He-Ne Laser Safety

As with *any* laser, proper precautions must be taken to avoid any possibility of damage to vision. The types of He-Ne lasers mostly dealt with in this document are rated Class II, IIIa, or the low end of IIIb (see the section: Laser Safety Classifications. For most of these, common sense (don’t stare into the beam) and fairly basic precautions suffice since the reflected or scattered light will not cause instantaneous injury and is not a fire hazard.

However, unlike those for laser diodes, He-Ne power supplies utilize high voltage (several kV) and some designs may be potentially lethal. This is particularly true of AC line powered units since the power transformer may be capable of much more current than is actually required by the He-Ne laser tube – especially if it is home built using the transformer from some other piece of equipment (like an old tube type console TV or that utility pole transformer you found along the curb) which may have a much higher current rating.

The high quality capacitors in a typical power supply will hold enough charge to wake you up – for quite a while even after the supply has been switched off and unplugged. Depending on design, there may be up to 10 to 15 kV or more (but on very small capacitors) if the power supply was operated without a He-Ne tube attached or it did not start for some reason. There will likely be a lower voltage – perhaps 1 to 3 kV – on somewhat larger capacitors. Unless significantly oversized, the amount of stored energy isn’t likely to be enough to be lethal but it can still be quite a jolt. The He-Ne tube itself also acts as a small HV capacitor so even touching it should it become disconnected from the power supply may give you a tingle. This probably won’t really hurt you physically but your ego may be bruised if you then drop the tube and it then shatters on the floor!

However, should you be dealing with a much larger He-Ne laser, its power supply is going to be correspondingly more dangerous as well. For example, a 35 mW He-Ne tube typically requires about 8 mA at 5 to 6 kV. That current may not sound like much but the power supply is likely capable of providing much more if you are the destination instead of the laser head (especially if it is a home-made unit using grossly oversized parts)! It doesn’t take much more under the wrong conditions to kill.

After powering off, use a well insulated 1M resistor made from a string of ten 100K, 2 W metal film resistors in a glass or plastic tube to drain the charge – and confirm with a voltmeter before touching anything. (Don’t use carbon resistors as I have seen them behave funny around high voltages. And, don’t use the old screwdriver trick – shorting the output of the power supply directly to ground – as this may damage it internally.)

And only change electrical connections or plug/unplug connectors with power OFF, being aware of the potential for stored charge. In particular, the aluminium cylinder of some HeNe laser heads is the negative return for the tube current via a spring contact inside the rear end-cap. So, pulling off the rear end-cap while the laser is powered will likely make YOU the negative return instead! You will probably then bounce off the ceiling while the laser bounces off the floor, which can easily ruin your entire day in more ways than one. 🙁 🙂 This connection scheme is known to be true for most JDS Uniphase and many Melles Griot laser heads, but may apply to others as well.

Now, for some first-hand experience:

(From: Doug (dulmage@skypoint.com).)

Well, here’s where I embarrass myself, but hopefully save a life…

I’ve worked on medium and large frame lasers since about 1980 (Spectra-Physics 168’s, 171’s, Innova 90’s, 100’s and 200’s – high voltage, high current, no line isolation, multi-kV igniters, etc.). Never in all that time did I ever get hurt other than getting a few retinal burns (that’s bad enough, but at least I never fell across a tube or igniter at startup). Anyway, the one laser that almost did kill me was also the smallest that I ever worked on.

I was doing some testing of AO devices along with some small cylindrical HeNe tubes from Siemens. These little coax tubes had clips for attaching the anode and cathode connections. Well, I was going through a few boxes of these things a day doing various tests. Just slap them on the bench, fire them up, discharge the supplies and then disconnect and try another one. They ran off a 9 VDC power supply.

At the end of one long day, I called it quits early and just shut the laser supply off and left the tube in place as I was just going to put on a new tube in the morning. That next morning, I came and incorrectly assumed that the power supply would have discharged on it own overnight. So, with each hand I stupidly grab one clip each on the laser to disconnect it. YeeHaaaaaaaaa!!!!. I felt like I had been hid across my temples with a two by four. It felt like I swallowed my tongue and then I kind of blacked out. One of the guys came and helped me up, but I was weak in the knees, and very disoriented.

I stumbled around for about 15 minutes and then out of nowhere it was just like I got another shock! This cycle of stuff went on for about 3 hours, then stopped once I got to the hospital. I can’t even remember what they did to me there. Anyway, how embarrassing to almost get killed by a HeNe laser after all that other high power stuff that I did. I think that’s called ‘irony’.

Comments on HeNe Laser Safety Issues

(Portions from: Robert Savas (jondrew@mail.ao.net).)

A 10 mw HeNe laser certainly presents an eye hazard.

