Encyclopedia … combined with a great Buyer's Guide!

Passive Mode Locking

Definition: a technique of mode locking, based on a saturable absorber inside the laser resonator

More general term: mode locking

Opposite term: active mode locking

German: passives Modenkoppeln

Categories: article belongs to category laser devices and laser physics laser devices and laser physics, article belongs to category light pulses light pulses, article belongs to category methods methods


Cite the article using its DOI: https://doi.org/10.61835/qe2

Get citation code: Endnote (RIS) BibTex plain textHTML

Summary: This in-depth article on passive mode locking of lasers explains

  • the working principles (mechanisms of pulse formation and stabilization),
  • the use of fast and slow saturable absorbers,
  • different types of saturable absorbers, including SESAMs and also artificial absorbers,
  • special variants such as harmonic mode locking,
  • the influences of chromatic dispersion and nonlinearities,
  • the great differences between different operation regimes,
  • achievable performance parameters such as pulse duration and energy,
  • how the performance may be limited by certain instabilities, and
  • how to optimize picosecond and femtosecond laser designs.

The general aspects of the generation of ultrashort light pulses by mode locking are discussed in the article on mode locking. This article specifically focuses on passive mode locking, which can be achieved by incorporating a saturable absorber with suitable properties into the laser resonator (Figure 1).

Most mode-locked lasers are passively rather than actively mode-locked – particularly those used for generating very short femtosecond pulses. However, active mode locking is preferred for some applications where particularly short pulses are not required, but the synchronization with an external electronic signal is vital.

mode-locked laser
Figure 1: Schematic setup of a laser which is passively mode-locked with a saturable absorber mirror, e.g. a SESAM.

In the following, the steady state of a passively mode-locked laser is considered, where a short pulse is circulating in the laser resonator. For simplicity, it is assumed that there is a single circulating pulse (i.e. fundamental rather than harmonic mode locking), and a fast absorber (see below for details). Each time the pulse hits the saturable absorber, it saturates the absorption, thus temporarily reducing the losses (Figure 2). In the steady state, the laser gain can be saturated to a level which is just sufficient for compensating the losses for the circulating pulse, whereas any light of lower intensity which hits the absorber at other times will experience losses which are higher than the gain, since the absorber cannot be saturated by this light. The absorber can thus suppress any additional (weaker) pulses in addition to any continuous background light. Also, it constantly attenuates particularly the leading wing of the circulating pulse; the trailing wing may also be attenuated if the absorber can recover sufficiently quickly (see below). The absorber thus tends to decrease the pulse duration; in the steady state, this effect will balance other effects (e.g. chromatic dispersion) which tend to lengthen the pulse.

passive mode locking with fast absorber
Figure 2: Temporal evolution of optical power and losses in a passively mode-locked laser with a fast saturable absorber.

The shorter the pulse becomes, the faster will be the loss modulation. The gain stays approximately constant, as gain saturation is weak.

Compared with active mode locking, the technique of passive mode locking allows the generation of much shorter pulses. Essentially this is because a saturable absorber, driven by already very short pulses, can modulate the resonator losses much faster than any electronic modulator: the shorter the circulating pulse becomes, the faster is the loss modulation obtained. This holds at least for the leading wing of the pulse, where the absorber is bleached, whereas absorber recovery may take some longer time.

In many (but not all) cases, the saturable absorber can also start the mode-locking process. If the pulse generation process begins automatically after switching on the laser, this is called self-starting mode locking. Usually, the laser first starts operation in a more or less continuous way, but with significant fluctuations of the laser power (→ laser noise). In each resonator round trip, the saturable absorber will then favor the light which has somewhat higher intensities because this light can saturate the absorption slightly more than light with lower intensities. After many round trips, a single pulse will remain (principle of “the winner takes all”).

However, self-starting is not always achieved. Generally, slow absorbers are more suitable for self-starting mode locking than fast absorbers. For example, Kerr lens mode-locked lasers are often not self-starting; they run in continuous-wave mode after turning on, and start mode locking only when the user knocks against a resonator mirror. (This causes some power fluctuations which may be sufficient to get enough absorber saturation to start the mode locking.) Self-starting may be inhibited e.g. by parasitic reflections in the resonator, by mode pulling effects (which can be related to, e.g., spatial hole burning in the gain medium), or by chromatic dispersion.

Fast and Slow Saturable Absorbers

If the absorber recovery time is well below the pulse duration, the absorber is called a fast absorber. In that case, the loss modulation basically follows the variation of the optical power. However, mode locking can also be achieved with a slow absorber, having a recovery time above the pulse duration (see Figure 3).

passive mode locking
Figure 3: Temporal evolution of optical power and losses in a passively mode-locked laser with a slow saturable absorber.

