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Ultrafast Lasers

Definition: lasers emitting ultrashort pulses

Alternative terms: femtosecond lasers, picosecond lasers

More specific terms: picosecond lasers, femtosecond lasers, mode-locked lasers, mode-locked fiber lasers, mode-locked diode lasers, titanium–sapphire lasers

German: Ultrakurzpulslaser

Categories: laser devices and laser physics, light pulses


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

The term ultrafast lasers is used for different kinds of lasers and laser systems:

  • There are mode-locked lasers emitting ultrashort pulses, i.e. light pulses with durations of femtoseconds or picoseconds: mostly below 100 ps, often even well below 100 fs. These are nearly always mode-locked lasers, although e.g. gain switching can also provide ultrashort pulses in the picosecond domain. Typical pulse repetition rates of ultrafast lasers are of the order of 100 MHz, but it is also possible to have only a few megahertz or many gigahertz.
  • In some cases, one employs cavity dumping to a mode-locked laser for obtaining pulse trains with higher pulse energy at a lower pulse repetition rate (e.g. 1 MHz instead of 100 MHz).
  • The term is also used for ultrafast laser systems comprising an ultrafast laser and some kind of pulse amplifier. In some cases, the high repetition rate pulse train of a mode-locked laser is just amplified to a higher power level, raising the pulse energy as much as the average power. In other cases, the pulse repetition rate is substantially or even dramatically reduced with a pulse picker. The pulse energy obtainable with amplification can then be much higher; in extreme cases, it is multiple joules, and the peak power can be extremely high (in the terawatt or even petawatt region).

A more precise but less common term is actually ultrashort pulse lasers; such lasers utilize ultrafast processes and emit light with very fast changes of optical power, but are strictly speaking not ultrafast themselves.

Types of Ultrafast Lasers

The most important types of ultrafast lasers (without amplifiers) are briefly listed in the following:

See the article on ultrafast amplifiers for common type of amplifiers, including both laser amplifiers and parametric amplifiers.

Physical Phenomena

The following phenomena of ultrafast optics and ultrafast laser physics are most relevant in ultrashort pulse lasers:

The research area of ultrafast lasers and their applications is called ultrafast laser physics and ultrafast optics. It deals with all kinds of effects occurring in these lasers, but also with phenomena which can be investigated using ultrashort laser pulses. Examples of such application areas are high-intensity physics (→ high harmonic generation), frequency metrology, laser spectroscopy, and terahertz science.

Developments in the Field of Ultrashort Pulse Generation

The field of ultrashort pulse generation has had roughly three decades to develop and can thus be considered relatively mature. Some of the most important developments which are more or less finished are listed in the following:

  • Although dye lasers dominated the field in earlier times, these have been nearly completely replaced with long-lived, powerful and efficient diode-pumped solid-state lasers. Basically only for a few special spectral regions are dye lasers still used. Their competitors are synchronously pumped optical parametric oscillators.
  • An important technological development is that of semiconductor saturable absorber mirrors (SESAMs) [11] as very versatile devices mainly for passive mode locking. Although such devices have been used since the early 1990s, their benefits were later greatly increased by improved SESAM designs, a wider range of available semiconductor materials, improved fabrication techniques, and particularly by a much improved understanding of their optimum use – particularly in extreme parameter regions. Today, SESAMs can be used in very wide parameter regions concerning pulse duration, laser wavelength and power level.
  • The pulse duration achievable with solid-state lasers (without external pulse compression) has come down to the region around 5.5 fs, corresponding to about two optical oscillation cycles (few-cycle pulses) (Refs. Sutter 1999, Morgner 1999). This is done with Kerr-lens mode-locked titanium–sapphire lasers. The resulting optical spectra are extremely wide, with ultrabroad bandwidths of the order of an octave (octave-spanning spectra), even though the full width at half-maximum (FWHM) is usually somewhat smaller.
  • Further shortening of ultrashort pulses is possible with pulse compression techniques. Advanced compression setups allow for pulse durations below 3 fs (although the concept of pulse duration becomes nontrivial in this parameter regime). The technique of high harmonic generation even allows the generation of attosecond pulses in the extreme ultraviolet spectral region.
  • Diode-pumped solid-state lasers, particularly those based on ytterbium, have been developed for extremely high average output powers (Refs. Innerhofer 2003, Brunner 2004, Saraceno 2014, Brons 2014) and for pulse energies of multiple microjoules [13]. This progress was based on thin-disk laser heads, an improved understanding of Q-switching instabilities, damage issues of saturable absorbers, resonator design, and most importantly a solid understanding of the complicated interplay of all these aspects.
  • Both Nd:YVO4 lasers and erbium-doped bulk lasers with miniature resonators have been developed for the generation of pulse trains with extremely high pulse repetition rates of tens of gigahertz or even well above 100 GHz [9]. This required mainly optimized resonator designs and an improved understanding of Q-switching instabilities. Such lasers emit picosecond pulses with moderate average output powers, normally well below 1 W.
  • After many years where mode-locked semiconductor lasers were limited to fairly low output powers, novel optically pumped passively mode-locked vertical external cavity surface-emitting lasers (VECSELs) have been demonstrated to be suitable for a combination of high (multi-gigahertz) pulse repetition rates with multi-watt average output powers.
  • Nonlinear frequency conversion (e.g. with optical parametric oscillators) has been proven to work well even at very high average power levels. In some respects, the setups can even become simpler than those of lower-power devices. Access to a wider range of wavelengths is crucial for some applications, such as laser projection displays (→ RGB sources).

