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Arduino Milliohm Meter Build

During the rebuild of the wheelchair motors for the support trolley, I found myself needing an accurate milliohm meter to test the armature windings with. Commercial instruments like these are expensive, but some Google searching found a milliohm meter project based around the Arduino from Circuit Cellar.

Circuit Diagram
Circuit Diagram

Here’s the original author’s circuit diagram, paralleling nearly all of the Arduino’s digital output pins together to source/sink the test current, an ADS1115 ADC to take more accurate readings, with the results displayed on a jellybean 128×64 OLED module. The most expensive part here is the 10Ω 0.1% 15ppm reference resistor, R9.
I decided to make some small adjustments to the power supply section of the project, to include a rechargeable lithium cell rather than a 9v PP3 battery. This required some small changes to the Arduino sketch, a DC-DC boost converter to supply 5v from the 3.7v of a lithium cell, a charger module for said cell, and with the battery voltage being within the input range of the analogue inputs, the voltage divider on A3 was removed. A new display icon was also added in to indicate when the battery is being charged, this uses another digital input pin for input voltage sensing.
I also made some basic changes to the way an unreadable resistance is displayed, showing “OL” instead of “—–“, and the meter sends the reading out over the I²C bus, for future expansion purposes. The address the data is directed to is set to 0x50.

I’ve not etched a PCB for this as I couldn’t be bothered with the messy etchant, so I built this on a matrix board instead.

Final Prototype
Final Prototype

Since I made some changes to both the software and the hardware components, I decided to prototype the changes on breadboard. The lithium cell is at the top of the image. with the charger module & DC-DC converter. The Arduino Nano is on the right, the ADC & reference resistor on the left, and the display at the bottom.
The Raspberry Pi & ESP8266 module are being used in this case to discharge the battery quicker to make sure the battery level calibration was correct, and to make sure the DC-DC converter would continue to function throughout the battery voltage range.

Matrix Board Passives
Matrix Board Passives

Here’s the final board with the passive components installed, along with the DC-DC converter. I used a Texas Instruments PTN04050 boost module for power as I had one spare.

Matrix Board Rear
Matrix Board Rear

The bottom of the board has most of the wire jumpers for the I²C bus, and power sensing.

Matrix Board Modules
Matrix Board Modules

Here’s both modules installed on the board. I used an Arduino Nano instead of the Arduino Pro Mini that the original used as these were the parts I had in stock. Routing the analogue pins is also easier on the Mini, as they’re brought out to pins in the DIP footprint, instead of requiring wire links to odd spots on the module. To secure the PCB into the case without having to drill any holes, I tapped the corner holes of the matrix board M2.5 & threaded cap head screws in. These are then spot glued to the bottom of the case to secure the finished board.

Lithium Charger
Lithium Charger

The lithium charger module is attached to the side of the enclosure, the third white wire is for input sensing – when the USB cable is plugged in a charge icon is shown on the OLED display.

Input Connections
Input Connections

The inputs on the side of the enclosure. I’ve used the same 6-pin round connector for the probes, power is applied to the Arduino when the probes are plugged in.

Module Installed
Module Installed

Everything installed in the enclosure – it’s a pretty tight fit especially with the lithium cell in place.

Meter Top Cover
Meter Top Cover

The top cover has the Measure button, and the OLED display panel, the latter secured to the case with M2.5 cap head screws.

Kelvin Clips
Kelvin Clips

Finally, the measurement loom, with Kelvin clips. These were an eBay buy, keeping things cheap. These clips seem to be fairly well built, even if the hinges are plastic. I doubt they’re actually gold-plated, more likely to be brass. I haven’t noticed any error introduced by these cheap clips so far.

The modified sketch is below:

 

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EpEver MT50 Control Panel Teardown

MT50 Control Panel
MT50 Control Panel

Here’s the MT50 controller from EpEver, that interfaces with it’s Tracer MPPT solar charge controllers, and gives access to more programming options on the charge controllers, without the need for a laptop. The display is a large dot-matrix unit, with built in backlight. Above is the display on the default page, showing power information for the entire system.

PCB Rear
PCB Rear

The rear plastic cover is held in place by 4 machine screws, which thread into brass inserts in the plastic frame – nice high quality touch on the design here, no cheap self tapping plastic screws. Both power & data arrive via an Ethernet cable, but the communication here is RS-485, and not compatible with Ethernet! The PCB is pretty sparse, with comms & power on the left, LCD connection in the centre, and the microcontroller on the right.

RS-485 Transceiver
RS-485 Transceiver

On the left of the board is the RS0485 transceiver, and a small voltage regulator. There’s also a spot for a DC barrel jack, which isn’t included in this model for local power supply.

STM32 Microcontroller
STM32 Microcontroller

The other side of the board holds the main microcontroller which communicates with the charge controller. This is a STM32F051K8 from ST Microelectronics. With a 48MHz ARM Cortex M0 core, and up to 64K of flash, this is a pretty powerful MCU that has very little to do in this application.

PCB Front
PCB Front

The front of the PCB has the ENIG contacts of the front panel buttons, and the LCD backlight assembly. There’s nothing else under the plastic backlight spreader either.

LCD Rear
LCD Rear

The front case holds the LCD module in place with glue, and the rubber buttons are placed underneath, which is heat staked in place.

LCD Model
LCD Model

The LCD is a YC1420840CS6 from eCen in China. Couldn’t find much out about this specific LCD.

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32A Bench PSU Build

Load Test

Since I’ve discovered some nice high power PSUs in the form of Playstation 3 PSUs, it’s time to get a new Bench PSU Build underway!

Specifications
Specifications

I’ve gone for the APS-227 version as it’s got the 32A rail. This makes things slightly beefier overall, as the loading will never be anywhere close to 100% for long, more headroom on the specs is the result.

Desktop Instrument Case
Desktop Instrument Case

The case I’ve chosen for this is an ABS desktop instrument case from eBay, the TE554 200x175x70mm. The ABS is easy to cut the holes for all the through-panel gear, along with being sturdy enough. Aluminium front & back panels would be a nice addition for a better look.

PSU Mounted
PSU Mounted

The PSU board is removed from it’s factory casing & installed on the bottom shell half, unfortunately the moulded-in posts didn’t match the screw hole locations so I had to mount some brass standoffs separately. The AC input is also fitted here, I’ve used a common-mode filter to test things (this won’t be staying, as it fouls one of the case screw holes). The 40A rated DC output cable is soldered directly to the PCB traces, as there’s no room under the board to fit the factory DC power connector. (This is the biggest case I could find on eBay, and things are still a little tight). Some minor modifications were required to get the PCB to fit correctly.

Output Terminals & Adjuster
Output Terminals & Adjuster

I decided to add some limited voltage adjustment capability to the front panel, I had a 100Ω Vishay Spectrol Precision 10-turn potentiometer in my parts bin, from a project long since gone that just about fits between the panel & the output rectifier heatsink. The trimpot I added when I first posted about these PSUs is now used to set the upper voltage limit of 15 volts. (The output electrolytics are 16v rated, and are in an awkward place to get at to change for higher voltage parts). The binding posts are rated to 30A, and were also left over from a previous project.

Vishay Spectrol 10-Turn
Vishay Spectrol 10-Turn

 

Addon Regulator Components
Addon Regulator Components

This front panel potentiometer is electrically in series with the trimpot glued to the top of the auxiliary transformer, see above for a simple schematic of the added components. In this PSU, reducing the total resistance in the regulator circuit increases the voltage, so make sure the potentiometer is wired correctly for this!
After some experimentation, a 500Ω 10-turn potentiometer would be a better match, with a 750Ω resistor in parallel to give a total resistance range on the front panel pot of 300Ω. This will give a lower minimum voltage limit of about 12.00v to make lead-acid battery charging easier.
I’ve had to make a minor modification to the output rectifier heatsink to get this pot to fit in the available space, but nothing big enough to stop the heatsink working correctly.

Terminal Posts
Terminal Posts

Here I’ve got the binding posts mounted, however the studs are a little too long. Once the wiring is installed these will be trimmed back to clear both the case screw path & the heatsink. (The heatsink isn’t a part of the power path anyway, so it’s isolated).

Power Meter Control Board & Fan
Power Meter Control Board & Fan

To keep the output rectifier MOSFETs cool, there’s a fan mounted in the upper shell just above their location, this case has vents in the bottom already moulded in for the air to exit. The fan is operated with the DC output contactor, only running when the main DC is switched on. This keeps the noise to a minimum when the supply doesn’t require cooling. The panel meter control board is also mounted up here, in the only empty space available. The panel meter module itself is a VAC-1030A from MingHe.

Meter Power Board
Meter Power Board

The measurement shunt & main power contactor for the DC output is on another board, here mounted on the left side of the case. The measurement shunt is a low-cost one in this module, I doubt it’s made of the usual materials of Manganin or Constantan, this is confirmed by my meansurements as when the shunt heats up from high-power use, the readings drift by about 100mA. The original terminal blocks this module arrived with have been removed & the DC cables soldered directly to the PCB, to keep the number of high-current junctions to a minimum. This should ensure the lowest possible losses from resistive heating.

Meter Panel Module
Meter Panel Module

The panel meter module iself is powered from the 5v standby rail of the Sony PSU, instead of the 12v rail. This allows me to keep the meter on while the main 12v output is switched off.

PSU Internals
PSU Internals

here’s the supply with everything fitted to the lower shell – it’s a tight fit! A standard IEC connector has been fitted into the back panel for the mains input, giving much more clearance for the AC side of things.

Inside View
Inside View

With the top shell in place, a look through the panel cutout for the meter LCD shows the rather tight fit of all the meter components. There’s about 25mm of clearance above the top of the PSU board, giving plenty of room for the 40mm cooling fan to circulate air around.

Load Test
Load Test

Here’s the finished supply under a full load test – it’s charging a 200Ah deep cycle battery. The meter offers many protection modes, so I’ve set the current limit at 30A – preventing Sony’s built in over current protection on the PSU tripping with this function is a bonus, as the supply takes a good 90 seconds to recover afterwards. I’ll go into the many modes & features of this meter in another post.

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Philips LED PAR38 Lamp Teardown

Philips PAR38
Philips PAR38

These large LED Philips PAR38 lamps were recently on clearance sale in my local T.N. Robinsons electrical contractors for about £3, so I decided to grab one in the hopes I might be able to hack it into a low-voltage LED lamp. These are full-size PAR38 format, with most of the bulk being the large aluminium heatsink on the front. The back section with the power supply module is secured with silicone, so some unreasonable force was required to liberate the two pieces.

Specification
Specification

These lamps are rated at 18W in operation, and are surprisingly bright for this power level.

Lens
Lens

The front has the moulded multi-lens over the LEDs, to spread the light a bit further than the bare dies.

LED Array
LED Array

The LED array is two series strings of 4 LEDs, for ~24v forward voltage. Unusual for a high power LED array, this PCB isn’t aluminium cored, but 0.8mm FR4. Heat is transferred to the copper plane on the backside by the dozens of vias around the Luxeon Rebel LEDs. There is a thermal pad under the PCB for improved heat transfer to the machined surface of the heatsink.

Control PCB Top
Control PCB Top

The power supply & control PCB is pretty well made, it’s an isolated converter, so no nasty mains on the LED connections.

Control PCB Bottom
Control PCB Bottom
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Mercury 30A Ham Radio SMPS

Mercury 30A SMPS
Mercury 30A SMPS

After having a couple of the cheap Chinese PSUs fail on me in a rather spectacular fashion, I decided to splash on a more expensive name-brand PSU, since constantly replacing PSUs at £15 a piece is going to get old pretty fast. This is the 30A model from Mercury, which seems to be pretty well built. It’s also significantly more expensive at £80. Power output is via the beefy binding posts on the front panel. There isn’t any metering on board, this is something I’ll probably change once I’ve ascertained it’s reliability. This is also a fixed voltage supply, at 13.8v.

Rear Panel
Rear Panel

Not much on the rear panel, just the fuse & cooling fan. This isn’t temperature controlled, but it’s not loud. No IEC power socket here, the mains cable is hard wired.

Main Board
Main Board

Removing some spanner-type security screws reveals the power supply board itself. Everything on here is enormous to handle the 30A output current at 13.8v. The main primary side switching transistors are on the large silver heatsink in the centre of the board, feeding the huge ferrite transformer on the right.