According to American National Standard, ANSI Z136.1-1993, table 4 Simplified Method for Selecting Laser Eye Protection for Intrabeam Viewing, protective eyewear with an attenuation factor of 10 (Optical Density 1) is required for a HeNe with a 10 milliwatt output. This assumes an exposure duration of 0.25 to 10 seconds, the time in which they eye would blink or change viewing direction due the uncomfortable illumination level of the laser. Eyeware with an attenuation factor of 10 is roughly comparable to a good pair of sunglasses (this is NOT intended as a rigorous safety analysis, and I take no responsibility for anyone foolish enough to stare at a laser beam under any circumstances). This calculation also assumes the entire 10 milliwatts are contained in a beam small enough to enter a 7 millimeter aperture (the pupil of the eye). Beyond a few meters the beam has spread out enough so that only a small fraction of the total optical power could possible enter the eye.

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Cree XML-T6 x5 LED Torch

Here’s another torch from eBay, this time with 5 Cree XML-T6 LEDs.

Label
Label

Having 5 Cree LEDs rated at up to 3A a piece, this light has the capacity to draw about 50W from it’s power supply. In this case though, current draw is about 1.5A at 12v input on the full brightness setting.

Cree LED Torch
Cree LED Torch

Here’s the LEDs mounted into the reflector. Fitting this many high power LEDs into a small space requires some serious heatsinking. The casing is made of machined aluminium.

LED Module
LED Module

Unscrewing the front bezel allows the internals to come out. The core frame & reflector is all cast alloy as well, for heatsinking the LEDs. The controller PCB is mounted into a recess in the back of the LED mount.

Controller
Controller

Here’s the controller itself. The usual small microcontroller is present, for the multiple modes, and handling the momentary power switch.

Switching Inductor
Switching Inductor

As all the LEDs on this torch are connected in series, their forward voltage is ~12-15v. The battery is an 8.4v Li-Ion pack, so some boost conversion is required. This is handled by the circuitry on the other side of the board, with this large power inductor.

Reflector
Reflector

The reflector screws onto the front of the LED array, centered in place with some plastic grommets around the LEDs themselves.

LED Array
LED Array

Finally for the torch, the LED array itself. This is attached to the frame with some thermal adhesive, and the LEDs themselves are mounted on an aluminium-core PCB for better heat transfer.
This module unsurprisingly generates quite some heat, so I have improved the thermal transfer to the outer case with some thermal grease around the outer edge.

Charger
Charger

The supplied charger is the usual Chinese cheapy affair, claiming an output current of 1A at 8.4v. I never use these chargers, so they get butchered instead.

Charger PCB
Charger PCB

Here’s the main PCB. Overall the construction isn’t that bad, the input mains is full-wave rectified, but there is little in the way of RFI filtering. The supply is fused, but with an absolutely tiny glass affair that I seriously doubt has the ability to clear a large fault current.
Like many cheap supplies, the output wiring is very thin, it’s capacity to carry 1A is questionable.

PCB Reverse
PCB Reverse

On the reverse side, there’s a nice large gap between the mains side & the low voltage output. There’s even an anti-tracking slot under the optoisolator.

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ICL Barcode Scanner

Top
Top

An ICL barcode scanner from the 80s is shown here. This is the top of the unit with cover on.

Cover Removed
Cover Removed

Plastic cover removed from the unit showing internal components. Main PSU on left, scan assembly in center. Laser PSU & Cooling fan on right. Laser tube at top.

Scan Motor
Scan Motor

Closeup of laser scan motor. This unit scans the laser beam rapidly across the glass plate to read the barcode.

Controller PCB
Controller PCB

View of the bottom of the unit, showing the controller PCB in the centre.

Scan Motor Driver
Scan Motor Driver

The 3-phase motor driver circuit for the scan motor. 15v DC powered.

Laser Unit
Laser Unit

This is the laser unit disconnected from the back of the scanner. HT PSU is on right hand side, beam emerges from optics on left.

Laser Unit Label
Laser Unit Label

This unit is date stamped 1987. The oldest laser unit i own.

Tube PSU
Tube PSU

Laser tube power supply. Input voltage: 24v DC. Output: 1.8kV 4mA.

Laser PSU Board
Laser PSU Board

Rear of HT PSU. Obviously the factory made a mistake or two 🙂

Laser Tube Mounting
Laser Tube Mounting

Top cover removed from the laser unit here shows the 1mW He-Ne tube. Manufactured by Aerotech.

Tube Label
AeroTech He-Ne Tube

Tube label. Manufactured July 1993. Model LT06XR.

Plasma
Plasma

Here the tube has been removed from it’s mount to show the bore down the centre while energized.

OC Mirror
OC Mirror

OC end of the tube shown here lasing.

Beam
Beam

Beam output from the optics on the laser unit.

Tube Optics
Tube Optics

Optics built into the laser unit. Simple turning mirror on adjustable mount & collimating lens assembly.

Scan Lines
Scan Lines

Kind of hard to see but the unit is running here & projecting the scan lines on the top glass.

Laser Tube Mounting
Laser Tube Mounting

Laser tube mounting. A combo of spring clips & hot glue hold this He-Ne tube in place