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A laser is a coherent and focused beam of photons; coherent, in this context, means that it is all one wavelength, unlike ordinary light which showers on us in many wavelengths.

The acronym laser stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." Lasers work as a result of resonant effects. The output of a laser is a coherent electromagnetic field. In a coherent beam of electromagnetic energy, all the waves have the same frequency and phase.

In a basic laser, a chamber called a cavity is designed to internally reflect infrared (IR), visible-light, or ultraviolet (UV) waves so they reinforce each other. The cavity can contain gases, liquids, or solids. The choice of cavity material determines the wavelength of the output. At each end of the cavity, there is a mirror. One mirror is totally reflective, allowing none of the energy to pass through; the other mirror is partially reflective, allowing approximately 5 percent of the energy to pass through. Energy is introduced into the cavity from an external source; this is called pumping.

As a result of pumping, an electromagnetic field appears inside the laser cavity at the natural (resonant) frequency of the atoms of the material that fills the cavity. The waves reflect back and forth between the mirrors. The length of the cavity is such that the reflected and re-reflected wave fronts reinforce each other in phase at the natural frequency of the cavity substance. Electromagnetic waves at this resonant frequency emerge from the end of the cavity having the partially-reflective mirror. The output may appear as a continuous beam, or as a series of brief, intense pulses.

The ruby laser, a simple and common type, has a rod-shaped cavity made of a mixture of solid aluminum oxide and chromium. The output is in pulses that last approximately 500 microseconds each. Pumping is done by means of a helical flash tube wrapped around the rod. The output is in the red visible range.

A blue laser has a shorter wavelength than the red laser, and the ability to store and read two to four times the amount of data.

The helium-neon laser is another popular type, favored by electronics hobbyists because of its moderate cost. As its name implies, it has a cavity filled with helium and neon gases. The output of the device is bright crimson. Other gases can be used instead of helium and neon, producing beams of different wavelengths. Argon produces a laser with blue visible output. A mixture of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and helium produces IR output.

Lasers are one of the most significant inventions developed during the20th century. They have found a tremendous variety of uses in electronics, computer hardware, medicine, and experimental science.

This was last updated in August 2018

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