Transformer
Transformer

The transformer’s low voltage output tap comes straight out instead of being on pins, due to the size of the winding cores. Four massive diodes are mounted on the black heatsinks for output rectification.

 

SMPS Controller
SMPS Controller

The supply is controlled via the jelly bean TL494 PWM controller IC. The multi-turn potentiometer doesn’t adjust the output voltage, more likely it adjusts the current limit.

Standby Supply
Standby Supply

Power to initially start the supply is provided by a small SMPS circuit, with a VIPer22A Low Power Primary Switcher & small transformer on the lower right. The transformer upper left is the base drive transformer for the main high power supply.

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Panasonic NV-M5 VHS Camcorder Teardown

Overview

Panasonic NV-M5 Camera
Panasonic NV-M5 Camera

Time foe some more retro tech! This is a 1980’s vintage CCD-based VHS camcorder from Panasonic, the NV-M5. There are a lot of parts to one of these (unlike modern cameras), so I’ll split this post into several sections to make things easier to read (and easier to keep track of what I’m talking about :)).

Left Side
Left Side

The left side of the camera holds the autofocus, white balance, shutter speed & date controls.

Left Side Controls
Left Side Controls
Lens Adjustments
Lens Adjustments

The lens is fully adjustable, with either manual or motorized automatic control.

Rear Panel
Rear Panel

The back panel has the battery slot, a very strange looking DC input connector, remote control connector & the earphone jack.

Top Controls
Top Controls

The top panel of the camera holds the main power controls, manual tape tracking & the tape transport control panel.

Viewfinder
Viewfinder

The viewfinder is mounted on a swivel mount. There’s a CRT based composite monitor in here. Hack ahoy!

Camera Section

Process Board Assembly
Process Board Assembly

Here’s the camera section of the camcorder, and is totally packed with electronics! There’s at least half a dozen separate boards in here, all fitted together around the optics tube assembly.

AWB PCB
AWB PCB

On the top of the assembly is the Automatic White Balance PCB. Many adjustments here to get everything set right. Not much on the other side of this board other than a bunch of Op-Amps. The iris stepper motor is fitted in a milled opening in the PCB, this connects to one of the other PCBs in the camera module.

AWB Sensor
AWB Sensor

Here’s the AWB sensor, mounted next to the lens. I’m not all to certain how this works, but the service manual has the pinout, and there are outputs for all the colour channels, RGB. So it’s probably a trio of photodiodes with filters.

Focus & Zoom Motors
Focus & Zoom Motors

Focus & Zoom are controlled with a pair of DC gear motors. The manual operation is feasible through the use of slip clutches in the final drive pinion onto the lens barrel.

Process Board
Process Board

The main camera section process board is above. This board does all the signal processing for the CCD, has the bias voltage supplies and houses the control sections for the motorized parts of the optics assembly. There are quite a few dipped Tantalum capacitors on pigtails, instead of being directly board mounted. This was probably done due to space requirements on the PCB itself.2016-08-20_13-40-11_000357

Under the steel shield on this board is some of the main signal processing for the CCD.

Optics Assembly
Optics Assembly

The back of the optics tube is a heavy casting, to supress vibration. This will be more clear later on.

Position Sensor Flex
Position Sensor Flex

The position of the lens elements is determined by reflective strips on the barrel & sensors on this flex PCB.

Sub Process Board
Sub Process Board

There’s another small board tucked into the side of the tube, this hooks into the process PCB.

Process Delay Line
Process Delay Line

According to the schematic, there’s nothing much on this board, just a delay line & a few transistors.

Piezo Focus Disc
Piezo Focus Disc

Here’s the reason for the heavy alloy casing at the CCD mounting end of the optics: the fine focus adjustment is done with a piezoelectric disc, the entire CCD assembly is mounted to this board. Applying voltage to the electrodes moves the assembly slightly to alter the position of the CCD. The blue glass in the centre of the unit is the IR filter.

IR Relective Sensors
IR Relective Sensors

The barrel position sensors are these IR-reflective type.

Iris Assembly
Iris Assembly

The iris is mounted just before the CCD, this is controlled with a galvanometer-type device with position sensors incorporated.

Iris Opening
Iris Opening

Pushing on the operating lever with the end of my screwdriver opens the leaves of the iris against the return spring.

Tape Transport & Main Control

Main Control Board
Main Control Board

Tucked into the side of the main body of the unit is the main system control board. This PCB houses all the vital functions of the camera: Power Supply, Servo Control, Colour Control,Video Amplifiers, etc.

Tape Drum
Tape Drum

Here’s the main tape transport mechanism, this is made of steel & aluminium stampings for structural support. The drum used in this transport is noticeably smaller than a standard VHS drum, the tape is wrapped around more of the drum surface to compensate.

Tape Transport
Tape Transport

The VHS tape sits in this carriage & the spools drive the supply & take up reels in the cartridge.

Main Control PCB
Main Control PCB

Here’s the component side of the main control PCB. This one is very densely packed with parts, I wouldn’t like to try & troubleshoot something like this!

Main PCB Left
Main PCB Left

The left side has the video head amp at the top, a Panasonic AN3311K 4-head video amp. Below that is video processing, the blue components are the analogue delay lines. There are a couple of hybrid flat-flex PCBs tucked in between with a couple of ICs & many passives. These hybrids handle the luma & chroma signals.
Top left is the capstan motor driver a Rohm BA6430S. The transport motors are all 3-phase brushless, with exception of the loading motor, which is a brushed DC type.

Delay Line
Delay Line

Here’s what is inside the delay lines for the analogue video circuits. The plastic casing holds a felt liner, inside which is the delay line itself.

Internal Glass
Internal Glass

The delay is created by sending an acoustic signal through the quartz crystal inside the device by a piezoelectric transducer, bouncing it off the walls of the crystal before returning it to a similar transducer.

Main PCB Centre
Main PCB Centre

Here’s the centre of the board, the strange crystal at bottom centre is the clock crystal for the head drum servo. Why it has 3 pins I’m not sure, only the two pins to the crystal inside are shown connected on the schematic. Maybe grounding the case?
The main servo controls for the head drum & the capstan motor are top centre, these get a control signal from the tape to lock the speed of the relative components.

Main PCB Right
Main PCB Right

Here’s the right hand side. The main power supply circuitry is at top right, with a large can containing 4 switching inductors & a ferrite pot core transformer. All these converters are controlled by a single BA6149 6-channel DC-DC converter controller IC via a ULN2003 transistor array.
The ceramic hybrid board next to the PSU has 7 switch transistors for driving various indicator LEDs.
The large tabbed IC bottom centre is the loading motor drive, an IC from Mitsubishi, the M54543. This has bidirectional DC control of the motor & built in braking functions. The large quad flat pack IC on the right is the MN1237A on-screen character generator, with the two clock crystals for the main microcontroller.

Erase Head
Erase Head

The full erase head has it’s power supply & oscillator on board, applying 9v to this board results in an AC signal to the head, which erases the old recording from the tape before the new recording is laid down by the flying heads on the drum.

Audio Control PCB
Audio Control PCB

The Audio & Control head is connected to this PCB, which handles both reading back audio from the tape & recording new audio tracks. The audio bias oscillator is on this board, & the onboard microphone feeds it’s signal here. The control head is fed directly through to the servo section of the main board.

Drum Motor
Drum Motor

The motor that drives the head drum is another DC brushless 3-phase type.

Hall Sensors
Hall Sensors

These 3 Hall sensors are used by the motor drive to determine the rotor position & time commutation accordingly.

Stator
Stator

The stator on this motor is of interesting construction, with no laminated core, the coils are moulded into the plastic holder. The tach sensor is on the side of the stator core. This senses a small magnet on the outside of the rotor to determine rotational speed. For PAL recordings, the drum rotates at 1500 RPM.

Motor Removed
Motor Removed

Not much under the stator other than the bearing housing & the feedthrough to the rotary transformer.

Head Disc
Head Disc

The heads are mounted onto the top disc of the drum, 4 heads in this recorder. The signals are transmitted to the rotating section through the ferrite rotary transformer on the bottom section.

Head Chip
Head Chip

The tiny winding of the ferrite video head can just about be seen on the end of the brass mounting.

Capstan Motor Components
Capstan Motor Components

The capstan motor is similar to the drum motor, only this one is flat. The rotor has a ferrite magnet, in this case it wasn’t glued in place, just held by it’s magnetic field.

Capstan Motor Stator
Capstan Motor Stator

The PCB on this motor has a steel backing to complete the magnetic circuit, the coils for the 3 motor phases are simply glued in place. The Hall sensors on this motor are placed in the middle of the windings though.
Again there is a tach sensor on the edge of the board that communicates the speed back to the controller. This allows the servo to remain locked at constant speed.

Viewfinder

Viewfinder Assembly
Viewfinder Assembly

As usual with these cameras, this section is the CRT based viewfinder. These units take the composite signal from the camera to display the scene. This one has many more pins than the usual viewfinder. I’ll hack a manual input into this, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Viewfinder Circuits
Viewfinder Circuits

Being an older camera than the ones I’ve had before, this one is on a pair of PCBs, which are both single-sided.

Main Viewfinder Board
Main Viewfinder Board

The main board has all the power components for driving the CRT & some of the adjustments. The main HV flyback transformer is on the right. This part creates both the final anode voltage for the tube & the focus/grid voltages.

Viewfinder Control PCB Top
Viewfinder Control PCB Top

The viewfinder control IC is on a separate daughter board in this camera, with two more controls.

Control IC
Control IC

The control IC is a Matsushita AN2510S, this has all the logic required to separate the sync pulses from the composite signal & generate an image on the CRT.

Viewfinder CRT Frame
Viewfinder CRT Frame

The recording indicator LEDs are mounted in the frame of the CRT & appear above the image in the viewfinder.

Viewfinder CRT With Yoke
Viewfinder CRT With Yoke

Here the CRT has been separated from the rest of the circuitry with just the deflection yoke still attached.

M01JPG5WB CRT
M01JPG5WB CRT

The electron gun in this viewfinder CRT is massive in comparison to the others that I have seen, and the neck of the tube is also much wider. These old tubes were very well manufactured.

Viewfinder Optics
Viewfinder Optics

A simple mirror & magnifying lens completes the viewfinder unit.

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.

Demonstration He-Ne Lasers, Weatherproofing

Putting Together a Demonstration He-Ne Laser

For a classroom introduction to lasers, it would be nice to have a safe setup that makes as much as possible visible to the students. Or, you may just want to have a working He-Ne laser on display in your living room! Ideally, this is an external mirror laser where all parts of the resonator as well as the power supply can be readily seen. However, realistically, finding one of these is not always that easy or inexpensive, and maintenance and adjustment of such a laser can be a pain (though that in itself IS instructive).

The next best thing is a small He-Ne laser laid bare where its sealed (internal mirror) He-Ne tube, ballast resistors, wiring, and power supply (with exposed circuit board), are mounted inside a clear Plexiglas case with all parts labelled. This would allow the discharge in the He-Ne tube to be clearly visible. The clear insulating case prevents the curious from coming in contact with the high voltage (and line voltage, if the power supply connects directly to the AC line), which could otherwise result in damage to both the person and fragile glass He-Ne tube when a reflex action results in smashing the entire laser to smithereens!

A He-Ne laser is far superior to a cheap laser pointer for several reasons:

  • The discharge and mirrors are clearly visible permitting the lasing process to be described in detail. Compared to this, a diode laser pointer is about as exciting as a flashlight even if you are able to extract the guts.
  • The beam quality in terms of coherence length, monochromaticy, shape, and stability, will likely be much higher for the He-Ne laser should you also want to use it for actual optics experiments like interferometry. (However, the first one of these – coherence length – can actually be quite good for even the some of the cheap diode lasers in laser pointers.)
  • For a given power level, a 632.8nm He-Ne laser will appear about 5 times brighter than a 670 nm laser pointer. 635 nm laser pointers are available but still more expensive. However, inexpensive laser pointers with wavelengths between 650 and 660 nm are becoming increasingly common and have greater relative brightness.

Important: If this see-through laser is intended for use in a classroom, check with your regulatory authority to confirm that a setup which is not explicitly CDRH approved (but with proper laser class safety stickers) will be acceptable for insurance purposes.

For safety with respect to eyeballs and vision, a low power laser – 1 mW or less – is desirable – and quite adequate for demonstration purposes.

