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External-cavity Diode Lasers

Acronym: ECDL

Definition: non-monolithic diode lasers where the laser cavity (resonator) is completed with external optical elements

More general term: diode lasers

German: Diodenlaser mit externem Resonator

Categories: optoelectronics, laser devices and laser physics


How to cite the article; suggest additional literature

URL: https://www.rp-photonics.com/external_cavity_diode_lasers.html

An external-cavity diode laser is a diode laser based on a laser diode chip which is integrated into a somewhat larger laser resonator, also containing other optical elements. The diode chip typically has one end anti-reflection coated, and the laser resonator is completed with, e.g., a collimating lens (or separate fast-axis and slow-axis beam collimators) and an external mirror as shown in Figure 1.

Another type of external-cavity laser uses a resonator based on an optical fiber rather than on free-space optics. Narrowband optical feedback can then come from a fiber Bragg grating.

Possible Features

The external laser resonator introduces various new features and options:

external-cavity diode laser
Figure 1: Simple setup of a diode laser with external cavity. The semiconductor chip is anti-reflection coated on one side, and the laser resonator extends to the output coupler mirror on the right-hand side.

External-cavity diode lasers can be made with very compact setups. Depending on the additional optical elements required, it is often possible to make miniature lasers of that type.

Note that there are external-cavity semiconductor lasers which are not diode lasers: optically pumped vertical external-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VECSELs), not containing a p–n junction.

Tunable External-cavity Diode Lasers

Tunable external-cavity diode lasers (→ tunable lasers) usually use a diffraction grating as the wavelength-selective element in the external resonator. They are also called grating-stabilized diode lasers.

The common Littrow configuration (see Figure 2a) contains a collimating lens and a diffraction grating as the end mirror. The first-order diffracted beam provides optical feedback to the laser diode chip, which has an anti-reflection coating on the right-hand side. The emission wavelength can be tuned by rotating the diffraction grating. A disadvantage is that this also changes the direction of the output beam, which is inconvenient for many applications. (One may alternatively rotate the assembly with the diode chip and the lens.)

tunable external-cavity diode lasers
Figure 2: Tunable external-cavity diode lasers in Littrow and Littman–Metcalf configuration.

In the Littman–Metcalf configuration ([3], Figure 2b), the grating orientation is fixed, and an additional mirror is used to reflect the first-order beam back to the laser diode. The wavelength can be tuned by rotating that mirror. That configuration offers a fixed direction of the output beam, and also tends to exhibit a smaller linewidth, as the wavelength selectivity is stronger. (The wavelength-dependent diffraction occurs twice instead of once per resonator round trip.) A disadvantage is that the zero-order reflection of the beam reflected by the tuning mirror is lost, so that the output power is lower than that for a Littrow laser.

Competing types of tunable lasers are DBR laser diodes and small fiber lasers.

Mode-locked External-cavity Diode Lasers

In the context of mode locking (→ mode-locked diode lasers), external-cavity diode lasers have various interesting properties:

More details are found in the article on mode-locked diode lasers.

Mode-locked external-cavity diode lasers sometimes compete with mode-locked fiber lasers. They do not reach their potential for high output powers, but are much more compact and far cheaper to manufacture.


Mode-locked ECDLs are mostly used in data transmitters for optical communications. Tunable devices find applications in areas such as laser absorption spectroscopy of trace gases.


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 21 suppliers for external-cavity diode lasers. Among them:


[1]H. Edmonds and A. Smith, “Second-harmonic generation with the GaAs laser”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 6 (6), 356 (1970), DOI:10.1109/JQE.1970.1076460
[2]M. G. Littman and H. J. Metcalf, “Spectrally narrow pulsed dye laser without beam expander”, Appl. Opt. 17 (14), 2224 (1978), DOI:10.1364/AO.17.002224
[3]K. Liu and M. G. Littman, “Novel geometry for single-mode scanning of tunable lasers”, Opt. Lett. 6 (3), 117 (1981), DOI:10.1364/OL.6.000117
[4]M. Fleming and A. Mooradian, “Spectral characteristics of external-cavity controlled semiconductor lasers”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 17 (1), 44 (1981), DOI:10.1109/JQE.1981.1070634
[5]C. J. Hawthorn et al., “Littrow configuration tunable external cavity diode laser with fixed direction output beam”, Rev. Sci. Instrum. 72 (12), 4477 (2001), DOI:10.1063/1.1419217
[6]P. Zorabedian, “Tunable external-cavity semiconductor lasers”, in F. J. Duarte (ed.), Tunable Lasers, p. 349 (Academic Press, London, 1995)

See also: diode lasers, laser diodes, mode-locked diode lasers, semiconductor lasers, wavelength tuning, linewidth, mode-locked lasers, distributed Bragg reflector lasers, vertical external-cavity surface-emitting lasers

Questions and Comments from Users


Could we consider ECDLs with Littrow or Littman as semiconductor lasers in regime 5 concerning the optical feedback?

The author's answer:

Yes, normally the optical feedback is relatively strong, so that you are in that regime.


So, does it mean that ECDLs are more immune to random back-reflections due to the fact that they operate in regime 5 of optical feedback?

The author's answer:

I am not sure about that. Having a laser resonator with relatively low output coupling does not necessarily imply low sensitivity to back-reflections. One would need to study the literature to assess that in detail.

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