The saturable absorber causes a loss modulation which is fast for the leading wing of the pulse, whereas recovery of the absorber takes some longer time.

It turns out that e.g. in a solid-state laser mode-locked with a slow absorber, there is a temporal range with net gain just after the pulses, where the absorber is still in the saturated state. One would normally expect that such a situation can not be stable because any noise behind the pulse should exhibit exponential growth of its energy, sooner or later destabilizing the pulse. However, both experimental observations and numerical simulations indicate stability even in situations where the absorber recovery time is more than an order of magnitude longer than the pulse duration. An explanation for that mystery was first found in the case of soliton mode locking [13], but unexpected stability had been observed also in simple cases without dispersive and nonlinear effects; that could also be demonstrated with numerical simulations. Finally, in 2001 a subtle mechanism was found to be responsible for the stability [16]: the stronger absorption for the leading edge of the pulse constantly delays the pulse (i.e. shifts the position of the maximum), but not the noise background, so that the latter has a limited time for exponential growth. Based on that analysis, a limit for the allowable absorber recovery time could be derived.

Types of Saturable Absorbers

The crucial intracavity component for passive mode locking is a saturable absorber. The most important type of absorber for passive mode locking is the semiconductor saturable absorber mirror, called SESAM. This is a compact semiconductor device, the parameters of which can be adjusted in very wide ranges, so that appropriately designed SESAMs can be used to mode-lock very different kinds of lasers, in particular solid-state lasers, including different kinds of semiconductor lasers. (See also the article on mode-locked lasers.)

Other saturable absorbers for mode locking are based on quantum dots, e.g. of lead sulfide (PbS) suspended in glasses. Doped-insulator saturable absorbers, as often used for passive Q switching (e.g. Cr:YAG), usually have a too slow recovery for mode locking.

There are also various kinds of artificial saturable absorbers, based on, e.g., nonlinear phase shifts (→ Kerr lens mode locking, additive-pulse mode locking, nonlinear polarization rotation) or on intensity-dependent frequency conversion (nonlinear mirror mode locking [9]).

Dispersion and Nonlinearities

In the picosecond regime of pulse durations, chromatic dispersion usually has only a weak effect. Nonlinearities, in particular the Kerr effect, can be significant, depending on parameters such as the length and material of the laser crystal, the mode area at that place, and the pulse energy and duration.

For femtosecond pulse generation, it is usually required to arrange for dispersion compensation, for example with a prism pair, as shown in the article on mode-locked lasers, or with dispersive mirrors. In many cases, a laser is operated in the anomalous dispersion regime, where the circulating pulse can be a quasi-soliton; this is called soliton mode locking. In the few-cycle pulse duration regime, with ultrabroad pulse spectra, precise compensation of higher-order dispersion is required.

The effects of nonlinearities, in particular of the Kerr nonlinearity, can also be very important in femtosecond lasers. Excessive nonlinear phase shifts can destabilize the pulses or limit the achievable pulse durations. On the other hand, they can play a useful role in soliton mode locking. In fiber lasers, the fiber nonlinearity is often stronger than desirable and thus often limits the achievable pulse durations and/or pulse energies, even when using quite sophisticated laser designs, as explained in the article on mode-locked fiber lasers.

Mechanisms of Pulse Formation and Shaping

In the steady state of a mode-locked laser, the pulse parameters are essentially constant, or at least are reproduced after each resonator round trip. This means that there must be a balance of all effects acting on the pulse. The details of that balance, i.e., the importance of various effects and even the whole principle of pulse formation, can depend strongly on the type of laser and the pulse duration regime, not only on the type of saturable absorber. Some examples are discussed in the following:

A comprehensive understanding of the pulse formation and shaping processes is essential for good laser design, with which the best possible performance is achieved. For the detailed study of pulse shaping in mode-locked lasers, numerical pulse propagation modeling can be very useful.

Achievable Pulse Duration

Depending on the particular type of mode-locked laser, the shortest achievable pulse duration can be determined by a number of factors:

  • In simple SESAM mode-locked lasers particularly in the picosecond regime, the pulse duration often results from a steady state between gain narrowing and the pulse-shortening effect of the SESAM absorber, which itself depends on details such as modulation depth and degree of saturation. The pulse duration is then inversely proportional to the square root of the ratio of round-trip gain and modulation depth [16], also inversely proportional to the gain bandwidth. Note that the modulation depth of the SESAM must not be too high, since that would result in Q-switching instabilities (see below).
  • In the femtosecond regime, the situation is usually further complicated by the strong influence of chromatic dispersion and nonlinearities. A common technique is (quasi-)soliton mode locking, where the pulse duration is largely determined by the balance of dispersion and Kerr nonlinearity, without a significant direct influence of the gain bandwidth. The pulse duration can then be reduced by reducing the amount of anomalous intracavity dispersion, provided that the circulating pulse stays stable. The stability limit and thus the achievable pulse duration depends on the gain bandwidth, but also on the total intracavity losses, the strength of nonlinearities and other factors.
  • In mode-locked fiber lasers, often utilizing considerably more complicated pulse formation mechanisms, the achievable pulse duration may also be strongly influenced by nonlinearities and by higher-order chromatic dispersion.