The He-Ne laser assembly from a barcode scanner is ideal for this purpose. It is compact, low power, usually runs on low voltage DC (12 V typical), and is easily disassembled to remount in a demonstration case. The only problem is that many of these have fully potted “brick” type power supplies which are pretty boring to look at. However, some have the power supply board coated with a rubbery material which can be removed with a bit of effort (well, OK, a lot of effort!).

He-Ne Tube and Power Supply
He-Ne Tube and Power Supply

For example, this is from a hand-held barcode scanner. A similar unit was separated into its component parts:

Melles Griot He-Ne Tube
Melles Griot He-Ne Tube
He-Ne Laser Power Supply IC-I1
He-Ne Laser Power Supply IC-I1

The power supply includes the ballast resistors. These could easily be mounted in a very compact case (as little as 3″ x 6″ x 1″, though spreading things out may improve visibility and reduce make cooling easier) and run from a 12v DC, 1 A wall adapter. Used barcode scanner lasers can often be found for $20 or less.

An alternative is to purchase a 0.5 to 1 mW He-Ne tube and power supply kit. This will be more expensive (figure $5 to $15 for the He-Ne tube, $25 to $50 for the power supply) but will guarantee a circuit board with all parts visible.

The He-Ne tube, power supply, ballast resistors (if separate from the power supply), and any additional components can be mounted with standoffs and/or cable ties to the plastic base. The tube can be separated from the power supply if desired to allow room for labels and such. However, keep the ballast resistors as near to the tube as practical (say, within a couple of inches, moving them if originally part of the power supply board). The resistors may get quite warm during operation so mount them on standoffs away from the plastic. Use wire with insulation rated for a minimum of 10 kV. Holes or slots should be incorporated in the side panels for ventilation – the entire affair will dissipate 5 to 10 Watts or more depending on the size of the He-Ne tube and power supply.

When attaching the He-Ne tube, avoid anything that might stress the mirror mounts. While these are quite sturdy and it is unlikely that any reasonable arrangement could result in permanent damage, even a relatively modest force may result in enough mirror misalignment to noticeably reduce output power. And, don’t forget that the mirror mounts are also the high voltage connections and need to be well insulated from each other and any human contact! The best option is probably to fasten the tube in place using Nylon cable ties, cable clamps, or something similar around the glass portion without touching the mirror mounts at all (except for the power connections).

Provide clearly marked red and black wires (or binding posts) for the low voltage DC or a line cord for AC (as appropriate for the power supply used), power switch, fuse, and power-on indicator. Label the major components and don’t forget the essential CDRH safety sticker (Class II for less than 1 mW or Class IIIa for less than 5 mW).

See:

Sam's Demo He-Ne Laser
Sam’s Demo He-Ne Laser

Above, as an example (minus the Plexiglas safety cover), contructed from the guts of a surplus Gammex laser (probably part of a patient positioning system for a CT or MRI scanner). The discrete line operated power supply is simple with the HV transformer, rectifier/doubler, filter, multiplier, and ballast resistors easily identified. This would make an ideal teaching aid.

See the suppliers listed in the chapter: Laser and Parts Sources.

The Ultimate Demonstration He-Ne Laser

Rather than having a see-through laser that just outputs a laser beam (how boring!), consider something that would allow access to the internal cavity, swapping of optics, and modulation of beam power. OK, perhaps the truly ultimate demo laser would use a two-Brewster tube allowing for interchangeable optics at both ends, be tunable to all the He-Ne spectral lines, and play DVD movies. 🙂 We’ll have to settle for something slightly less ambitious (at least until pigs fly). Such a unit could consist of the following components:

  • One-Brewster He-Ne laser tube or head. This can be something similar to the Melles Griot 05-LHB-570 tube or the Climet 9048 head which contains this tube. These have a Brewster window at one end and an internal HR mirror with a 60 cm Radius of Curvature (RoC) at the other. Their total length is about 10.5 inches (260 mm).
  • Adjustable mirror mount with limited range to permit easy mirror tweaking but with minimal chance of getting alignment really messed up. A basic design using a pair of plates with X and Y adjustment screws and a common pivot with lock washers for the compliance springs would be adequate.
  • Interchangeable mirrors of RoC = 60 cm and reflectance of 98% to 99.5% (OC) and 99.999% (HR in place of OC to maximize internal photon flux). These may be salvaged from a dead 3 to 5 mW He-Ne laser tube. Those from a tube like the Spectra-Physics 084-1 would be suitable. It would be best to install the mirrors in protective cells for ease of handling.
  • Baseplate to mount the laser and optics with the internal HR of the one-Brewster tube/head about 60 cm from the external mirror to create a confocal cavity – about one half of which is external and accessible. An option would be to put the external mirror mount on a movable slide to allow its position to be changed easily.
  • Power supply with adjustable current and modulation capability. This would provide the ability to measure output power versus current and to use the laser as an optical transmitter with a solar cell based receiver.
  • Plexiglas box to house and protect the laser and power supply (as well as inquisitive fingers from high voltage) with part of one side open to allow access to the internal photons.

Everything needed for such a setup is readily available or easily constructed at low cost but you’ll have to read more to find out where or how as each of the components are dealt with in detail elsewhere in Sam’s Laser FAQ (but I won’t tell you exactly where – these are all the hints you get for this one!).

A system like this could conceivably be turned into an interactive exhibit for your local science museum – assuming they care about anything beyond insects and the Internet these days. 🙂 There are some more details in the next section.

Guidelines for a Demonstraton One-Brewster He-Ne Laser

The following suggestions would be for developing a semi-interactive setup whereby visitors can safely (both for the visitor and the laser) adjust mirror alignment and possibly some other parameters of laser operation. The type of one-Brewster (1-B) He-Ne laser tube like the Melles Griot 05-LHB-570. Note that the 05-LHB-570 is a wide bore tube that runs massively multi (transverse) mode with most mirrors configurations unless an intracavity aperture is added. This is actually an advantage for several reasons:

  1. The multi-transverse mode structure is interesting in itself and provides additional options for showing how it can be controlled.
  2. Mirror alignment is easier and the tube will lase over a much wider range of mirror orientation.
  3. Output power is higher for its size and power requirements.

Here are some guidelines for designing an interactive exhibit:

  • Mount the 1-B tube in a clear plastic (Plexiglas) enclosure with some ventilation holes to allow for cooling but make sure any parts with high voltage (anode, ballast resistors if not insulated) are safely protected from the curious. Provide a small hole lined up with the Brewster window for the intracavity beam. However, even if the B-window is at the cathode-end of the tube, don’t allow it to be accessible as the first fingerprint will prevent lasing entirely.
  • Put the power supply in a safe place inside another clear plastic box if desired. I’d recommend controlling it with a time switch that will turn it on for perhaps 10 minutes with a push of a button. This is a tradeoff between wear from running the laser all the time and wear from repeated starts. Don’t forget the fuse!!!
  • Orient the tube so the B-windows is either on the side or facing down. This will minimize dust collection and permit the rig to operate for many hours or days without the need for even dusting.
  • Use an output mirror with an RoC from 50 cm to planar and reflectivity of 98 to 99.5 percent at 632.8 nm. The specific parameters and distance will affect the beam size, mode structure, and output power. A shorter RoC will limit the distance over which lasing will take place but will be somewhat easier to align.
  • Use a decent quality mirror mount like a Newport MM-1 for the output mirror. Once it’s secured, arrange for the adjustment screws to be accessible to visitors but limit the range of rotation to less than one turn and mark the location of each screw where lasing is peaked. That way, no amount of fiddling will lose lasing entirely.
  • The distance between the mirror and tube can be fixed or adjustable:
    • For a fixed location, a distance of a few inches between the laser enclosure and mirror mount is recommended. This is enough space to install an aperture or Brewster plate. Or a hand to show that the beam is only present with the resonator is complete, not just a red light inside! But, it’s short enough that alignment is still easy.
    • For added excitement, put the mirror mount on a precision rail to permit the distance to be varied from 0 to at least 45 cm from the B-window. Then, it will be possible to see how the mode structure changes with distance. This will depend on the RoC of the mirror as well.
  • Another option is to provide various things like an iris diaphragm, thin wires and/or a cross-hair, adjustable knife edge, Brewster plate that can be oriented, etc. However, some care will be needed in making these useful without a lot of hand holding.

Weatherproofing a He-Ne Laser

If you want to use a He-Ne laser outside or where it is damp or very humid, it will likely be necessary to mount the tube and power supply inside a sealed box. Otherwise, stability problems may arise from electrical leakage or the tube may not start at all. There will then be several additional issues to consider:

  • Heat dissipation – For a small He-Ne tube (say 1 mW), figure this is like a 10 to 15 W bulb inside a plastic box. If you make the box large enough (e.g., 3″ x 5″ x 10″), there should be enough exterior surface area to adequately remove the waste heat.
  • Getting the beam out – A glass window (e.g., quality microscope slide) mounted at a slight angle (to avoid multiple reflections back to the He-Ne tube output mirror) is best. However, a Plexiglas window may be acceptable (i.e., just pointing the laser at a slight angle through the plastic case). A Brewster angle window should be used only if the He-Ne tube is a linearly polarized type (not likely for something from a barcode scanner) and then the orientation and angle must be set up for maximum light transmission.
  • Condensation on the optics and elsewhere – This may be a problem on exposed surfaces if they are colder than the ambient conditions. Let the entire laser assembly warm up before attempting to power it up!

Internal Mirror He-Ne Tubes up to 35 mW – Red and Other Colours

Typical He-Ne Tube Specifications

Prior to the introduction of the CD player, the red He-Ne laser was by far the most common source of inexpensive coherent light on the planet. The following are some typical physical specifications for a variety of red (632.8 nm) He-Ne tubes (all are single transverse mode – TEM00):

Where:

  • Power Output is the minimum beam power after a specified warm up period over the spec’d life of the tube.
  • Tube Operating Voltage is the voltage across the bare tube at the nominal operating current.
  • Tube Start Voltage is the minimum voltage across the bare tube required to guarantee starting.
  • Tube Size is generally the maximum diameter of the tube envelope and the total length from the outer surfaces of the mirrors.

Tubes like this are generally available in both random and linearly polarized versions which are otherwise similar with respect to the above characteristics (for red tubes at least, more below).

At least one other basic specification may be critical to your application: Which end of the tube the beam exits! There is no real preference from a manufacturing point of view for red He-Ne lasers. (For low gain “other-colour” He-Ne laser tubes, it turns out that anode output results is slightly higher gain and thus slightly higher output for the typical hemispherical cavity because it better utilizes the mode volume.) However, this little detail may matter a great deal if you are attempting to retrofit an existing barcode scanner or other piece of equipment where the tube clips into a holder or where wiring is short, tight, or must be in a fixed location. For example, virtually all cylindrical laser heads require that the beam exits from the cathode-end of the tube. It is possible that you will be able to find two versions of many models of He-Ne tubes if you go directly to the manufacturer and dig deep enough. However, this sort of information may not be stated where you are buying surplus or from a private individual, so you may need to ask.

The examples above (as well as all of the other specifications in this and the following sections) are catalog ratings, NOT what might appear on the CDRH safety sticker (which is typically much higher). See the section: About Laser Power Ratings for info on listed, measured, and CDRH power ratings.

Note how some of the power levels vary widely with respect to tube dimensions, voltage, and current. Generally, higher power implies a longer tube, higher operating/start voltages, and higher operating current – but there are some exceptions. In addition, you will find that physically similar tubes may actually have quite varied power output. This is particularly evident in the manufacturers’ listings. (See the chapter: A HREF=”laserhcl.htm#hcltoc”>Commercial Unstabilized HeNe Lasers.)

These specifications are generally for minimum power over the guaranteed life of the tube. New tubes and individual sample tubes after thousands of hours may be much higher – 1.5X is common and a “hot” sample may hit 2X or more. My guess is that for tubes with identical specifications in terms of physical size, voltage, and current, the differences in power output are due to sample-to-sample variations. Thus, like computer chips, they are selected after manufacture based on actual performance and the higher power tubes are priced accordingly! This isn’t surprising when considering the low efficiency at which these operate – extremely slight variations in mirror reflectivity and trace contaminants in the gas fill can have a dramatic impact on power output.

I have a batch of apparently identical 2 mW Aerotech tubes that vary in power output by a factor of over 1.5 to 1 (2.6 to 1.7 mW printed by hand on the tubes indicating measured power levels at the time of manufacture).

