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He-Ne Lasers – Introduction

A helium-neon (henceforth abbreviated HeNe) laser is basically a fancy neon sign with mirrors at both ends. Well, not quite, but really not much more than this at first glance (though the design and manufacturing issues which must be dealt with to achieve the desired beam characteristics, power output, stability, and life span, are non-trivial). The gas fill is a mixture of helium and neon gas at low pressure. A pair of mirrors – one totally reflective (called the High Reflector or HR), the other partially reflective (called the Output Coupler or OC) at the wavelength of the laser’s output – complete the resonator assembly. This is called a Fabry-Perot cavity (if you want to impress your friends). The mirrors may be internal (common on small and inexpensive tubes) or external (on precision high priced lab quality lasers). Electrodes sealed into the tube allow for the passage of high voltage DC current to excite the discharge.

Note that a true laser jock will further abbreviate “HeNe laser” to simply “HeNe”, pronounced: Hee-nee. Their laser jock colleagues and friends then know this really refers to a laser! 🙂 While other types of lasers are sometimes abbreviated in an analogous manner, it is never to the same extent as the HeNe.

I still consider the HeNe laser to be the quintessential laser: An electrically excited gas between a pair of mirrors. It is also the ideal first laser for the experimenter and hobbyist. OK, well, maybe after you get over the excitement of your first laser pointer! 🙂 HeNe’s are simple in principle though complex to manufacture, the beam quality is excellent – better than anything else available at a similar price. When properly powered and reasonable precautions are taken, they are relatively safe if the power output is under 5 mW. And such a laser can be easily used for many applications. With a bare HeNe laser tube, you can even look inside while it is in operation and see what is going on. Well, OK, with just a wee bit of imagination! 🙂 This really isn’t possible with diode or solid state lasers.

I remember doing the glasswork for a 3 foot long HeNe laser (probably based on the design from: “The Amateur Scientist – Helium-Neon Laser”, Scientific American, September 1964, and reprinted in the collection: “Light and Its Uses” [5]). This included joining side tubes for the electrodes and exhaust port, fusing the electrodes themselves to the glass, preparing the main bore (capillary), and cutting the angled Brewster windows (so that external mirrors could be used) on a diamond saw. I do not know if the person building the laser ever got it to work but suspect that he gave up or went on to other projects (which probably were also never finished). And, HeNe lasers are one of the simplest type of lasers to fabricate which produce a visible continuous beam.

Some die-hards still construct their own HeNe lasers from scratch. Once all the glasswork is complete, the tube must be evacuated, baked to drive off surface impurities, backfilled with a specific mixture of helium to neon (typically around 7:1 to 10:1) at a pressure of between 2 and 5 Torr (normal atmospheric pressure is about 760 Torr – 760 mm of mercury), and sealed. The mirrors must then be painstakingly positioned and aligned. Finally, the great moment arrives and the power is applied. You also constructed your high voltage power supply from scratch, correct? With luck, the laser produces a beam and only final adjustments to the mirrors are then required to optimize beam power and stability. Or, more, likely, you are doing all of this while your vacuum pumps are chugging along and you can still play with the gas fill pressure and composition. What can go wrong? All sorts of things can go wrong! With external mirrors, the losses may be too great resulting in insufficient optical gain in the resonant cavity. The gas mixture may be incorrect or become contaminated. Seals might leak. Your power supply may not start the tube, or it may catch fire or blow up. It just may not be your day! And, the lifetime of the laser is likely to end up being only a few hours in any case unless you have access to an ultra-high vacuum pumping and bakeout facility. While getting such a contraption to work would be an extremely rewarding experience, its utility for any sort of real applications would likely be quite limited and require constant fiddling with the adjustments. Nonetheless, if you really want to be able to say you built a laser from the ground up, this is one approach to take! (However, the CO2 and N2 lasers are likely to be much easier for the first-time laser builder.)

