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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 physics, light pulses


How to cite the article; suggest additional literature

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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.

Design Issues

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 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.

Some Special Achievements

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

  • The very shortest pulses with durations below 10 fs (few-cycle pulses) are usually achieved with Kerr lens mode locking of a Ti:sapphire laser [6, 5].
  • High average output powers of well over 200 W in sub-picosecond pulses [24, 25] and pulse energies above 10 μJ have been obtained in pulses from passively mode-locked thin-disk lasers [20, 19, 21], even 80 μJ in picosecond pulses [24].
  • Very high pulse repetition rates have been obtained with passively mode-locked miniature bulk lasers (Refs. Krainer 2002, Zeller 2004, Oehler 2008) and also with harmonically mode-locked fiber lasers. Even higher values of > 1 THz are possible with small laser diodes [4].
  • Various kinds of lasers (normally with high pulse repetition rates) have reached quantum-limited timing jitter performance, thus outperforming many high-quality electronic oscillators.
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].

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.

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.


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 48 suppliers for mode-locked lasers. Among them:


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[2]C. Spielmann et al., “Ultrabroadband femtosecond lasers”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 30 (4), 1100 (1994), DOI:10.1109/3.291379
[3]U. Keller, “Ultrafast all-solid-state laser technology”, Appl. Phys. B 58, 347 (1994), DOI:10.1007/BF01081874
[4]S. Arahira et al., “Mode-locking at very high repetition rates more than terahertz in passively mode-locked distributed-Bragg-reflector laser diodes”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 32 (7), 1211 (1996), DOI:10.1109/3.517021
[5]U. Morgner et al., “Sub-two cycle pulses from a Kerr-lens mode-locked Ti:sapphire laser”, Opt. Lett. 24 (6), 411 (1999), DOI:10.1364/OL.24.000411
[6]D. H. Sutter et al., “Semiconductor saturable-absorber mirror-assisted Kerr lens modelocked Ti:sapphire laser producing pulses in the two-cycle regime”, Opt. Lett. 24 (9), 631 (1999), DOI:10.1364/OL.24.000631
[7]C. Hönninger et al., “Ultrafast ytterbium-doped bulk lasers and laser amplifiers”, Appl. Phys. B 69 (1), 3 (1999), DOI:10.1007/s003400050762
[8]R. Paschotta et al., “Progress on all-solid-state passively mode-locked ps and fs lasers”, Proc. SPIE 3616, 2 (1999), DOI:10.1117/12.351820
[9]E. Sorokin et al., “Diode-pumped ultra-short-pulse solid-state lasers”, Appl. Phys. B 72, 3 (2001), DOI:10.1007/s003400000464
[10]L. Krainer et al., “Compact Nd:YVO4 lasers with pulse repetition rates up to 160 GHz”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 38 (10), 1331 (2002), DOI:10.1109/JQE.2002.802967
[11]U. Keller, “Recent developments in compact ultrafast lasers”, Nature 424, 831 (2003), DOI:10.1038/nature01938
[12]E. Innerhofer et al., “60 W average power in 810-fs pulses from a thin-disk Yb:YAG laser”, Opt. Lett. 28 (5), 367 (2003), DOI:10.1364/OL.28.000367
[13]A. Fernandez et al., “Chirped-pulse oscillators: a route to high-power femtosecond pulses without external amplification”, Opt. Lett. 29 (12), 1366 (2004), DOI:10.1364/OL.29.001366
[14]F. Brunner et al., “Powerful RGB laser source pumped with a mode-locked thin-disk laser”, Opt. Lett. 29 (16), 1921 (2004), DOI:10.1364/OL.29.001921
[15]S. C. Zeller et al., “Passively mode-locked 50-GHz Er:Yb:glass laser”, Electron. Lett. 40 (14), 875 (2004), DOI:10.1049/el:20045064
[16]R. Paschotta et al., “Picosecond pulse sources with multi-GHz repetition rates and high output power”, New J. Phys. 6, 174 (2004)
[17]E. Sorokin and S. Naumov, “Ultrabroadband infrared solid-state lasers”, J. Sel. Top. Quantum Electron. 11 (3), 690 (2005), DOI:10.1109/JSTQE.2003.850255
[18]S. Gee et al., “Self-stabilization of an actively mode-locked semiconductor-based fiber-ring laser for ultralow jitter”, IEEE Photon. Technol. Lett. 19 (7), 498 (2007), DOI:10.1109/LPT.2007.892902
[19]S. V. Marchese et al., “Femtosecond thin disk laser oscillator with pulse energy beyond the 10-microjoule level”, Opt. Express 16 (9), 6397 (2008), DOI:10.1364/OE.16.006397
[20]J. Neuhaus et al., “Passively mode-locked Yb:YAG thin-disk laser with pulse energies exceeding 13 μJ by use of an active multipass geometry”, Opt. Lett. 33 (7), 726 (2008), DOI:10.1364/OL.33.000726
[21]J. Neuhaus et al., “Subpicosecond thin-disk laser oscillator with pulse energies of up to 25.9 microjoules by use of an active multipass geometry”, Opt. Express 16 (25), 20530 (2008), DOI:10.1364/OE.16.020530
[22]A. E. Oehler et al., “100 GHz passively mode-locked Er:Yb:glass laser at 1.5 μm with 1.6-ps pulses”, Opt. Express 16 (26), 21930 (2008), DOI:10.1364/OE.16.021930
[23]P. Sévillano et al., “32-fs Kerr-lens mode-locked Yb:CaGdAlO4 oscillator optically pumped by a bright fiber laser”, Opt. Lett. 39 (20), 6001 (2014), DOI:10.1364/OL.39.006001
[24]C. J. Saraceno et al., “Ultrafast thin-disk laser with 80 μJ pulse energy and 242 W of average power”, Opt. Lett. 39 (1), 9 (2014), DOI:10.1364/OL.39.000009
[25]J. Brons et al., “Energy scaling of Kerr-lens mode-locked thin-disk oscillators”, Opt. Lett. 39 (22), 6442 (2014), DOI:10.1364/OL.39.006442
[26]J. Drs et al., “Sub-30-fs Yb:YAG thin-disk laser oscillator operating in the strongly self-phase modulation broadened regime”, Opt. Express 29 (22), 35929 (2021), DOI:10.1364/OE.440196
[27]R. Paschotta and U. Keller, “Passively mode-locked solid-state lasers”, in Solid-State Lasers and Applications (ed. A. Sennaroglu), CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL (2007), Chapter 7, pp. 259–318
[28]R. Paschotta, Field Guide to Laser Pulse Generation, SPIE Press, Bellingham, WA (2007)
[29]For German readers: R. Paschotta, “Ultrakurzpuls-Festkörperlaser – eine vielfältige Familie”, Photonik 01/2006, S. 70

See also: ultrafast lasers, mode locking, mode locking devices, picosecond lasers, femtosecond lasers, titanium–sapphire lasers, mode-locked fiber lasers, mode-locked diode lasers, saturable absorbers, frequency combs, frequency metrology, light pulses, ultrashort pulses, cavity dumping, timing jitter, laser design, laser development, spotlight 2008-03-26, spotlight 2010-03-22, spotlight 2010-07-27

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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