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Mode-locked Lasers

Definition: lasers which emit ultrashort pulses on the basis of the technique of mode locking

Alternative term: modelocked lasers

More general term: pulsed lasers

German: modengekoppelte Laser

Categories: laser devices and laser physicslaser devices and laser physics, light pulseslight pulses


Cite the article using its DOI: https://doi.org/10.61835/7dz

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A mode-locked laser is a laser to which the technique of active or passive mode locking is applied, so that a periodic train of ultrashort pulses is emitted. See the articles on mode locking and mode locking devices for more details on mode-locking techniques; the present article focuses on the lasers themselves. The article on ultrafast lasers also gives some idea about current developments in ultrashort pulse generation.

As ultrashort pulses have a certain bandwidth, mode-locked lasers for short pulses (particularly in the sub-picosecond region) require a laser gain medium with a large gain bandwidth. Other desirable features are a not too high nonlinearity and chromatic dispersion, and (particularly for passive mode locking) high enough laser cross-sections in order to avoid Q-switching instabilities.

Types of Mode-locked Lasers

The following types of lasers are particularly attractive for mode locking:

Due to the very different properties of those laser gain media, it is vital to select an appropriate medium for operation of a mode-locked laser in a particular parameter regime, e.g. concerning pulse duration, center wavelength and pulse repetition rate.

cavity of mode-locked laser
Figure 1: Resonator setup of a typical femtosecond mode-locked solid-state bulk laser with low or medium output power.

The gain medium can be made of a crystal or of glass. A prism pair is used for dispersion compensation, and passive mode locking is achieved with a SESAM.

Higher Pulse Energies with Cavity Dumping

As explained in detail in the article on cavity dumping, a mode-locked laser can generate higher pulse energies of e.g. several microjoules at lower pulse repetition rates (e.g. 100 kHz or 1 MHz) by incorporation of a cavity dumper in the laser resonator. The basic principle is to form a high-energy pulse within the resonator while having low resonator losses, and then to couple out of the energy with the cavity dumper.

Simulation of Mode-locked Lasers

The design of a mode-locked laser is generally a non-trivial task, and particularly so if extreme parameter regions for the pulse parameters are targeted. There is a complicated interplay of many effects, including chromatic dispersion and several nonlinear effects, and changing one design parameter often influences several others. (For example, in a soliton mode-locked laser a change in mode size in the laser crystal or of the cavity length changes the balance of nonlinearity and dispersion, and thus also the pulse duration.) As a result, it can be difficult to achieve simultaneously very short pulses, stable operation, and a high power efficiency.

For given parameters of the gain medium, there can be certain restrictions on the achievable pulse parameters. A relatively trivial one is that a gain medium with a small gain bandwidth is not suitable for generating very short pulses. More surprising is e.g. the finding that mode-locked solid-state lasers have difficulties in combining a high pulse repetition rate with a high average output power, and that the additional requirement of generating sub-picosecond pulses makes this trade-off even much more demanding. Such constraints arise from a combination of effects and issues such as Q-switched mode locking and other kinds of instabilities, details of pulse shaping, and limitations of saturable absorbers, and are also influenced by seemingly totally unrelated issues such as the beam quality of the available pump source.

For such reasons, a very systematic process of laser development, based on a solid quantitative understanding of all the relevant physical details and on deep experience with typical limitations, is essential for efficient product development. A key point is to work out a detailed laser design and to check quantitatively (usually with laser modeling and simulation on a computer) a number of issues before engaging in experimental investigations. Without such preparations, there is a risk of getting into a combination of problems which can not simply be solved step by step.

The central aspect to simulate is normally the evolution of the pulses with pulse propagation modeling. Here, two different investigations can be helpful:

  • Explore how the pulses evolve within a single resonator round trip – following the evolution e.g. within the laser crystal, a fiber, from mirror to mirror, etc.
  • Investigate how the output pulse, for example, evolves over many round trips. Usually, it reaches a steady state after tens, hundreds, or even only after thousands of resonator round trips.

By studying some examples cases, e.g. for a mode-locked fiber laser, one can learn a lot on how the pulse dynamics are influenced by various parameters.

Some Special Achievements

Some special achievements with passively mode-locked solid-state lasers are:

high repetition rate miniature laser
Figure 2: Miniature Er:Yb:glass laser setup for a pulse repetition rate of 50 GHz [15]. The cavity length is only 3 mm (from the output coupler to the SESAM). A modified setup allowed for even 100 GHz [22].

Typical Applications of Mode-locked Lasers

The following list gives some impression of the manifold applications of mode-locked lasers:

Mode-locked lasers are also often combined with ultrafast amplifiers for obtaining higher average powers and in particular higher pulse energies and peak powers. Such amplified systems can address a wide range of additional applications:

  • The high pulse intensities are used for applications in laser material processing, such as laser micromachining, laser surface modification, drilling holes, and three-dimensional laser prototyping.
  • In the medical domain, mode-locked lasers may again be used for a kind of material processing, e.g. as a laser scalpel or in ophthalmology (e.g. vision correction). There are also photochemical effects used e.g. for certain skin treatments.
  • High-power laser projection displays may be realized with mode-locked lasers and frequency conversion stages, the latter often being much simpler when working with ultrashort pulses.
  • High intensity physics relies on amplified systems with very high pulse energies and peak powers, so that extremely high optical intensities are achieved when focusing that laser radiation down to small spots.

Find more details in the articles on ultrafast lasers and ultrafast amplifiers.

More to Learn

Encyclopedia articles:

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The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 46 suppliers for mode-locked lasers. Among them:


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(Suggest additional literature!)

Dr. R. Paschotta

This encyclopedia is authored by Dr. Rüdiger Paschotta, the founder and executive of RP Photonics AG. How about a tailored training course from this distinguished expert at your location? Contact RP Photonics to find out how his technical consulting services (e.g. product designs, problem solving, independent evaluations, training) and software could become very valuable for your business!

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