How a Laser Works

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Introduction - About Lasers

Parts of a Ruby Laser
Parts of a Ruby Laser. Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Lasers are possible because of the way light interacts with electrons. Electrons exist at specific energy levels or states characteristic of that particular atom or molecule. The energy levels can be imagined as rings or orbits around a nucleus. Electrons in outer rings are at higher energy levels than those in inner rings. Electrons can be bumped up to higher energy levels by the injection of energy-for example, by a flash of light. When an electron drops from an outer to an inner level, "excess" energy is given off as light. The wavelength or color of the emitted light is precisely related to the amount of energy released. Depending on the particular lasing material being used, specific wavelengths of light are absorbed (to energize or excite the electrons) and specific wavelengths are emitted (when the electrons fall back to their initial level).

For a ruby laser, a crystal of ruby is formed into a cylinder. A fully reflecting mirror is placed on one end and a partially reflecting mirror on the other. A high-intensity lamp is spiraled around the ruby cylinder to provide a flash of white light that triggers the laser action. The green and blue wavelengths in the flash excite electrons in the chromium atoms to a higher energy level. Upon returning to their normal state, the electrons emit their characteristic ruby-red light. The mirrors reflect some of this light back and forth inside the ruby crystal, stimulating other excited chromium atoms to produce more red light, until the light pulse builds up to high power and drains the energy stored in the crystal.

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How a Laser Works - Step 1

How a Laser Works - Step 1
How a Laser Works - Step 1. Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
High-voltage electricity causes the quartz flash tube to emit an intense burst of light, exciting some of the atoms in the ruby crystal to higher energy levels.
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How a Laser Works - Step 2

How a Laser Works - Step 2
How a Laser Works - Step 2. Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
At a specific energy level, some atoms emit particles of light called photons. At first the photons are emitted in all directions. Photons from one atom stimulate emission of photons from other atoms and the light intensity is rapidly amplified.
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How a Laser Works - Step 3

How a Laser Works - Step 3
How a Laser Works - Step 3. Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Mirrors at each end reflect the photons back and forth, continuing this process of stimulated emission and amplification.
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How a Laser Works - Step 4

How a Laser Works - Step 4
How a Laser Works - Step 4. Courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
The photons leave through the partially silvered mirror at one end. This is laser light.