is essentially a lens or a curved mirror, where the focal length or curvature radius is chosen such that the originally curved wavefronts become flat. (Of course, the beam radius at the position of the lens or mirror should be large enough to obtain a low divergence.) Any residual divergence can be fine adjusted via the position of the lens or mirror along the beam direction. The collimation can be checked, for example, by measuring the evolution of beam radius over some distance in free space, via a Shack–Hartmann wavefront sensor, or with certain kinds of interferometers.
Collimated beams are very useful in laboratory setups, because the beam radius stays approximately constant, so that the distances between optical components may be easily varied without applying extra optics, and excessive beam radii are avoided. Most solid-state lasers naturally emit collimated beams; a flat output coupler enforces flat wavefronts (i.e., a beam waist) at the output, and the beam waist is usually large enough to avoid excessive divergence. Edge-emitting laser diodes, however, emit strongly diverging beams, and are therefore often equipped with collimation optics – at least with a fast axis collimator, largely reducing the strong divergence in the “fast” direction. For fibers, a simple optical lens may often suffice for collimation, although the beam quality can be better preserved with an aspheric lens, particularly for single-mode fibers with a large numerical aperture.