The shortest pulses generated directly with a passively mode-locked laser have durations around 5.5 fs (see the article on ultrafast lasers). External pulse compression allows for substantial further reductions. One may even generate attosecond (sub-femtosecond) pulses, although in that case the conversion efficiency is usually quite poor.


The use of a saturable absorber in a laser may not only lead to passive mode locking, but also to passive Q switching, to Q-switched mode locking, or to some noisy mode of operation, if the absorber properties are not appropriate.

Under certain circumstances, Q-switching instabilities can occur because the saturable absorber usually “rewards” any increase in the intracavity pulse energy above its steady-state value with reduced losses, so that the net gain becomes positive and the pulse energy can rise further. The situation becomes unstable if gain saturation is not strong enough to counteract the destabilizing effect of the absorber. Q-switching instabilities (or Q-switched mode locking) can usually be suppressed by observing certain design guidelines, but in certain parameter ranges – for high pulse repetition rates, in particularly in combination with short pulses or high output powers – this can be challenging.

There is also a range of other types of instabilities, which can be related e.g. to excessive nonlinearities, to an inappropriate degree of absorber saturation, to too slow absorber recovery, to higher-order dispersion, to parasitic reflections, or to inhomogeneous gain saturation. It is not always obvious which of these instabilities is at work, but the required measures usually depend strongly on that.

Pulse Diagnostics

As explained in the article on mode locking, various measurement techniques can and should be applied for ensuring that a laser is properly mode-locked. Because passive mode locking can be plagued with a number of additional problems, as compared to active mode locking, it is then particularly important to perform careful pulse characterization – not only measuring pulse parameters but also confirming stable mode locking.

Optimum Design

Optimum design of a mode-locked laser, particularly for operation in extreme parameter regions, must be based on a thorough understanding of the relations between various parameters and effects occurring in such lasers. Figure 4 shows such relations for passively mode-locked lasers in a very simplified form. For example, a high modulation depth <$\Delta R$> of the saturable absorber (SESAM) normally leads to shorter pulses, but also to an increased tendency for Q-switching instabilities or Q-switched mode locking, and to a reduced power efficiency. Q-switching instabilities are related in various ways to SESAM damage, and can be suppressed in various ways. A thorough understanding of all these relations often allows one to “shift” the problems to a location where they are much more easily solved. For example, SESAM damage issues, which originally sometimes occurred even for fairly moderate output powers, have been solved essentially not by developing SESAMs with higher damage thresholds, but rather by optimizing the overall laser design. This allowed the generation of very high output powers [19] without putting the SESAM under excessive stress.

issues and trade-offs for passively mode-locked lasers
Figure 4: Simplified sketch of the relations between various parameters and effects in a passively mode-locked laser.

Red arrows indicate positive relations (more of X leads to more of Y), whereas blue arrows represent negative relations. A comprehensive understanding of all these relations is required for good laser design, particularly for operation in extreme parameter regions.

More to Learn

Encyclopedia articles:

Blog articles:


