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Power Requirements for He-Ne Lasers

Power for a He-Ne laser is provided by a special high voltage power supply and consists of two parts (these maximum values depend on tube size – a typical 1 to 10 mW tube is assumed):

  • Operating voltage of 1,000 to 3,000v DC at 3 to 8mA.Like most low current discharge tubes, the He-Ne laser is a negative resistance device. As the current *increases* through the tube, the voltage across the tube *decreases*. The incremental magnitude of the negative resistance also increases with decreasing current.
  • Starting voltage of 5 to 12 kV at almost no current.In the case of a He-Ne tube, the initial breakdown voltage is much greater than the sustaining voltage. The starting voltage may be provided by a separate circuit or be part of the main supply.Often, you may find a wire or conductive strip running from the anode or ballast resistor down to a loop around the tube in the vicinity of the cathode. (Or there may be a recommendation for this in a tube spec sheet.) This external wire loop is supposed to aid in starting (probably where a pulse type starter is involved). There may even be some statistical evidence suggesting a reduction in starting times. I wouldn’t expect there to be much, if any, benefit when using a modern power supply but it might help in marginal cases. But, running the high voltage along the body of the tube requires additional insulation and provides more opportunity for bad things to happen (like short circuits) and may represent an additional electric shock hazard. And, since the strip has some capacitance, operating stability may be impaired. I would probably just leave well enough alone if a starting strip is present and the laser operates without problems but wouldn’t install one when constructing a laser head from components.

    With every laser I’ve seen using one of these strips, it has either had virtually or totally no effect on starting OR has caused problems with leakage to the grounded cylinder after awhile. Cutting away the strip in the vicinity of the anode has cured erratic starting problems in the latter case and never resulted in a detectable increase in starting time.

  • With a constant voltage power supply, a series ballast resistor is essential to limit tube current to the proper value. A ballast resistor will still be required with a constant current or current limited supply to stabilize operation. The ballast resistor may be included as part of a laser head but will be external for most bare tubes. (The exceptions are larger Spectra-Physics He-Ne lasers where the ballast resistors are also inside a glass tube extension, electrically connected but sealed off from the main tube.In order for the discharge to be stable, the total of the effective power supply resistance, ballast resistance, and tube (negative) resistance must be greater than 0 ohms at the operating point. If this is not the case, the result will be a relaxation oscillator – a flashing or cycling laser!
  • Power supply polarity is important for He-Ne tubes. Electrical behaviour may be quite different if powered with incorrect polarity and tube damage (and very short life) will likely be the result from prolonged operation.
    • The positive output of the power supply is connected to a series ballast resistor and then to the anode (small) electrode of the He-Ne tube. This electrode may actually be part of the mirror assembly at that end of the tube or totally separate from it. The distance from the resistors to the electrode should be minimized – no more than 2 or 3 inches.
    • The negative output of the power supply is connected to the cathode (large can) electrode of the He-Ne tube. This electrode may be electrically connected to the mirror mount at that end of the tube but is a separate aluminium cylinder that extends for several inches down the tube. CAUTION: Some He-Ne tubes use a separate terminal for the cathode and sometimes the anode as well, not the mirror mount(s). Powering one of these via the mirror mounts may result in lasing but will also result in tube damage.

    Note: He-Ne tube starting voltage is lower and operating voltage is higher when powered with reverse polarity. With some power supply designs, the tube may appear to work equally well or even better (since starting the discharge is easier) when hooked up incorrectly. However, this is damaging to the anode electrode of the tube (and may result in more stress on the power supply as well due to the higher operating voltage) and must be avoided (except possibly for a very short duration during testing).

  • Every He-Ne tube will have a nominal current rating. In addition to excessive heating and damage to the electrodes, current beyond this value does not increase laser beam intensity. In fact, optical output actually decreases (probably because too high a percentage of the helium/neon atoms are in the excited state). You can easily and safely demonstrate this behaviour if your power supply has a current adjustment or you run an unregulated supply using a Variac. While the brightness of the discharge inside the tube will increase with increasing current, the actual intensity of the laser beam will max out and then eventually decrease with increasing current. (This is also an easy way of determining optimal tube current if you have not data on the tube – adjust the ballast resistor or power supply for maximum optical output and set it so that the current is at the lower end of the range over which the beam intensity is approximately constant.) Optical noise in the output will also increase with excessive current.
  • The efficiency of the typical He-Ne laser is pretty pathetic. For example, a 2 mW HeNe tube powered by 1,400 V at 6mA has an efficiency of less than 0.025%. More than 99.975% of the power is wasted in the form of heat and incoherent light (from the discharge)! This doesn’t even include the losses of the power supply and ballast resistor.

A few He-Ne lasers – usually larger or research types – have used a radio frequency (RF) generator – essentially a radio transmitter to excite the discharge. This was the case with the original He-Ne laser but is quite rare today given the design of internal mirror He-Ne tubes and the relative simplicity of the required DC power supply.