Further developments can be expected in the near future:

  • The choice of solid-state gain media is still growing. New laser crystal materials with interesting properties have been developed, which promise superior performance or even entirely new achievements. For example, new ytterbium-doped laser gain media such as sesquioxides and tungstates could prove even better than Yb:YAG for thin-disk lasers with even higher powers in ultrashort pulses, or for shorter pulses at high power levels. On the other hand, ultrabroadband gain media such as Cr2+:ZnSe should be suitable for the generation of pulses with 20 fs duration or less in the spectral region around 2.7 μm, even though this expectation has not been fulfilled, without the reason being very clear so far. (Excessive nonlinearity is perhaps an explanation.)
  • Mode-locked fiber lasers [18] have been showing impressive advances in performance for several years. It is to be expected that this development will continue, also for commercial lasers, although some fundamental limitations arise from fiber nonlinearities. Most promising is the potential for cost reduction in cases where performance requirements are moderate and production quantities are high. See also the article on fiber lasers versus bulk lasers.
  • Ultrafast amplifier devices for lower repetition rates (mainly diode-pumped regenerative amplifiers) will become more and more important for laser material processing, e.g. in the form of laser micromachining.
  • Passively mode-locked VECSELs (see above) surely have the potential for significant further advances in performance, particularly in the area of multi-gigahertz repetition rates combined with multi-watt output powers and/or sub-picosecond pulse durations. Furthermore, the application of wafer-scale technologies may allow mode-locked VECSELs to be fabricated at very low cost, making possible new application fields with stringent cost limits.

Concerning applications, it is to be expected that many more ideas will be generated. Note that certain parameter regions have only recently be accessible with laser sources, so that those working on the application side can start thinking about using such sources, some of which should soon become commercially available. It appears realistic to expect that ultrafast technology will gain further importance and permit new exciting developments.

Applications of Ultrafast Lasers

The output of an ultrafast laser has various remarkable properties which are of interest for a wide range of applications in fundamental research. There is also a wide range of industrial applications, which have become more attractive with the advent of compact, powerful and cost-effective mode-locked lasers.

The applications include very diverse areas, and exploit different aspects of ultrashort pulses; some examples:


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 109 suppliers for ultrafast lasers. Among them:


[1]F. Krausz et al., “Femtosecond solid-state lasers”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 28 (10), 2097 (1992), DOI:10.1109/3.159520
[2]P. J. Delfyett et al., “High-power ultrafast laser diodes”, IEEE J. Quantum Electron. 28 (10), 2203 (1992), DOI:10.1109/3.159528
[3]P. M. W. French, “The generation of ultrashort laser pulses”, Rep. Prog. Phys. 58, 169 (1995), DOI:10.1088/0034-4885/58/2/001
[4]S. Backus et al., “High power ultrafast lasers”, Rev. Sci. Instrum. 69, 1207 (1998), DOI:10.1063/1.1148795
[5]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
[6]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
[7]C. Hönninger et al., “Ultrafast ytterbium-doped bulk lasers and laser amplifiers”, Appl. Phys. B 69, 3 (1999), DOI:10.1007/s003400050762
[8]E. Sorokin et al., “Diode-pumped ultrashort-pulse solid-state lasers”, Appl. Phys. B 72, 3 (2001), DOI:10.1007/s003400000464
[9]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
[10]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
[11]U. Keller, “Recent developments in compact ultrafast lasers”, Nature 424, 831 (2003), DOI:10.1038/nature01938
[12]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
[13]S. V. Marchese et al., “Pulse energy scaling to 5 μJ from a femtosecond thin-disk laser”, Opt. Lett. 31 (18), 2728 (2006), DOI:10.1364/OL.31.002728
[14]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
[15]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
[16]K. Sugioka and Y. Cheng, “Ultrafast lasers – reliable tools for advanced materials processing”, Light: Science & Applications 3, e149 (2014), DOI:10.1038/lsa.2014.30
[17]T. Nubbemeyer et al., “1 kW, 200 mJ picosecond thin-disk laser system”, Opt. Lett. 42 (7), 1381 (2017), DOI:10.1364/OL.42.001381
[18]M. E. Fermann, “Ultrafast fiber oscillators”, in Ultrafast Lasers: Technology and Applications (eds. M. E. Fermann, A. Galvanauskas, G. Sucha), Marcel Dekker, New York (2003), Chapter 3, pp. 89–154
[19]R. Paschotta and U. Keller, “Passively mode-locked solid-state lasers”, in Solid-State Lasers and Applications (ed. A. Sennaroglu), CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, LLC (2007), Chapter 7, pp. 259–318
[20]For German readers: R. Paschotta, “Ultrakurzpuls-Festkörperlaser – eine vielfältige Familie”, Photonik 1 / 2006, p. 70
[21]R. Paschotta, “Laser sources for ultrashort pulses”, Laser Technik Journal 4 (1), p. 49 (2007)

See also: ultrafast laser physics, pulse generation, mode locking, passive mode locking, mode-locked lasers, Kerr lens mode locking, titanium–sapphire lasers, femtosecond lasers, picosecond lasers, ultrashort pulses, ultrafast amplifiers, optical sampling, laser applications, spotlight 2008-06-20

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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