However, for most of us, ‘building’ a HeNe laser is like ‘building’ a PC: An inexpensive HeNe tube and power supply are obtained, mounted, and wired together. Optics are added as needed. Power supplies may be home-built as an interesting project but few have the desire, facilities, patience, and determination to construct the actual HeNe tube itself.

The most common internal mirror HeNe laser tubes are between 4.5″ and 14″ (125 mm to 350 mm) in overall length and 3/4″ to 1-1/2″ (19 mm to 37.5 mm) in diameter generating optical power from 0.5 mW to 5 mW. They require no maintenance and no adjustments of any kind during their long lifetime (20,000 hours typical). Both new and surplus tubes of this type – either bare or as part of complete laser heads – are readily available. Slightly smaller tubes (less than 0.5 mW) and much larger tubes (up to approximately 35 mW) are structurally similar (except for size) to these but are not as common.

Much larger HeNe tubes with internal or external mirrors or one of each (more than a *meter* in length!) and capable of generating up to 250 mW of optical power have been available and may turn up on the surplus market as well (but most of these are quite dead by now). The most famous of these (as lasers go) is probably the Spectra-Physics model 125A whose laser head is over 6 feet in length. It was only rated 50 mW (633 nm), but new samples under optimal conditions may have produced more than 200 mW. Even more powerful ones have been built as research projects. I’ve seen photos of a Hughes HeNe laser with a head around 8 feet in length that required a 6 foot rack-mount enclosure for the exciter.

Monster Vintage Hughes HeNe Laser System

Monster Vintage Hughes HeNe Laser System

Its output power is unknown, but probably less than that of the SP-125A. The largest single transverse mode (SM, with a TEM00 beam profile) HeNe lasers in current production by a well known manufacturer like Melles Griot are rated at about 35 mW minimum over an expected lifetime of 20,000 hours or more, though new samples may exceed 50 mW. However, HeNe lasers rated up to at least 70 mW SM and 100 mW MM are available. Manufacturers include: CDHC-Optics (China), Spectral Laser (Italy), and PLASMA, JSC (Russia). However, the lifetime over which these specifications apply is not known and may be much shorter.

Highly specialized configurations, such as a triple XYZ axis triangular cavity HeNe laser in a solid glass block for an optical ring laser gyro, also exist but are much much less common. Most HeNe lasers operate CW (Continuous Wave) producing a steady beam at a fixed output power unless the power is switched on and off or modulated (or someone sticks their finger in the beam and blocks it!). (At least they are supposed to when in good operating condition!) However, there are some mode-locked HeNe lasers that output a series of short pulses at a high repetition rate. And, in principle, it is possible to force a HeNe laser with at least one external mirror to “cavity dump” a high power pulse (perhaps 100 times the CW power) a couple of nanoseconds long by diverting the internal beam path with an ultra high speed acousto-optic deflector. But, for the most part, such systems aren’t generally useful for very much outside some esoteric research areas and in any case, you probably won’t find any of these at a local flea market or swap meet, though eBay can’t be ruled out! 🙂

Nearly all HeNe lasers output a single wavelength and it is most often red at 632.8 nm. (This color beam actually appears somewhat orange-red especially compared to many laser pointers using diode lasers at wavelengths between 650 and 670 nm). However, green (543.5 nm), yellow (594.1 nm), orange (604.6 and 611.9 nm), and even IR (1,152, 1.523, and 3,921 nm) HeNe lasers are available. There are a few high performance HeNe lasers that are tunable and very expensive. And, occasionally one comes across laser tubes that output two or more wavelengths simultaneously. Although some tubes are designed this way, it is more likely to be a ‘defect’ resulting from a combination of high gain and insufficiently narrow band optics. Such tubes tend to be unstable with the relative power varying among the multiple wavelengths more or less at random.

Note that the single wavelength described above usually consists of more than one longitudinal mode or lasing line (more on this later). However, some HeNe lasers are designed to produce a highly stable single optical frequency or two closely spaced optical frequencies. These are used in scientific research and metrology (measurement) applications, described in more detail below.