And, power output also changes with use (and mostly in the days of soft-sealed tubes, just with age sitting on the shelf):

(From: Steve Roberts.)

“I have a neat curve from an old Aerotech catalogue of He-Ne laser power versus life. The tubes are overfilled at first, so power is low. They then peak at a power much higher than rated power, followed by a long period of constant power, and then they SLOWLY die. It’s not uncommon for a new He-Ne tube to be in excess of 15% greater than rated power.”

And the answer to your burning question is: No, you cannot get a 3 mW tube to output 30 mW – even instantaneously – by driving it 10 times as hard!

I have measured the operating voltage and determined the optimum current (by maximizing beam intensity) for the following specific samples – all red (632.8 nm) tubes from various manufacturers. (The starting voltages were estimated.):

Melles Griot, Uniphase, Siemens, PMS, Aerotech, and other HeNe tubes all show similar values.

The wide variation in physical dimensions also means that when looking at descriptions of He-Ne lasers from surplus outfits or the like, the dimensions can only be used to determine an upper (and possibly lower) bound for the possible output power but not to determine the exact output power (even assuming the tube is in like-new condition). Advertisements often include the rating on the CDRH safety sticker (or say ‘max’ in fine print). This is an upper bound for the laser class (e.g., Class IIIa), not what the particular laser produces or is even capable of producing. It may be much lower. For example, that Class IIIa laser showing 5 mW on the sticker, may actually only be good for 1 mW under any conditions! The power output of a He-Ne laser tube is essentially constant and cannot be changed significantly by using a different power supply or by any other means. See the section: Buyer Beware for Laser Purchases.

Also see the section: Locating Laser Specifications.

In addition to power output, power requirements, and physical dimensions, key performance specifications for He-Ne lasers also include:

  • Beam Diameter at the laser’s output aperture and beam profile (Gaussian TEM00 for most small He-Ne laser tubes).
  • Beam Divergence (probably far field ignoring beam waist). Note that this may not always be the same as the expected value from the diffraction limit based on beam/bore diameter as it also depends on the combination of the HR and OC mirror (inside) curvature and the shape of the exterior surface of the OC.
  • Mode Spacing (frequency) between the multiple longitudinal modes that are active simultaneously in all but single mode frequency stabilized lasers.

With manufacturers like Aerotech, Melles Griot, and Siemens, a certain amount of information can be determined from the model number. For example, here is how to decipher most of those from Melles Griot (e.g., 05-LHP-121-278):

  • All Melles Griot He-Ne laser tubes and power supplies start with 05. Matched systems may start with 25 (e.g., laser head and lab-style power supply).
  • The first letter will be an L for all He-Ne laser tubes and heads except for perpendicular window terminated tubes (in which case it will be W – this is inconsistent with the rest of their numbering but who am I to complain!), and some of their self contained lasers where it will be S.
  • The second letter will be one of: H = red (632.8 nm), G = green (543.5 nm), Y = yellow (594.1 nm), O = orange (611.9 nm), or I = infra-red (1,523 or 3,391 nm). A couple of self contained red lasers use R for red but for most, I guess they got stuck using H (presumably denoting He-Ne) before ‘other colour’ He-Ne lasers were part of their product line. And, their stabilized He-Ne lasers use a T here. Confused yet? 🙂
  • The third letter will be one of: R = Randomly polarized, L = linearly polarized, or B = Brewster window at one or both ends.
  • The following three digit number determines the physical characteristics of the laser tube to some extent. Unfortunately, there may be no direct mathematical relationship of this number to anything useful. As will be seen below, for some models, it (or some of its digits) sort of correlates with output power or length but for others, they might as well be totally random! However, it does appear as though an identical set of numbers among different colour tubes (see below) will denote similar physical size tubes at least.
  • If there are additional numbers, they relate to a special variation on the basic design done for a particular customer. For example, this might be a different curvature on the outer surface of the output mirror to provide a non-standard divergence to eliminate the need for an additional lens in a barcode scanner. Or, an external window for protection from the elements or to deliberately reduce output power. Go figure. 🙂 It may also just denote a specific configuration like -249 (meaning 115 VAC operation, kind of arbitrary, huh?) or -55 (meaning 5.5 mA). In these cases, the user may be able to modify the settings (flip a switch or twiddle a pot) but the warranty may then be void.

The vast majority of Melles Griot lasers you are likely to come across will follow this numbering scheme though there are some exceptions, especially for custom assemblies. (Some surplus places drop the leading ’05-‘ when reselling Melles Griot laser tubes or heads so an 05-LHP-120 would become simply an LHP-120.)

For other manufacturers like Spectra-Physics, the model numbers are totally arbitrary!

He-Ne Tubes of a Different Colour

Although a red beam is what everyone thinks of when a He-Ne laser is discussed, He-Ne tubes producing green, yellow, and orange beams, as well as several infra-red (IR) wavelengths, are also manufactured. However, they are not found as often on the surplus market because they are not nearly as common as the red variety. In terms of the number of He-Ne lasers manufactured, red is far and away the most popular, with all the others combined accounting for only 1 to 2 percent of the total production. In order of decreasing popularity, it’s probably: red, green, yellow, infra-red (all IR wavelengths), orange. Non-red tubes are also more expensive when new since for a given power level, they must be larger (and thus have higher voltage and current ratings) due to their lower efficiency (the spectral lines being amplified are much weaker than the one at 632.8 nm). Operating current for non-red He-Ne tubes is also more critical than for the common red variety so setting these up with an adjustable power supply or adjusting the ballast resistance for maximum output is recommended.

Maximum available power output is also lower – rarely over 2 mW (and even those tubes are quite large (see the tables below). However, since the eye is more sensitive to the green wavelength (543.5 nm) compared to the red (632.8 nm) by more than a factor of 4, a lower power tube may be more than adequate for many applications. Yellow (594.1 nm) and orange (611.9 nm) He-Ne lasers appear more visible by factors of about 3 and 2 respectively compared to red beams of similar power.

Infrared-emitting He-Ne lasers exist as well. In addition to scientific uses, these were used for testing in the Telecom industry before sufficiently high quality diode lasers became available.Yes, you can have a He-Ne tube and it will light up inside (typical neon glow), but if there is no output beam (at least you cannot see one), you could have been sold an infrared He-Ne tube. However, by far the most likely explanation for no visible output beam is that the mirrors are misaligned or the tube is defective in some other way. Unfortunately, silicon photodiodes or the silicon sensors in CCD or CMOS cameras do not respond to any of the He-Ne IR wavelengths, so the only means of determining if there is an IR beam are to use a GaAs photodiode, IR detector card, or thermal laser power meter. IR He-Ne tubes are unusual enough that it is very unlikely you will ever run into one. However, they may turn up on the surplus market especially if the seller doesn’t test the tubes and thus realize that these behave differently – they are physically similar to red (or other colour) He-Ne tubes except for the reflectivity of the mirrors as a function of wavelength. (There may be some other differences needed to optimize each color like the He:Ne ratio, isotope purity, and gas fill pressure, but the design of the mirrors will be the most significant factor and the one that will be most obvious with a bare eyeball, though the color of the discharge may be more pink for green He-Ne tubes and more orange and brighter for IR He-Ne tubes compared to red ones, more below.) Even if the model number does not identify the tube as green, yellow, orange, red, or infra-red, this difference should be detectable by comparing the appearance of its mirrors (when viewed down the bore of an UNPOWERED tube) with those of a normal (known to be red) He-Ne tube. (Of course, your tube could also fail to lase due to misaligned or damaged mirrors or some other reason.

As noted above, the desired wavelength is selected and the unwanted wavelengths are suppressed mostly by controlling the reflectivity functions of the mirrors. For example, the gains of the green and yellow lines (yellow may be stronger) are both much much lower than red and separated from each other by about 50 nm (543.5 nm versus 594.1 nm). To kill the yellow line in a green laser, the mirrors are designed to reflect green but pass yellow. I have tested the mirrors salvaged from a Melles Griot 05-LGP-170 green He-Ne tube (not mine, from “Dr. Destroyer of Lasers”). The HR (High Reflector) mirror has very nearly 100% reflectivity for green but less than 25% for yellow. The OC (Output Coupler) also has a low enough reflectivity for yellow (about 98%) such that it alone would prevent yellow from lasing. The reflectivities for orange, red, and IR, are even lower so they are also suppressed despite their much higher gain, especially for the normal red (632.8 nm) and even stronger mid-IR (3,391 nm) line.

However, to manufacture a tube with optimum and stable output power, it isn’t sufficient to just kill lasing for unwanted lines. The resonator must be designed to minimize their contribution to stimulated emission – thus the very low reflectivity of the HR for anything but the desired green wavelength. Otherwise, even though sustained oscillation wouldn’t be possible, unwanted colour photons would still be bouncing back and forth multiple times stealing power from the desired colour. The output would also be erratic as the length of the tube changed during warm up (due to thermal expansion) and this affected the longitudinal mode structure of the competing lines relative to each other. Some larger He-Ne lasers have magnets along the length of the tube to further suppress (mostly) the particularly strong mid-IR line at 3,391 nm. (See the section: Magnets in High Power or Precision HeNe Laser Heads.)

In addition, you can’t just take a tube designed for a red laser, replace the mirrors, and expect to get something that will work well – if at all – for other wavelengths. For one thing, the bore size and mirror curvature for maximum power while maintaining TEM00 operation are affected by wavelength.

Furthermore, for these other colour He-Ne lasers which depend on energy level transitions which have much lower gain than red – especially the yellow and green ones – the gas fill pressure, He:Ne ratio, and isotopic composition and purity of the helium and neon, will be carefully optimized and will be different than for normal red tubes.

Needless to say, the recipes for each type and size laser will be closely guarded trade secrets and only a very few companies have mastered the art of other colour He-Ne lasers, especially for high power (in a relative sort of way) in yellow and green. I am only aware of four companies that currently manufacture their own tubes: Melles Griot, Research Electro-Optics, Uniphase, and LASOS, with the last two having very few models to choose from. Others (like Coherent) simply resell lasers under their own name.

And, the answer to that other burning question should now be obvious: No, you can’t convert an ordinary red internal mirror He-Ne tube to generate some other colour light as it’s (almost) all done with mirrors and they are an integral part of the tube. 🙂 Therefore, your options are severely limited. As in: There are none. (However, going the other way, at least as a fun experiment, may be possible. For a laser with external mirrors, a mirror swap may be possible (though the cavity length may be insufficient to resonate with the reduced gain of other-colour spectral lines once all loses taken into consideration). But realistically, this option doesn’t even exist where the mirrors are sealed into the tube.

There are also a few He-Ne lasers that can output more than one of the possible colors simultaneously (e.g., red+orange, orange+yellow) or selectively by turning knob (which adjusts the angle of a Littrow or other similar dispersion prism) inside the laser cavity using a Brewster window He-Ne tube). But such lasers are not common and are definitely very expensive. So, you won’t likely see one for sale at your local hamfest – if ever! One manufacturer of such lasers is Research Electro-Optics (REO). See the section: Research Electro-Optics’s Tunable HeNe Lasers.

However, occasionally a He-Ne tube turns up that is ‘defective’ due to incorrect mirror reflectivities or excessive gain or magic 🙂 and actually outputs an adjacent colour in addition to what it was designed to produce. I have such a tube that generates about 3 mW of yellow (594.1 nm) and a fraction of a mW of orange (611.9 nm) but isn’t very stable – power fluctuates greatly as it warms up. Another one even produces the other orange line at 611.9 nm, and it’s fairly stable. But, finding magic ‘defective’ tubes such as these by accident is extremely unlikely though I’ve heard of the 640.1 nm (deep red) line showing up on some supposedly good normal red (632.8 nm) He-Ne tubes.

As a side note: It is strange to see the more or less normal red-orange glow in a green He-Ne laser tube but have a green beam emerging. A diffraction grating or prism really shows all the lines that are in the glow discharge. Red through orange, yellow and green, even several blue lines (though they are from the helium and can’t lase under any circumstances)!! The IR lines are present as well – you just cannot see them.

