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Wavelength Tuning

Definition: the manipulation of the output wavelength of an optical device such as a laser or an optical parametric oscillator

German: Wellenlängen-Einstellung

Categories: lasers, methods

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For some applications, it is required that the wavelength of a laser beam can be tuned within some range. Whereas the article on tunable lasers discusses various types of lasers which have an adjustable output wavelength, this article explains several methods of wavelength tuning.

Tuning via the Gain Medium

wavelength tuning by shifting the gain
Figure 1: Wavelength tuning by shifting the laser gain spectrum.

The first method is to influence the gain medium in such a way that the wavelength of maximum gain is changed, and the output wavelength adjusts accordingly (Figure 1). This method is often applied to lasers with operation on multiple resonator modes, where the “center of gravity” of the optical spectrum may be tuned fairly continuously. When the method is applied to single-frequency lasers, it usually leads to mode hopping.

Laser diodes are often tuned via the temperature, e.g. by changing the drive current of a thermoelectric cooler on which the laser diode is mounted, or the drive current of the laser diode itself. Typically, laser diodes tune by ≈ +0.3 nm/K, and the total tuning range achieved in that way may be a few nanometers wide. The resonator mode frequencies are also affected by the temperature change, but they react less strongly than the gain spectrum. In the case of single-frequency operation, continuous tuning over a wider range may be achieved if appropriate measures are taken to suppress mode hopping. For example, the resonator length may be tuned together with the drive current in the case of an external-cavity diode laser.

Tuning With an Intracavity Filter

wavelength tuning via resonator losses
Figure 2: Wavelength tuning via the resonator losses.

The second method is to introduce a tunable optical filter into the laser resonator, which has a pronounced loss minimum at some adjustable wavelength (Figure 2). This makes it possible to influence the wavelength of maximum net gain, at which the laser is usually forced to operate. More precisely, the laser will usually operate on one or several resonator modes for which the inversion level of the gain medium required for lasing (i.e. for generating a gain which equals the resonator losses) is close to its minimum. In the steady state (for continuous-wave operation), light at the laser wavelength has zero round trip net gain, and all other wavelengths experience a negative net gain (assuming homogeneous broadening of the gain spectrum).

This method is often applied to solid-state lasers. A wide wavelength tuning range of a laser requires a wide gain bandwidth of the gain medium. Some broadband gain media such as Ti:sapphire and Cr:ZnSe allow tuning over hundreds of nanometers. The tuning range obtained is usually the wavelength range in which sufficient net gain can be achieved. Its limits are often set by the points where the emission cross sections become too low or the resonator losses become too high. In some cases, the tuning range may be smaller because there is excited-state absorption, or because emission at wavelengths with maximum laser gain can not be fully suppressed. In some fiber lasers, for example, the inversion level (and hence the gain at extreme wavelengths) is limited by amplified spontaneous emission near the wavelength of maximum gain.

wavelength tuning of a laser
Figure 3: Wavelength tuning of a Yb:YAG laser: calculated output power (blue) for 20 W pump power, and threshold pump power (gray). The dashed curves were calculated for a reduced output coupler transmission, which broadens the tuning range while compromising the maximum output power.

Frequently used tuning elements in bulk laser resonators are:

External-cavity diode lasers can also be tuned with an intracavity filter. A holographic diffraction grating can be used as an end mirror (Littrow configuration), which is rotated for tuning, or a fixed grating within the resonator combined with a movable end mirror (Littman configuration).

Tuning via the Resonator Length

wavelength tuning by shifting the resonance frequencies
Figure 4: Wavelength tuning by shifting the resonances frequencies of the modes.

A single-frequency laser can be tuned within approximately one free spectral range of its resonator by fine adjustment of the resonator length within a range of half a wavelength (for linear resonators) (Figure 4). The principle behind this is that the frequencies of the resonator modes are shifted. Attempts to tune further may cause the laser to mode hop to the next resonator mode, which then has the higher gain. A wider tuning range can be achieved if the wavelength of maximum gain is also tuned, or with an additional intracavity filter.

Relatively wideband mode-hop-free tunability can be obtained with very short laser cavities. This is used with, e.g., MEMS VCSELs, having a separate output coupling mirror the position of which can be tuned via thermal expansion, electrostatic forces, or a piezoelectric element.

Alternative Techniques

Wavelength-tunable radiation can also be obtained with alternative techniques:

If a very fast periodic sweep of the optical frequency is required, an alternative method is available: short optical pulses are fed through a strongly dispersive element (e.g. a long fiber), so that the different wavelength components exit this element at different times.


The RP Photonics Buyer's Guide contains 11 suppliers for wavelength tuning devices.

See also: tunable lasers, distributed Bragg reflector lasers, optical filters, Lyot filters, birefringent tuners, interferometers, Spotlight article 2009-12-08
and other articles in the categories lasers, methods


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