Current major HeNe laser manufacturers include Melles-Griot, JDS Uniphase, and LASOS. This is far fewer than there were only a few years ago. So, you may also find lasers from companies like Aerotech, Hughes, Siemens, and Spectra-Physics that have since gotten out of the HeNe laser business or have been bought out, merged, or changed names. For example, the HeNe laser divisions of Aerotech and Hughes were acquired by Melles Griot; Sieman’s HeNe laser product line is now part of LASOS; and Spectra-Physics which was probably the largest producer of HeNe lasers from the very beginning gradually eliminated all HeNe lasers from its product line over the last few years. HeNe tubes, laser heads, and complete lasers from any of these manufacturers are generally of very high quality and reliability.

HeNe lasers have been found in all kinds of equipment including:

  • Consumer: Supermarket checkout UPC and other barcode scanners. early laser printers, early LaserDisc players.
  • Advertising/entertainment: Holography, small laser shows.
  • Measurement: Optical surveying, interferometric metrology and velocimetry, other non-contact measurement and monitoring, ring laser gyro.
  • Construction: Laser level, tunnel boring, alignment of saw mill wood cutting, general surveying.
  • Industrial: Automotive and other alignment; parts detection, counting, and positioning; particle counting.
  • Biotechnology: Blood cell analysis (cytometry), laser induced fluorescence of everything from whole cells to single DNA bases, laser tweezers, confocal microscopy, Raman spectroscopy, anesthesia and other gas analysis.
  • Medical/surgical: Patient positioning systems for diagnostic and treatment machines, alignment of high power CO2 and YAG treatment lasers and pointing beams.

Nowadays, many of these applications are likely to use the much more compact lower (drive) power solid state diode laser. (You can tell if you local ACME supermarket uses a HeNe laser in its checkout scanners by the color of the light – the 632.8 nm wavelength beam from a HeNe laser is noticeably more orange than the 660 or 670 nm deep red from a typical diode laser type.)

Melles Griot (now part of IDEX Optics and Photonics Marketplace. Catalogs used to include several pages describing HeNe laser applications. I know this was present in the 1998 catalog but has since disappeared and I don’t think it is on their Web site.

Also see the section: Some Applications of a 1 mW Helium-Neon Laser for the sorts of things you can do with even a small HeNe laser.

Since a 5 mW laser pointer complete with batteries can conveniently fit on a keychain and generate the same beam power as an AC line operated HeNe laser almost half a meter long, why bother with a HeNe laser at all? There are several reasons:

  • For many applications including holography and interferometry, the high quality stable beam of a HeNe laser is unmatched (at least at reasonable cost, perhaps at all) by laser diodes (though this is apparently changing at least for some diode lasers. See the section: Holography Using Cheap Diode Lasers. In particular, the coherence length and monochromicity of even a cheap HeNe laser are excellent and the beam profile is circular and nearly ideal Gaussian TEM00 so that simple spherical optics can be used for beam manipulation. Bare edge emitting laser diodes (the only visible type currently available) on the other hand always produce a wedge shaped beam and have some amount of astigmatism. Correcting this to the equivalent quality of a HeNe laser is difficult and expensive.
  • As noted in the chapter: Diode Lasers, it is all too easy to ruin them in the blink of an eye (actually, the time it takes light to travel a few feet). It would not take very long to get frustrated burning out $50 diodes. So, the HeNe laser tube may be a better way to get started. They are harder to damage through carelessness or design errors. Just don’t get the polarity reversed or exceed the tube’s rated current for too long – or drop them on the floor! And, take care around the high voltage!
  • Laser diode modules at a wavelength of 635 nm (close to the 632.8 nm wavelength of red HeNe lasers) may still be somewhat more expensive than surplus HeNe tubes with power supplies. However, with the increasing popularity of DVD players and DVDROM drives, this situation probably won’t last long.

However, the market for new HeNe lasers is still in the 100,000 or more units per year. What can you say? If you need a stable, round, astigmatism-free, long lived, visible 1 to 10 mW beam for under $500 (new, remember!), the HeNe laser is still the only choice.