Actually, the colour of the discharge may be subtly different for non-red He-Ne tubes due to modified gas fill and pressure. For example, the discharge of green He-Ne tubes may appear more pink compared to red tubes) which are more orange), mostly due to lower fill pressure. The fill mix and pressure on green He-Ne tubes is a tricky compromise among several objectives that conflict to some extent including lifetime, stability (3.39µm competition), and optical noise. This balancing act and the lower fill pressure are why green He-Ne tubes don’t last as long as reds. Have I totally confused you, colour-wise? 🙂

The expected life of ‘other colour’ He-Ne tubes is generally much shorter than for normal red tubes. This is something that isn’t widely advertised for obvious reasons. Whereas red He-Ne tubes are overfilled initially (which reduces power output) and they actually improve with use to some extent as gas pressure goes down, this luxury isn’t available with the low gain wavelengths – especially green – everything needs to be optimal for decent performance.

The discharge in IR He-Ne tubes may be more orange and brighter due to a higher fill pressure. Again, this is due to the need to optimize parameters for the specific wavelength.

Determining He-Ne Laser Colour from the Appearance of the Mirrors

Although most He-Ne lasers are the common red (632.8 nm) variety (whose beam actually appears orange-red), you may come across unmarked He-Ne tubes and just have to know what colour output the produce without being near a He-Ne laser power supply.

Since the mirrors used in all He-Ne lasers are dielectric – functioning as a result of interference – they have high reflectivity only around the laser wavelength and actually transmit light quite well as the wavelength moves away from this peak. By transmitted light, the appearance will tend to be a colour which is the complement of the laser’s output – e.g., cyan or blue-green for a red tube, pink or magenta for a green tube, blue or violet for a yellow tube. Of course, except for the IR variety, if the tube is functional, the difference will be immediately visible when it is powered up!

The actual appearance may also depend on the particular manufacturer and model as well as the length/power output of the laser (which affects the required reflectivity of the OC), as well as the revision number of your eyeballs. 🙂 So, there could be considerable variation in actual perceived colour. Except for the blue-green/magenta combination which pretty much guarantees a green output He-Ne tube, more subtle differences in colour may not indicate anything beyond manufacturing tolerances.

Appearance of He-Ne Laser Mirrors
Appearance of He-Ne Laser Mirrors

The chart above in conjunction with will help to identify your unmarked He-Ne tube. (For accurate rendition of the graphic, your display should be set up for 24 bit colour and your monitor should be adjusted for proper colour balance.)

The entry labelled ‘Broadband’ relates to the HR mirror in some unusual multiple colour (combinations of red and/or orange and/or yellow) internal mirror tubes as well as those with an internal HR and Brewster window for external OC optics. And, the yellow and orange tubes may actually use broad band HRs. The OCs would then be selected for the desired wavelength(s) and may also have a broad band coating.

For low gain tubes, they play games with the coatings. I guess it isn’t possible to just make a highly selective coating for one wavelength that’s narrow enough to have low reflectivity at the nearby lines so they won’t lase. So, one mirror will be designed to fall off rapidly on one side of the design wavelength, the other mirror on the other side. That’s one reason front and back mirrors on yellow and green tubes in particular have very different appearances.

As noted, depending on laser tube length/output power, manufacturer, and model, the appearance of the mirrors can actually vary quite a bit but this should be a starting point at least. For example, I have a Melles Griot 05-LHR-170 He-Ne laser tube that should be 594.1 nm (yellow) but actually outputs some 604.6 nm (orange) as well. It’s mirror colours for the HR and OC are almost exactly opposite of those I have shown for the yellow and orange tubes! I don’t know whether this was intentional or part of the problem And, while from this limited sample, it looks like the OCs for orange, yellow, and green He-Ne lasers appear similar, I doubt that they really are in the area that counts – reflectivity/transmission at the relevant wavelengths.

More on Other Colour He-Ne Lasers

Here are some comments on the difficulty of obtaining useful visible output from He-Ne lasers at wavelengths other than our friendly red (632.8 nm):

(From: Steve Roberts.)

You do need a isotope change in the gases for green, and a He:Ne ratio change for the other orange and yellow lines. In addition, the mirrors to go to another line will have a much lower output transmission. The only possible lines you’ll get on a large frame He-Ne laser will be the 611.9 nm orange and 594.1 nm yellow. The green requires external mirror tubes in excess of a meter and a half long and a Littrow prism to overcome the Brewster losses and suppress the IR.

The original work on green was done by Rigden and Wright. The short tubes have lower losses because they have no Brewsters and thus can concentrate on tuning the coatings to 99.9999% reflectivity and maximum IR transmission. There is one tunable low power unit on the market that does 6 lines or so, but only 1 line at a time, and the $6,000 cost is kind of prohibitive for a few milliwatts of red and fractional milliwatt powers on the other lines. But, it will do green and has the coatings on the back side of the prism to kill the losses.

Also look for papers by Erkins and Lee. They are the fellows who did the green and yellow for Melles Griot and they published one with the energy states as part of a poster session at some conference. Melles Griot used to hand it out, that’s how I had a copy, recently thrown away.

Even large He-Ne lasers such as the SP-125 (rated at 50mW of red) will only do about 20mW of yellow, with a 35mW SP-127 you’re probably only looking at 3 to 5mW of yellow. And, for much less then the cost of the custom optics to do a conversion, you can get two or three 4 to 5 mW yellow heads from Melles Griot. I know for a fact that a SP-127 only does about 3mW of 611.9 with a external prism and a remote cavity mirror, when it does 32mW of 632.8nm.

So in the end, unless you have a research use for a special line, it’s cheaper to dig up a head already made for the line you seek, unless you have your own optics coating lab that can fabricate state-of-the-art mirrors.

I have some experience in this, as I spent months looking for a source of the optics below $3,000.

(From: Sam.)

I do have a short (265 mm) one-Brewster He-Ne tube (Melles Griot 05-LGB-580) with its internal HR optimized for green that operates happily with a matching external green HR mirror (resulting in a nice amount of circulating power) but probably not with anything having much lower reflectivity to get a useful output beam. In fact, I could not get reliable operation even with the HR from a dead green He-Ne laser tube as the Brewster window would not remain clean enough for the time required to align the mirror.

I would expect an SP-127 to do more than 3 to 5 mW of yellow, my guess would be 10 to 15 mW with optimized mirrors but no tuning prism. If I can dig up appropriate mirrors, I intend to try modifying an SP-127 to make it tunable and/or do yellow or green. 🙂

(From: Lynn Strickland (stricks760@earthlink.net).)

You can find 640.1 nm in a lot of red He-Ne lasers. I have a paper on it somewhere, and cavity design can influence it to a large extent. If you have a decent quality grating, it’s pretty easy to pick up. 629 nm is the one you don’t see too much.

I’m no physicist, but the lower gain lines can lase simultaneously with the higher gain lines, no problem, as long as there is sufficient gain available in the plasma. It’s really pretty easy to get a He-Ne laser to output on all lines at the same time (if you have the right mirrors). The trick is optimizing the bore-to-mode ratio, gas pressure, and isotope mixture to get good TEM00 power. Usually the all-lines He-Ne lasers are multi (transverse) mode. I don’t know of anyone who makes them commercially though – at least not intentionally.

Steve’s Comments on Superradiance and the 3.39µm He-Ne Laser

Generally, when a gas laser is superradiant, there is a limit to its maximum power output (with exceptions for nitrogen and copper vapour laser, although nitrogen’s upper limit is defined by the maximum cavity length into which you can generate a 300ns or less excitation pulse.

The 3.39µm He-Ne laser’s gain is still, like all other He-Ne lines limited by a wall collision to return the excited atoms to the ground state. 3.39 µm He-Ne lasers have larger bores then normal He-Ne lasers, and the bores are acid etched to fog them and create more surface area, but still the most power I’ve ever seen published was 40 mW – nothing to write home about. The massive SP-125, the largest commercial He-Ne laser, could be ordered with a special tube and special optics for 3.39µm, and it still only did about 1/3rd the visible power. Superradiance and ultimate power are not tied together.

The reason 3.39µm got all the writeups it did was that it started on the same upper state as all the other He-Ne lines, was easily noticed when it sapped power from the visible line, and was, at the time, a exotic wavelength for which there were few other sources.

He-Ne Laser Tubes, Heads, Structure, Power Requirements, Lifetime

Early Versus Modern He-Ne Lasers

In the first He-Ne lasers (see the diagram below), exciting the gas atoms to the higher energy level was accomplished by coupling a radio frequency (RF) source (i.e., a radio transmitter) to the tube via external electrodes. Modern He-Ne lasers almost always operate on a DC discharge via internal electrodes.

Early He-Ne lasers were also quite large and unwieldy in comparison to modern devices. A laser such as the one depicted above was over 1 meter in length but could only produce about 1 mW of optical beam power! The associated RF exciter was as large as a microwave oven. With adjustable mirrors and a tendency to lose helium via diffusion under the electrodes, they were a finicky piece of laboratory apparatus with a lifetime measured in hundreds of operating hours.

In comparison, a modern 1 mW internal mirror He-Ne laser tube can be less than 150 mm (6 inches) in total length, may be powered by a solid state inverter the size of half a stick of butter, and will last more than 20,000 hours without any maintenance or a noticeable change in its performance characteristics.

Older brochures from several manufacturers of He-Ne lasers can be found at Vintage Lasers and Accessories Brochures and Manuals

Structure of Internal Mirror He-Ne Lasers

The following applies to most of the inexpensive internal mirror low to medium power (0.5 to 5 mW) HeNe tubes available on the surplus market. Depending on the original application, the actual laser tube may be enclosed inside a laser head or arrive naked. 🙂

This fabulous ASCII rendition of a typical small He-Ne laser tube should make everything perfectly clear. 🙂

The main beam may emerge from either end of the tube depending on its design, not necessarily the cathode-end as shown. (For most applications it doesn’t matter. However, when mounted in a laser head, it makes sense to put the anode and high voltage at the opposite end from the output aperture both for safety and to minimize the wiring length.) A much lower power beam will likely emerge from the opposite end if it isn’t covered – the ‘totally reflecting’ mirror or ‘High Reflector’ (HR) doesn’t quite have 100 percent reflectivity (though it is close – usually better than 99.9%). Where both mirrors are uncovered, you can tell which end the beam will come from without powering the tube by observing the surfaces of the mirrors – the output-end or ‘Output Coupler’ (OC) mirror will be Anti-Reflection (AR) coated like a camera or binocular lens. The central portion (at least) of its surface will have a dark coloration (probably blue or violet) and may even appear to vanish unless viewed at an oblique angle.

For a diagram with a little more artistic merit, see below:

Typical He-Ne Laser Tube Structure and Connections
Typical He-Ne Laser Tube Structure and Connections

. And, for a diagram of a complete laser head:

Typical He-Ne Laser Head
Typical He-Ne Laser Head

(Courtesy of Melles Griot) and actual structure below:

X-ray View of Melles Griot 05-LHR-911 He-Ne Laser Head
X-ray View of Melles Griot 05-LHR-911 He-Ne Laser Head

. For some photos, see below:

Typical Small to Medium Size Melles Griot He-Ne Laser Tubes
Typical Small to Medium Size Melles Griot He-Ne Laser Tubes

The ratings are guaranteed output power. These tubes may produce much more when new. Another type of construction that is relatively common is shown below

Hughes Style He-Ne Laser Tube
Hughes Style He-Ne Laser Tube

and a photo:

Hughes 3227-HPC He-Ne Laser Tube
Hughes 3227-HPC He-Ne Laser Tube

These are probably disappearing though as Melles Griot bought the Hughes He-Ne laser operation and is converting most to their own design but many still show up on the surplus market, including newer ones with the Melles Griot label. Another design that is similar is below:

NEC Style He-Ne Laser Tube
NEC Style He-Ne Laser Tube

Some specifications for various NEC He-Ne lasers can be found at SOC under “Gas Lasers”. Most common higher quality He-Ne tubes will be basically similar to one of these two designs though details may vary considerably. Most have an outer glass envelope but a few, notably some of those from PMS/REO, may be nearly all metal (probably Kovar but with an aluminium liner which is the actual cathode) with glasswork similar to that of Hughes or NEC at the anode-end.

Tubes up to at least 35 mW are similar in design but proportionally larger, require higher voltage and possibly slightly higher current. and of course, will be more expensive.