[1]H. W. Mocker and R. J. Collins, “Mode competition and self-locking effects in a Q-switched ruby laser”, Appl. Phys. Lett. 7, 270 (1965); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.1754253 (first demonstration of passive mode locking, obtained together with Q switching → Q-switched mode locking)
[2]A. J. DeMaria, D. A. Stetser, and H. Heynau, “Self mode-locking of lasers with saturable absorbers”, Appl. Phys. Lett. 8, 174 (1966); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.1754541
[3]E. P. Ippen, C. V. Shank, and A. Dienes, “Passive mode locking of the cw dye laser”, Appl. Phys. Lett. 21, 348 (1972); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.1654406 (first continuous-wave mode locking with a saturable absorber)
[4]H. A. Haus, “Theory of mode locking with a fast saturable absorber”, J. Appl. Phys. 46 (7), 3049 (1975); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.321997
[5]H. Haus, “Parameter ranges for CW passive mode locking”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 12 (3), 169 (1976); https://doi.org/10.1109/JQE.1976.1069112
[6]K. Sala et al., “Passive modelocking of lasers with the optical Kerr effect modulator”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 13 (11), 915 (1977); https://doi.org/10.1109/JQE.1977.1069251
[7]E. P. Ippen et al., “Picosecond pulse generation by passive modelocking of diode lasers”, Appl. Phys. Lett. 37, 267 (1980); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.91902
[8]O. E. Martínez and R. L. Fork, “Theory of passively mode-locked lasers including self-phase modulation and group-velocity dispersion”, Opt. Lett. 9 (5), 156 (1984); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.9.000156
[9]K. A. Stankov, “A mirror with an intensity-dependent reflection coefficient”, Appl. Phys. B 45, 191 (1988); https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00695290
[10]H. A. Haus et al., “Structures of additive pulse mode locking”, J. Opt. Soc. Am. B 8 (10), 2068 (1991); https://doi.org/10.1364/JOSAB.8.002068
[11]F. Krausz and T. Brabec, “Passive mode locking in standing-wave laser resonators”, Opt. Lett. 18 (11), 888 (1993); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.18.000888
[12]E. P. Ippen, “Principles of passive mode locking”, Appl. Phys. B 58, 159 (1994); https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01081309
[13]F. X. Kärtner et al., “Stabilization of solitonlike pulses with a slow saturable absorber”, Opt. Lett. 20 (1), 16 (1995); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.20.000016
[14]S. Tsuda et al., “Mode-locking ultrafast solid-state lasers with saturable Bragg reflectors”, J. Sel. Top. Quantum Electron. 2 (3), 454 (1996); https://doi.org/10.1109/2944.571744
[15]C. Hönninger et al., “Q-switching stability limits of cw passive mode locking”, J. Opt. Soc. Am. B 16 (1), 46 (1999); https://doi.org/10.1364/JOSAB.16.000046
[16]R. Paschotta et al., “Passive mode locking with slow saturable absorbers”, Appl. Phys. B 73 (7), 653 (2001); https://doi.org/10.1007/s003400100726
[17]R. Paschotta et al., “Passive mode locking of thin-disk lasers: effects of spatial hole burning”, Appl. Phys. B 72 (3), 267 (2001); https://doi.org/10.1007/s003400100486
[18]R. Paschotta et al., “Soliton-like pulse shaping mechanism in passively mode-locked surface-emitting semiconductor lasers”, Appl. Phys. B 75, 445 (2002); https://doi.org/10.1007/s00340-002-1014-5
[19]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); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.28.000367
[20]A. Fernandez et al., “Chirped-pulse oscillators: a route to high-power femtosecond pulses without external amplification”, Opt. Lett. 29 (12), 1366 (2004); https://doi.org/10.1364/OL.29.001366
[21]G. Palmer et al., “Passively mode-locked and cavity-dumped Yb:KY(WO4)2 oscillator with positive dispersion”, Opt. Express 15 (24), 16017 (2007); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.15.016017
[22]F. Saltarelli et al., “Modelocking of a thin-disk laser with the frequency-doubling nonlinear-mirror technique”, Opt. Express 25 (19), 23254 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1364/OE.25.023254

(Suggest additional literature!)

Questions and Comments from Users


How does a saturable absorber lock the phases between different longitudinal modes? Is it because the saturation absorber enhance the phase-locked modes which are generated occasionally? Or is it because the saturation absorber acts as an amplitude modulator, which generates multiple phase-locked sidebands?

The author's answer:

I think that mode locking is better understood in the time domain; I do not know a simple explanation based on modes, although your second attempt of an explanation goes in the right direction.


For a passively mode-locked laser, researchers often report their RF spectrum data (or electrical spectrum on the frequency domain) for evidence of a mode-locked laser. They show the fundamental frequency and the harmonic frequencies of the laser cavity. Some of them have the powers of these lines decreasing linearly with rising frequency, while some others show exponential decay. Why did those phenomena occur?

The author's answer:

The shape of that spectrum – obtained by connecting a fast photodiode to an electronic spectrum analyzer – depends mainly on the photodetector's details, particularly on its bandwidth, when the laser is mode-locked. Evidence for a non-mode-locked state could be an irregular and noisy spectrum (with fluctuating line powers).

Here you can submit questions and comments. As far as they get accepted by the author, they will appear above this paragraph together with the author’s answer. The author will decide on acceptance based on certain criteria. Essentially, the issue must be of sufficiently broad interest.

Please do not enter personal data here. (See also our privacy declaration.) If you wish to receive personal feedback or consultancy from the author, please contact him, e.g. via e-mail.

Spam check:

By submitting the information, you give your consent to the potential publication of your inputs on our website according to our rules. (If you later retract your consent, we will delete those inputs.) As your inputs are first reviewed by the author, they may be published with some delay.


Share this with your network:

Follow our specific LinkedIn pages for more insights and updates: