Looking through eBay recently I came across a great deal on some Helium-Neon laser heads from Melles Griot. While definitely not new, these gas lasers are extremely long-lasting & I figured the tubes inside would make a nice addition to my laser collection. Doing some searching on the model number, these heads are rated at an optical output of 4mW, but depending on how much milage is on the tubes, the output may be a bit higher.
I got a pair of the heads, this one was manufactured in July 1988, the other March 1989.
The OC end of the head has the laser classification label & the beam shutter. Once I’d tested the laser heads to make sure they survived the post intact, I set at extracting the plasma tubes from the aluminium housings.
The end caps are fibre-reinforced plastic & are secured with epoxy resin, so some heating & brute force released the caps from the housing, giving access to the laser tube itself.
The laser tube is secured in these heads by hot glue – this was squirted into the housing via two rows of holes around the ends. (Some are secured with RTV silicone, which is substantially more difficult to remove).
I’ve no photos of the actual extraction process as it’s difficult enough as is without at least 5 hands. A heat gun was used to warm up the housing until the glue melted enough to slide the tube out of the housing. Since everything was hot at this stage, a piece of copper tubing (above), was slipped over the OC mirror mount, so I could push the tube out of the housing while the glue was soft. This also protected the mirror from damage while the tube was being removed.
After a few minutes of gentle pushing while keeping the housing hot, the tube was released! It’s still pretty well covered in the remains of the hot glue, but this is easily removed once the tube cools down to room temperature with Isopropanol. The line of Kapton tape running down the tube to the cathode end is insulating a start tape electrode, which is supposed to make the laser strike faster on power-up. Instead of being metal though, the electrode appears to be a carbon-loaded plastic tape.
Here’s the HR end of the tube, which also serves as the high voltage anode electrode. The start tape is clipped onto the mirror mount, but all this will be removed.
The OC end of the laser, where the beam emerges. What I think is the mW rating of the tubes is written on the end cap, probably from when the tubes were manufactured.
Applying power from a He-Ne laser PSU confirmed the tube still works!
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.
For accurate measurements, you’ll need an optical instrument such as a monochromator or spectrophotometer or optical spectrum analyzer. But to simply see the complexity of the discharge spectrum inside the bore of a He-Ne laser tube, it’s much easier and cheaper.
(Spectra for various elements and compounds can be easily found by searching the Web. The NIST Atomic Spectra Database has an applet which will generate a table or plot of more spectral lines than you could ever want.)
Instant Spectroscope for Viewing Lines in He-Ne Discharge
It is easy to look at the major visible lines. All it takes is a diffraction grating or prism. I made my instant spectroscope from the diffraction grating out of some sort of special effects glasses – found in a box of cereal, no less! – and a monocular (actually 1/2 of a pair of binoculars).
If you missed the Kellogg’s option, diffraction gratings can be purchased from places like Edmund Scientific. You don’t need anything fancy – any of the inexpensive ‘transmission replica gratings’ on a flat rigid substrate or mounted between a pair of plane glass plates will be fine. In a pinch, a CD disc or other optical media will work but only as a reflection grating so mounting may be a problem. A spectroscope can also be made with a prism of course but a diffraction grating is likely to be less expensive and better for this application since it is much lighter and easier to mount.
The plasma tube of a bare He-Ne laser is an ideal light source since it provides its own slit as the glow discharge is confined to the long narrow capillary bore. However, this approach can also be used with other lasers as long as the beam can be focused to a spot on a wall or screen. This will produce a ‘bright spot spectra’ instead of politically correct lines but you can’t have everything. 🙂
The diffraction grating can be used by itself but the additional optics will provide magnification and other benefits for people with less than perfect eyeballs.
Glue the diffraction grating to a cardboard sleeve that can be slipped over the (or one) objective of a monocular, binocular, or small telescope – or the telephoto lens of your camera. Orient it so that the dispersion will be vertical (since your slit will be horizontal).
Operate the HeNe tube on a piece of black velvet or paper. This will result in optimum contrast. This is best done in a darkened room where the only source of light is the laser tube itself. Just don’t trip and zap yourself on the high voltage!
A diffraction grating produces several images. The zero’th order will be the original image seen straight ahead. The important ones are the first order spectra. Tip the instrument up or down to see these. The dispersion direction – order of the colours – will depend on which way it is tipped.
Any distance beyond the closest focus of your instrument will work but being further away will reduce the effective width of the ‘slit’ resulting in the ability to distinguish more closely spaced lines.