  • On most He-Ne laser tubes, the anode (+) end consists of a small cylindrical metal electrode with a mirror attached to it. However, on a few (usually Hughes-style), the anode may be a wire fused into the glass with the mirror mount separate from it.The discharge at this end produces little heat or damage due to sputtering.
  • On most He-Ne laser tubes, the cathode (-) end is also a cylindrical metal electrode with a mirror attached to it but in addition, there is a large cylindrical aluminium can in electrical contact and this is the actual cathode, extending a substantial fraction of the length of the tube. The main exceptions are Hughes-style He-Ne laser tubes where the cathode can is separate from the mirror mount at the cathode-end of the tube. CAUTION: Attaching the negative lead of the power supply to the mirror mount instead of the proper terminal will result in irreversible damage to the tube in a very short time.This is a ‘cold’ cathode – there is no need to heat it (like the ones in the electron guns of a CRT) for proper operation and no warmup period is required before the tube can be started. The discharge is distributed over the entire area of the can thereby spreading the heat and minimizing damage due to sputtering which results from positive ion bombardment. For this reason, although the laser may appear to work (in fact, starting tends to be easier) a He-Ne tube should not be run with reverse polarity for any length of time (e.g., more than a minute or so, preferably a lot less) since damage to the anode (now acting as a cathode) and its mirror would likely result. The can-shaped structure is also called a ‘hollow cathode’ for obvious physical reasons – it is a tube electrode that is large in diameter and hollow like a piece of pipe – and because the plasma discharge flows inside of it. It operates in the abnormal glow current density gas discharge region (should you care). The surface of the cathode can is also not pure aluminum as it appears, but is processed with a very thin layer of oxide which eventually gets depleted, and this is the main determination of tube life. Hollow cathodes are usually used where a tube needs lots of slow moving electrons to excite the gas. They are currently used mainly in HeNe lasers but have been applied to other types of gas lasers having modest current requirements.Very old He-Ne lasers (and some others, old and new, like argon ion) use a heated filament which also acts as the cathode instead of the cold cathode design. This structure can be much smaller than the cold cathode but the added complexities of manufacture, the additional power supply, and the need for a warm up period have dedicated it only to those applications where there is no other choice. A very few, very tiny He-Ne laser tubes, use a small ring-shaped cathode made of either zirconium (expensive) or aluminium. These were likely designed for special applications, presumably requiring very small size or fast turn-on response (due to the reduced capacitance). The examples of these He-Ne tubes I’ve seen are about 5″ long by 1/2″ in diameter. Life expectancy using the aluminium version (at least) is probably quite limited due to sputtering (since the electrode is very close to the bore, which promotes this due to the increased field gradient).
  • The major discharge is forced to take place inside a thick glass capillary tube with an inner bore of 0.5 to 1.5 mm depending on the power of the tube. This concentrates the discharge forcing operation in the most common and desirable TEM00 mode. Note that the appearance of the capillary viewed through the side is misleading due to the magnification of the thick glass – it is actually only about one half to two thirds as large as it looks!On some (mostly larger) He-Ne tubes, the bore may be ground (but not polished) on the outside, inside, or both:
    • Outside ground: The reason is quite simple and low-tech: The bore may be off to one side in the raw capillary enough to affect beam centering. So, it is centerless ground for precise fit in the bore support and there’s no added benefit to justify the cost of polishing it.
    • Inside ground: There are several possible reasons for this:
        Beam quality – There is a statistically significant reduction in diffraction rings (stray light) around the main beam with a frosted bore ID, though some designs are more susceptible to this than others. However, sometimes requirements for a particular spot size or output power limit options and the frosting will help.

      • Off axis stimulated emission suppression – A rough interior minimizes reflections from the bore walls which steal power from the beam along the axis. This is particularly true of the 3.391 µm IR transition and may partially account for the lack of magnets (to suppress this line) on modern high power He-Ne lasers.
      • Promote return to the ground state – The added surface area may speed up depopulation of the energy state reached after stimulated emission by increased collisions with the tube walls.

      Note that since the frosting process is done chemically (hydrofluoric acid etch?), the bore will become marginally wider and care must be taken that this doesn’t result in multimode (non-TEM00) operation if it goes too far!

  • Some older He-Ne lasers were built with a tapered bore – one that was wider at one end than the other. I’ve seen this in the circa 1970s Hughes 3184H as well as in a Melles Griot 05-LHP-170 tube of modern design (but serial number 675P – sounds kind of old!). The rationale is to match the bore to the lasing mode volume. So, if the resonator is near-hemispherical with a narrow intracavity beam at the flat mirror and a wider one at the curved mirror, the bore would be designed to more-or-less follow that profile to optimize gain. This was apparently all the rage early in the history of He-Ne lasers but has fallen out of favour because (1) it never did provide that much benefit and (2) manufacturing a tapered bore is much more expensive.
  • There have been some experimental He-Ne lasers built with an elliptical or rectangular bore to get around the limits on power imposed by small bore tubes. (Normally, gain is inversely proportional to bore size so just using a large bore doesn’t work.) Apparently, such lasers have generated over 300 mW with a highly multiple transverse mode beam in a package the size of a PC tower but were never developed commercially.One recent paper on such a laser is: “High power He-Ne laser with flat discharge tube”, Yi-Ming Ling, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Volume 39, Issue 9, pp. 1781-1785, May, 2006.

    Abstract:”A high-power He-Ne laser with a flat discharge tube has been realized. Its output power can be enhanced by increasing the transverse size of the discharge tube. This high-power flat He-Ne laser tube of 1.4m discharge length can achieve above 180 mW of output power at a wavelength of 632.8 nm. Its optimum discharge parameters and the gain characteristics are investigated experimentally. The experiments indicate that the optimum current increases with decreasing total gas pressure. But the increase in the optimum current is almost independent of the gas mixture ratio. The increase in the gain coefficient at the axis of the discharge tube with discharge current is not obvious. The boost in laser output power is mainly caused by the expansion of the lasing gain region. To achieve the higher output power, four of the laser tubes mentioned above are placed into one laser box. The laser beams are coupled into a quartz optic fibre and the output power from the end of the optic fibre can reach above 480 mW. This high-power He-Ne laser has been used in a clinical application, photodynamic therapy (PDT) of cancer, and its effective rate is above 90% in 183 clinical cases. The structure, characteristics and applications of this high-power flat He-Ne laser are introduced and discussed in this paper.”

    Wow! 480 mW at 633 nm (even if it is an ugly beam)! 🙂

  • An outer glass envelope of much larger diameter than the capillary provides a substantial gas reservoir. While the helium-neon gas mixture doesn’t get used up, some unavoidable adsorption (sticking of the gas molecules to the glass and metal parts), gas being buried under sputtered metal, and leakage does occur. Having a larger gas supply minimizes any effects on performance.

He-Ne tubes used in barcode scanners tend to use a simpler (possibly cheaper) design. Some typical examples below:

Uniphase 098-1 He-Ne Laser Tube
Uniphase 098-1 He-Ne Laser Tube
Siemens LGR-7641S He-Ne Laser Tube
Siemens LGR-7641S He-Ne Laser Tube

A typical small barcode scanner tube is shown below:

Uniphase He-Ne Laser Tube with External Lens
Uniphase He-Ne Laser Tube with External Lens

. That negative lens is used in the barcode application to expand the beam at a faster rate than with the bare tube. A second positive lens about 4 inches away is then used to recollimate the beam. (In many cases, the required curvature is built into the output mirror but not here. The lens was removed by soaking the end of the tube in acetone overnight.)

CAUTION: While most modern He-Ne tubes use the mirror mounts for the high voltage connections, there are exceptions and older tubes may have unusual arrangements where the anode is just a wire fused into the glass and/or the cathode has a terminal separate from the mirror mount at that end of the tube. Miswiring can result in tube damage even if the laser appears to work normally.

Gas Fill and Getter

In order for an He-Ne laser to operate efficiently (as such things go) or at all, there must be a very precise and pure mixture of helium and neon gas in the tube. The total amount of gas in a typical 1 mW He-Ne tube is much less than 1 cubic cm if it were measured at normal atmospheric pressure. It fills the tube only because the pressure is very low. However, with this small amount of gas, it doesn’t take much contamination or leakage to ruin the tube.

  • The gas fill consists of a mixture of helium and neon in the proportions of about 7:1 (He:Ne) at a pressure of 1.5 to 5 Torr (millimeters of mercury – 1 Torr is approximately 1/760th of standard atmospheric pressure). Note the large amount of helium even though it is the neon that actually emits the coherent light.
  • Some He-Ne tubes will have a ring or rectangular shaped metal structure (probably attached to the cathode) holding a spongy substance in its U-shaped cross-section, or it may just be a piece of metal coated on its outer surface. This is called the ‘getter electrode’. After the tube has been pumped down and sealed, it is heated by RF induction causing the spongy stuff to decompose and release a highly reactive metal like barium – the actual getter – which may be visible as a metallic or dark coloured spot on the glass near the getter electrode. However, some getter materials are perfectly transparent.The getter material is then available to chemically combine with residual oxygen and other unwanted gas molecules that may result from imperfect vacuum pumps and contamination on the tube’s glass and metal structures (e.g., from the surface as well as in fine cracks and other nooks and crannies). It will also mop up any intruder molecules that may diffuse or leak through the walls of the tube during its life. Helium and neon are noble gases – they ignore the getter and the getter ignores them. :-)Should the getter spot (if visible) turn to a milky white or red powdery appearance, it is exhausted and the tube is probably no longer functional.If you had grown up during the vacuum tube age, the getter would be familiar to you since nearly all radio and TV tubes had very visible silvery getters (and CRTs still do).The getter electrode can be seen in photos:
    Typical Small to Medium Size Melles Griot He-Ne Laser Tubes
    Typical Small to Medium Size Melles Griot He-Ne Laser Tubes

    However, no getter spots are visible. I have found many tubes where there is a getter electrode present but the getter spot is undetectable. Some modern getters use a zirconium based material which is colourless as opposed to old style getters which were barium based with a very visible spot. (Really long life He-Ne tubes like those from Hewlett-Packard actually use a zirconium cathode. They are rated for a 100,000 hour life!) It’s also possible that the getter was included as insurance and never activated. I suppose that modern vacuum systems and processing methods are so good and hard-seal tubes don’t really leak, so there is not as much need for a getter as there used to be.

    Note that a high mileage He-Ne (or other gas discharge) tube may exhibit metallic deposits (usually) near electrodes which look similar to the getter spot. However, these are due to sputtering and won’t change appearance if there is a leak! The tube is usually near death at this point in any case.

Mirrors in Sealed He-Ne Tubes

The mirrors used in lasers are a bit more sophisticated than your bathroom variety:

  • The mirrors are not silvered or aluminized (metal coated) but are a type called ‘dielectric’. They are made by depositing many alternating layers of hard but transparent materials having different indexes of refraction. The thickness of each is precisely 1/4 the wavelength of the laser light inside the material (632.8 nm being the most common for a He-Ne laser). This results in reflection by interference with very high (>99.9%) efficiency – much greater than for even the best metal coated mirrors. However, note that for a sufficiently long He-Ne tube (one with high enough gain), it would be possible to use a pair of freshly coated or protected aluminium mirrors though performance would be pretty terrible. And, getting a useful beam out of such a laser would be difficult because aluminized mirrors tend to not be even partially transparent! I’ve gotten a 10″ long He-Ne tube with an internal HR and Brewster window at the other end to lase using the aluminized mirror from a barcode scanner – just barely. But the first He-Ne laser would not have been possible without dielectric mirrors despite its length since the wide bore resulted in very low gain.
  • The mirrors may be perfectly flat (planar) or one or both may be spherical (concave with respect to the inside of the cavity) with a typical Radius of Curvature (RoC = 2 * the focal length) ranging from approximately the length of the cavity (L) to 2 or 3 times L. (Positive RoC means a concave mirror. Curved mirrors result in an easier to align more stable configuration but may be more expensive than planar mirrors to manufacture. A planar-planar narrow bore He-Ne laser would be virtually impossible to align and would change behaviour due to any unequal thermal expansion. Most or all of the tubes I’ve dissected have at least one curved mirror, usually with an RoC somewhat longer than the distance between the mirrors. Some will also have some ‘wedge’ (where the outer surface is angled slightly with respect to the beam axis to minimize instability resulting from reflections directly back into the resonator.I have also come across He-Ne laser output mirrors with a slight *negative* RoC – they are convex rather than concave with respect to inside the cavity. At first I thought these were a mistake, coating the wrong sides of the mirror glass or something like that. But the slightly convex curvature does indeed result in a stable resonator configuration and actually has a slightly lower divergence than a similar concave mirror when tested in my one-Brewster external mirror He-Ne laser (though I can’t tell if this might also have been more due to the curvature of the outer surface). I have since found a sample of a HeNe laser tube (probably from a barcode scanner) that had such a mirror, though it’s certainly not a common configuration.You may be able to tell which type you have by looking at a reflection off of the inner surfaces of the mirrors at each end (assuming the one at the non-output end is not painted or covered). Assuming the outer surfaces are flat, a concave mirror will reduce the size of the reflection very slightly compared to a planar mirror. If wedge is present, the reflections from the front and back (interior) surface of the mirror will shift apart as you move further away (though this may be tough to see on the Anti Reflection (AR) coated output mirror since the reflection from the AR coated surface will be very weak). To further complicate matters, the front (outer) surface of the mirror at the output-end of the tube may be ground to a (slight) convex or concave shape as well resulting in either a positive lens which aids in beam collimation or a negative lens with increases the divergence.
  • One of the mirrors will be nearly totally reflecting and the other will only be partially reflecting at the laser wavelength. These are called the High Reflector (HR) and Output Coupler (OC) respectively. Note that the HR isn’t perfect – there will be a low intensity beam exiting from that end of the tube as well as from the OC end assuming it is not covered with paint or tape.Since the reflection peaks at a single wavelength, this type of mirror actually appears quite transparent to other wavelengths of light. For example, for common He-Ne laser tubes, the mirrors transmit blue light quite readily and appear blue when looking down the bore of an UNPOWERED (!!) tube. Blue light from the electrical discharge will also pass out of the mirrors as a diffuse glow when running. No, you don’t have a blue He-Ne laser!
  • The OC mirror will have an Anti-Reflection (AR) coating for the lasing wavelength. With red (632.8 nm) He-Ne lasers, this will usually have a blue or purple appearance. The HR mirror in most tubes is polished flat with no AR coating, but occasionally will be painted over or covered with opaque tape. Higher quality tubes will have the HR glass slightly “wedged” to avoid a reflection from its outer surface going back into the tube and affecting lasing. (This can be detected easily by the presence of a very weak ghost beam at a slight angle to the already weak waste beam.) However, the HR mirror on some tubes may be fine ground or frosted.
  • The mirrors usually don’t have any ‘user’ adjustments. However, the cylindrical mirror mount stems are almost always mounted by thinner sections of metal tubing (usually a gap in the cylinder but sometimes between the stem and end-cap) so slight changes to alignment may be possible with appropriate fixtures. I do not recommend this without special precautions because:
    1. Grabbing the high voltage electrodes is not likely to be pleasant and dropping the tube doesn’t do it any good.
    2. The most likely result of a random attempt at alignment will be total loss of lasing.
    3. It is too easy to break the seal if you get carried away after (2).

    There should be no reason for the alignment to have changed unless you whacked the tube – it was set at the factory. But due to the way some tubes are constructed, it can creep with multiple thermal cycles over the years. If you suspect an alignment problem, it is easy to check. Then, you can decide if attempting an adjustment is worth the risks.

    However, long high power tubes (i.e., 20mW and up) may require fixtures to maintain mirror alignment even when the mirrors are internal. For example, they may need to be securely mounted in their mating laser head cylinders. Such tubes will not be stable by themselves because thermal expansion will result in enough change in alignment to significantly alter beam power – even to the extent of extinguishing the beam entirely at times! There may even be a ‘This Side Up’ indication (not related to the orientation for linearly polarized tubes) on the He-Ne tube or laser head as gravity affects this as well (the alignment and thus power, not the gas, electrons, ions, or light!) and can significantly affect operation. I do not know if this latter sort of behaviour is common or only likely with tubes that are marginal in some way. But, there will always be at least a small change in power with orientation for longer tubes.

  • The main beam will emerge from the partially reflecting mirror but this may be at either end of the tube depending on model. For example, where the tube is enclosed in a metal barrel, the HV connections will be to the anode end and the beam will exit from the cathode end. With this arrangement, the positive output of the power supply and ballast resistor can be very close to the tube anode. The entire barrel (cathode) can be connected to earth ground for safety.There is a slight benefit to having the output coupler mirror at the anode-end of the tube due to the typical long-radius hemispherical cavity configuration. With the bore running almost to the mirror mount, more of the mode volume is inside the bore and thus the gain will be slightly higher. But the difference is only really significant for “other colour” He-Ne laser tubes which have very low gain and these are more likely to use anode-end output configuration.
  • Unlike common metal coated mirrors, these dielectric types are not perfectly reflective. Thus, there will be a weaker beam visible from the non-output end of the tube if that mirror is not covered (blocked or painted over). One use of this is to permit monitoring of laser power for purposes of optical power regulation or other closed loop applications.

Mirror Reflectances for Some Typical He-Ne Lasers

Here are some (approximate) typical OC reflectances for red (632.8 nm) He-Ne lasers determined by measuring the actual transmission (R = 100 – T) of a red He-Ne laser beam through the optic with a simple photodiode based laser power meter:

  • OC from 0.5 mW, 12.5 cm Melles Griot model 05-LHR-002-246 internal mirror He-Ne tube: 99.3 percent.
  • OC from 2.25 mW, 26 cm Spectra-Physics model 084-1 internal mirror He-Ne tube: 99 percent.
  • OC from 20 mW, 75 cm Aerotech model unknown internal mirror He-Ne tube: 97.7 percent.
  • OC from 50 mW, 177 cm Spectra-Physics model 125 large frame external mirror He-Ne laser: 99.4 percent.

The HRs in all cases showed greater than 99.9 percent reflectivity (T less than 0.001 – virtually undetectable on my fabulous meter).

Due to the behaviour of the photodiode at low light levels, the absolute precision of the readings is somewhat questionable. However, the relative reflectivities of these mirrors is probably reasonably accurate. Note, in particular, the high R of 99.4% for the very long external mirror laser compared to the low R of 97.7% (T of 2.3%) for a shorter internal mirror tube. I expect that in addition to the length of the bore, part of this difference is due to the absence of Brewster window losses in the internal mirror tube resulting in a higher gain so that more energy can be extracted via the OC on each pass.

Mirrors for non-red He-Ne lasers must be of even higher quality due to the lower gain on the other spectral lines. The OC will also have higher reflectivity for this reason. For green He-Ne tubes (which have the lowest gain of all the visible He-Ne wavelengths), the transmission is about 1/10th that of a similar length red tube. For example, the reflectivity of a typical green He-Ne tube OC is 99.92 to 99.95 percent (.08 to .05 percent transmission) at 543.5 nm.

Notes on making these measurements:

  • Position the sensor far enough from the laser that it doesn’t see a significant amount of bore light (incoherent glow from the discharge).
  • Block ambient illumination from falling on the sensor.
  • Orient the mirror being tested at a very slight angle so light doesn’t bounce back to the laser’s output mirror.
  • Assure that the sensor sees only the main beam and not any of its (possibly multiple) reflections from the mirror surfaces.
  • Take a reading with the sensor blocked (the ‘dark current’) and then subtract it from the actual measurements.
  • Average several readings of both the laser and transmitted power to minimize the error introduced due to power variations from mode cycling.

More About He-Ne Dielectric Mirrors

In the mid 1980s, before Ion Beam Sputtered (IBS) coatings really made their commercial debut, some mirrors were still Epoxied (soft-sealed), particularly those with a lot of coating layers (like 20 or 30), mostly green, yellow, and IR He-Ne lasers. These tubes need sharp cutoffs (to kill lasing on unwanted wavelengths) and/or ultra high reflectivity (due to their very low gain) in the coatings – which means a lot of layers. The packing density on Electron-Beam (E-Beam) coatings is not great, so water molecules get into all the layers. When you hard-seal the mirror by heating the frit, the water comes out and cracks the coating (called a ‘crazed’ mirror). Another problem with mega-stack E-Beam coatings is that the transmittance curve can shift as much as 10 nm (to longer wavelengths – the layers get thicker) during the oven cycle (again a water-thing). If you have to, say, highly reflect at 594.1 nm (for a yellow output tube) and highly transmit beyond 604.6 nm (to kill the orange and red), and your coating shifts 10 nm in the oven cycle, another batch of tubes ends up in the dumpster. 🙁 No! Send the my way. 🙂

Ion Beam Sputtered (IBS) coatings have a much higher packing density, so they withstand the (i.e., 450 °C) frit sealing temperatures and don’t even shift 1 nm. Nowadays, everything is hard sealed, with the exception of the high-end (long precision) Brewster tubes. Hard-sealing a BK-7 window puts a lot of stress on it, and that just isn’t acceptable on the high-Q tubes. So, those get fused silica windows optically contacted (lapped and polished surfaces that are vacuum tight.) (In fact, with this type of seal, if there is no adhesive present, the windows can be easily removed from your dead, leaky, or up-to-air tubes by heating the Brewster stem and window with a heat gun. The window can then be popped off with your thumbnail!)

Random and Linear Polarized He-Ne Tubes

Most common He-Ne laser tubes are randomly polarized since for many applications the polarization of the beam doesn’t matter. As noted elsewhere, the term “random” here really doesn’t mean that the polarization is necessarily jumping around to totally arbitrary orientations. In fact, such behaviour would be rather unusual, though lasers from some manufacturers do exhibit somewhat erratic mode flipping. It really just means that nothing special is done to control the polarization. The typical He-Ne laser will lase on several longitudinal modes (how many will depend on tube length of the resonator). For red (633 nm) He-Ne lasers, adjacent modes will generally have orthogonal to polarizations. Each of the modes will change their relative intensities periodically over time as the laser cavity changes length due to thermal expansion.

“Random polarized” is actually a poor choice of terminology since most random polarized He-Ne lasers do NOT exhibit random and/or high speed fluctuations in polarization. Rather there are generally two polarization axes that are orthogonal to each-other and the output power slowly varies between the two axes as the tube cavity length changes due to temperature and the lasing modes drift under the neon gain curve. (In fact, the tube used in a stabilized He-Ne laser must be a random polarized tube!). For most common tubes, the orientation of these polarization axes is determined by slight asymmetries in the tube geometry and/or mirror coatings (sometimes deliberate but most often simply as a result of manufacturing tolerances) and are fixed for the life of the tube. Lasers from Melles Griot, JDS Uniphase, and Siemens/LASOS generally have well behaved polarization. However, where there is virtually no asymmetry, the polarization axes could jump around, rotate, or perform some other acrobatics. 😉 Research Electro-Optics random polarized He-Ne lasers have somewhat unstable polarization behaviour due to (REO claims) their high quality ion beam sputtered mirror coatings which have virtually no asymmetry. Whether this is true, I can’t say. A Metrologic metal-ceramic tube was found to have unstable mode behaviour as well and its mirrors are probably nothing to write home about. However from a test using a Melles Griot plasma tube with two perpendicular windows in place of internal mirrors, the orientation of the external mirrors had no impact on the polarization axes and the modes were well behaved. Only the tube orientation mattered even though the intra-cavity mode volume was no where even near the capillary wall. I attribute this to very slight orientation preferences in the windows – when photons make hundreds of passes, even small anisotropies can be significant.

For the special case of a short tube where only two modes fit under the gain curve (typically 5 or 6 inches in length) at the instants when they are equal, the output will appear to be non-polarized (constant intensity as an external polarizer is rotated in the beam) but as the modes shift under the gain curve, one or the other polarization will dominate and for a portion of the entire cycle, the tube will be pure linearly polarized in each of these axes. For longer tubes, there will be much less of an effect because there will be multiple modes with both polarizations at all times.

The main physical effect resulting in a particular polarization direction being favoured in a random polarized He-Ne tube is a slight preferred axis in the dielectric mirror coatings or in subtle aspects of the geometry of the tube due to manufacturing tolerances. Where these effects are very small or cancel, the resulting polarization axes may indeed not be restricted to a fixed orientation, but this tends to be less common. Most often, the polarization axes are fixed for the life of the tube. It’s possible to design a tube with a known orientation for the polarization axes as REO has done for their stabilized He-Ne lasers, but this turns out to be more complex and expensive, so usually it’s left up to natural selection. 🙂

Most linearly polarized He-Ne laser tubes are similar to their randomly polarized cousins but include a Brewster plate or window inside the cavity which results in slightly higher gain for the desired polarization orientation. Such tubes produce a highly polarized beam with a typical ratio of 500:1 or more between the selected and orthogonal polarization. External mirror He-Ne lasers almost always use Brewster windows and so are inherently linearly polarized. A strong transverse magnetic field can also be used to force linear polarization and indeed, long before I observed this phenomenon, some commercial He-Ne lasers offered a “polarization option” which was a set of magnets to be placed next to the bore.