The shear number of individual spectral lines present in the discharge is quite amazing. You will see the major red, orange, yellow, and green lines as well as some far into the blue and violet portions of the spectrum and toward the IR as well.
All of those shown will be present as well as many others not produced by the individual gas discharges. There are numerous IR lines as well but, of course, these will not be visible.
Place a white card in the exit beam and note where the single red output line of the He-Ne tube falls relative to the position and intensity of the numerous red lines present in the gas discharge.
As an aside, you may also note a weak blue/green haze surrounding the intense main red beam (not even with the spectroscope). This is due to the blue/green (incoherent) spectral lines in the discharge being able to pass through the output mirror which has been optimized to reflect well (>99 percent) at 632.8 nm and is relatively transparent at wavelengths some distance away from these (shorter and longer but you would need an IR sensor to see the longer ones). Since it is not part of the lasing process, this light diverges rapidly and is therefore only visible close to the tube’s output mirror.
Dynamic Measurement of Discharge Spectra
The following is trivial to do if you have a recording spectrometer and external mirror He-Ne laser. For an internal mirror He-Ne laser tube, it should be possible to rock one of the mirrors far enough to kill lasing without permanently changing alignment. If you don’t have proper measuring instruments, don’t worry, this is probably in the “Gee wiz, that’s neat but of marginal practical use” department. 🙂
(From: George Werner (firstname.lastname@example.org).)
Here is an effect I found many years ago and I don’t know if anyone has pursued it further.
We had a recording spectrometer in our lab which we used to examine the incoherent light coming from the laser discharge. This spectrum when lasing was slightly different from the spectrum when not lasing, which one can expect since energy levels are redistributed. As with most detectors, ours used a chopper in the spectrometer light beam and a lock-in amplifier.
Instead of putting the chopper in the path of light going to the spectrometer, I put it in the path of the internal laser beam, so that instead of an open/closed signal going to the amplifier it was a lasing/not-lasing signal. What was recorded then was three kinds of spectrum lines: some deflected positive in the normal way, others deflected negative, and the third group were those that were unaffected by chopping, in which case when we passed over the line we only saw an increase in the noise level. Setting up such a test is easy. The hard part is interpreting the data in a meaningful way.
Other Colour Lines in Red He-Ne Laser Output
When viewing spectral lines in the actual beam of a red He-Ne laser, you may notice some very faint ones far removed from the dominant 632.8 nm line we all know and love. (This, of course, also applies to other colour He-Ne lasers.)
For He-Ne lasers, the primary line (usually 632.8 nm) is extremely narrow and effectively a singularity given any instrumentation you are likely to have at your disposal. Any other lines you detect in the output are almost certainly from two possible sources but neither is actual laser emission:
Plasma discharge – there are many strong emission lines in the actual discharge – and none of them are actually at the 632.8nm lasing wavelength! These extend from the mid-IR through the violet.Close to the output mirror, you may see some of this light seeping through especially at wavelengths in the green, blue, and violet, for which the dielectric mirrors are nearly perfectly transparent. However, such light will be quite divergent and diffuse and won’t be visible at all more than a couple of inches from the mirror.
Superradiance – As we know, He-Ne lasers can be made to operate at a variety of wavelengths other than the common 632.8nm red. The physics for these is still applicable in a red He-Ne tube but the mirrors do not have the needed reflectivity at these other wavelengths and therefore the resonator gain is too low to support true laser action. However, stimulated emission can still take place in superradiance mode – one pass down the tube and out, exiting easily for the green wavelength in particular since the dielectric mirrors are quite transparent in that region of the spectrum.The result will be a weak green beam that can sometimes be observed with a spectroscope in a very dark room room. It isn’t really quite as coherent or monochromatic as the beam from a true green He-Ne laser and probably has much wider divergence but nonetheless may be present. It may be easier to see this by using your spectroscope to view the bright spot from the laser on a white card rather than by deflecting the beam and trying to locate the green dot off to one side.Note: I have not been able to detect this effect on the short He-Ne tubes I have checked.
Since the brightness of the discharge and superradiance output should be about the same from either mirror, using the non-output end (high reflector) should prove easier (assuming it isn’t painted over or otherwise covered) since the red beam exiting from this mirror will be much less intense and won’t obscure the weak green beam.
Note that argon and krypton ion lasers are often designed for multiline output where all colours are coherent and within an order of magnitude of being equal to each other in intensity or with a knob to select an individual wavelength. Anything like this is only rarely done with He-Ne lasers because it is very difficult (and expensive) due to the low gain of the non-red lines.