Another way to force linear polarization in a He-Ne laser (or any other low gain laser) is to add a mirror at 45 degrees reflecting to the actual HR mirror, which is then at 90 degrees to the optic axis (facing sideways). The 45 degree mirror will have a slight polarization preference (or can be designed that way) so its reflectance will be extremely high at the desired polarization and slightly lossy at the unwanted one. Like the Brewster plate, this is enough to force linear polarization in low gain lasers. The undesirable losses from the extra mirror bounce may be less than the losses through a less than perfect Brewster plate or one with a slight orientation error, which is particularly important for “other colour” He-Ne lasers, especially green, which has the lowest gain. However, this approach is much less common than using a Brewster plate (even for green). I’ve only seen it in PMS green He-Ne laser heads. Based on a test of the mirrors from a broken tube, the reflectance of the 45 degree mirror was about 99.997% for the preferred polarization orientation and 99.9% at the unwanted one. The 90 degree mirror had a reflectance of about 99.997% regardless of polarization. This difference in loss is far less than for a Brewster window but is still more than adequate for the green laser, though probably not for a higher gain red one. And the one PMS polarized yellow He-Ne laser head I’ve had used a Brewster plate. For more info, see: U.S. Patent #6,567,456: Method and Apparatus for Achieving Polarization in a Laser using a Dual-Mirror Mirror Mount.

Linearly polarized He-Ne lasers tended to be used in older laser printers (since the external modulator often required a polarized beam) and older LaserDisc players (because the servo and data recovery optics required a polarized beam). Randomly polarized lasers were used in older barcode scanners since polarization doesn’t matter there. Note the use of “older”. Nowadays, this equipment all use diode lasers which are inherently polarized. I’ve heard of people retrofitting such equipment to use diode lasers without much difficulty, but your mileage may vary. 🙂

More on Random Polarized He-Ne Lasers

As noted above, the term “random polarized” doesn’t mean that the polarization is necessarily jumping around at random, but rather that nothing special is done to control polarization. Only natural sources of light such as incandescent lamps produce anything approaching true random polarization since each of the emitters (e.g., atoms, etc.) is oscillating more or less independently of its neighbours in both polarization and wavelength (or frequency). Thus the resulting net polarization will be varying on a time scale of femtoseconds (10-15 seconds) and testing with a polarizer will simply show a uniformly non-polarized source – the intensity of the light that passes through the polarizer will be independent of its orientation.

However, the output of a laser consists of one or more “lasing lines” which correspond to those optical frequencies which match a cavity resonance (“cavity mode”) AND where the round trip net gain within the laser cavity is greater than one. These are the longitudinal (or axial) modes of the laser and each one will have a specific polarization and optical frequency. The cavity modes are spaced at a distance of f=c/2L (called the “Free Spectral Range” or FSR, where f is optical frequency, c is the speed of light, and L is the distance between the mirrors). For the typical He-Ne laser, there are between 1 or 2 (for a 15 cm 1 mW tube) and 10 or 12 (for a 1 meter 35 mW tube) present at any given time.

Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser
Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser

The image above illustrates this for a medium size laser.

For the red (632.8 nm) He-Ne laser, unless something specific is done to control the polarization inside the laser tube, adjacent longitudinal modes will usually be orthogonally polarized (the red and blue lines in the diagram, above). The orientation of their two axes will be determined by some very slight asymmetries in the tube’s construction or mirror coatings, and will usually remain fixed for the life of the tube. For reasons that are not clear, in Melles Griot tubes at least, one of the two axes often tends to line up approximately with the exhaust tip-off even though nothing special is done to make this happen and there is no obvious structural characteristic of the tube to cause it. The polarization axes can also be forced to be at a particular orientation, though some tubes using this technique may have other quirks. Melles Griot, JDS Uniphase, and Siemens/LASOS tubes usually (but not always) have well behaved polarization. But symmetry is desirable in some tubes such as those found in HP/Agilent Zeeman-split lasers. These tubes are normally installed in an axial magnetic field and then they are extremely well behaved. But without the magnet, the polarization, while not exactly totally random, does behave rather strangely. And REO claims their mirrors are so good and symmetric that they have problems with polarization and had to implement an more complex scheme to force the polarization axes to be have a fixed orientation for their stabilized He-Ne lasers.

Should the temperature of the laser cavity change, the distance between the mirrors increases or decreases resulting in a shift in the position of the cavity modes. For most He-Ne lasers, this happens inadvertently as a result of the heating caused by the bore discharge during warmup. But it can also be caused by changes in ambient temperature as well as heating or cooling intentionally applied, usually for the purposes of laser stabilization. For the most common situation, as the tube warms up and the cavity expands, longitudinal modes will drift through the neon gain curve, disappearing at one end (longer wavelength, lower optical frequency) as the gain falls below the lasing threshold, and being replaced at the other end (shorter wavelength, higher optical frequency) as the gain there rises above the lasing threshold. The total output power in each of the two polarization axes will correspond to the sum of the power in its lasing modes. The total output power of the laser is the sum of the output power in both polarizations. In most real He-Ne lasers, the variation versus time as the tube warms up – called “mode sweep” or “mode cycling” – is smooth and occurs on a time scale of seconds to hours depending on how close the tube is to thermal equilibrium, being fastest just after the laser is turned on. The modes are not jumping around on a time scale of nanoseconds as has been suggested by at least one major supplier of He-Ne lasers! 🙂 However, depending on the size of the laser, there can be high frequency variations in power in each polarization, or in a combination of the two observed with a high speed photodetector and oscilloscope. More on this below.

There are several specific cases depending on the length of the laser cavity. To simplify the explanation, it is assumed that the laser tube has been rotated in its mounts so that the natural polarization axes are at 0 and 90 degrees. In addition, the second order ripple and noise in the output from imperfect power supplies or other external factors are assumed to be small (which is typically the case). Also, fine points like mode pulling (which shift the modes very slightly in position, a small fraction of 1 percent) are ignored. So, the FSR (Free Spectral Range or cavity mode spacing) is equal to the longitudinal (or axial) mode spacing of the lasing lines. And the lasers are assumed to be well behaved and not be “flippers” or “stutterers” or have other pathologic disorders:

  • 1 or 2 longitudinal modes are present simultaneously (typical 0.5 to 1 mW laser with a cavity length of 12 to 15 cm): During mode sweep, the output will smoothly go through the following sequence (and everything in between):
    • Pure linearly polarized at 0 degrees.
    • Non-polarized where the power in both axes is the same.
    • Pure linearly polarized at 90 degrees.
    • Non-polarized where the power in both axes is the same.
    • Pure linearly polarized at 0 degrees.

    And so forth.

    Here, the term “non-polarized” means that rotating a polarizer in the beam will result in no variation of optical power passing through it. But the beam in this case actually consists of the two CW longitudinal modes with orthogonal linear polarization, and equal and constant amplitude. (This is totally unlike a natural non-polarized light source whose output consists of a superposition of a nearly infinite number of independent emitters with arbitrary polarization.)

    Note that the axis of polarization is NOT rotating – power is simply shifting back and forth between the two fixed orthogonal polarization axes.

    If the output is passed through a polarizer oriented at 0 or 90 degrees, the optical power will be seen to vary smoothly from 0 to to approximately the rated power of the laser in a cycle lasting a few seconds to hours depending on how close the tube is to thermal equilibrium. Aside from this slow variation, the output will be CW with no high frequency oscillation or noise – a pure single optical frequency. However, if a polarizer is oriented at an angle other than 0 or 90 degrees, whenever both modes are present, a high speed photodiode and oscilloscope (or frequency counter or RF spectrum analyzer) would show a beat signal between the two lasing modes at a frequency equal to the longitudinal mode spacing (around 1 GHz for a short tube like this). If the polarizer is at 45 degrees, when both modes are equal in power, the beat would have a peak-to-peak amplitude of double the average power passing through the polarizer.

    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW HeNe Laser
    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW HeNe Laser

    Above is a diagram for this size laser showing the relationship of the neon gain curve, cavity modes, and lasing modes. The Power Point show [download id=”5604″] demonstrates the effect of changing cavity length on the lasing modes. The longitudinal mode spacing and thus the beat frequency (if present) is 1.063 GHz in this example. Specifically note that at no time are more than 2 modes present and they are always orthogonally polarized. (In real life, the motion is continuous, but I didn’t have enough patience to generate an infinite sequence of slides!)

    Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 1 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube
    Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 1 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube

    Above shows the appearance of mode sweep using a dual polarization detector for a typical 12 cm random polarized He-Ne laser tube. The red and blue plots are the optical power for the two polarization axes. The green plot is the total optical power. Each polarization has exactly 0 power for a approximately 1/3rd of each cycle. (The plot has it slightly raised above 0 so that the green total power curve can be distinguished from the top of the mode it’s sitting on, but it really would be almost precisely 0 in real life, limited mainly by the quality of the polarizer in front of each detector.)

  • 2 or 3 longitudinal modes are present simultaneously (typical 2 to 3 mW laser with a cavity length of 20 to 25 cm): During mode sweep, the output will smoothly go from the case where 2 modes are oscillating to where 3 modes are oscillating and and repeat.During the time while only 2 modes are oscillating, the output through a polarizer oriented at 0 or 90 degrees will be varying slowly with no high frequencies present as with the shorter laser, above.During the time while 3 modes are oscillating, one of the axes will have 2 modes of the same polarization (but spaced by twice the distance between longitudinal modes) and the other will have only a single mode which is pure CW. For the axis with 2 modes, a polarizer will show a beat at one half the longitudinal modes spacing of the laser. For the axis with a single mode, there will be no beat. If the polarizer is oriented at 45 degrees (or any angle other than 0 or 90 degrees) there will always be a beat at a frequency equal to the longitudinal mode spacing, or one half of it, or both (1.5 GHz and 750 MHz). However, this does NOT mean the polarization is jumping around; only that the power is varying in each of the polarization axes or when combined with the polarizer due to the way the E/M waves add up.
    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 3 mW HeNe Laser
    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 3 mW HeNe Laser

    Above is a diagram for this size laser showing the relationship of the neon gain curve, cavity modes, and lasing modes. [download id=”5602″] demonstrates the effect of changing cavity length on the lasing modes. Unlike the 1 mW laser, above, when a longitudinal mode of the 3 mW laser is near the center of the gain curve, there can be modes on both sides of it (3 modes total).

    Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 3 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube
    Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 3 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube

    Above shows the appearance of mode sweep using a dual polarization detector for a typical 22.5 cm random polarized He-Ne laser tube. The red and blue plots are the optical power for the two polarization axes. The green plot is the total optical power.

For both of these cases, exactly two modes can be maintained by a feedback circuit with one on either side of the neon gain curve to implement a stabilized He-Ne laser. Under these conditions, both of the polarizations are pure single modes with a constant CW output. They are a very pure single optical frequency with ultra-long coherence length when one of them is selected with a polarizer.

  • 4 or more longitudinal modes are present simultaneously (typical 5 mW or higher power laser with a cavity length of 30 cm or more): During mode sweep, the output will smoothly go from the case where n modes are oscillating to where n+1 modes are oscillating and repeat.Where 4 or more modes are oscillating, the output through a polarizer will show a beat at all times regardless of orientation since there are always at least 2 modes present even at 0 and 90 degrees.
    Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser
    Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser

    is a diagram for a laser where 5 modes are present showing the relationship of the neon gain curve, cavity modes, and lasing modes. [download id=”5606″] demonstrates the effect of changing cavity length on the lasing modes. The longitudinal mode spacing and thus the beat frequency is 373 MHz in this example. Depending on the position with respect to the neon gain curve and orientation of a polarizer, the beat frequency will be at a combination of the longitudinal mode spacing (373 MHz), and 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and 1/5 of it (186.50 MHz, 124.33 MHz, and 93.25 MHz, and 74.60 MHz, although the last one will not “appear” in the slide show due to the discrete frames skipping over a very small region where 6 modes are present).

    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)

    Above shows the appearance of mode sweep using a dual polarization detector for a typical 325 mm random polarized He-Ne laser tube. The red and blue plots are the optical power for the two polarization axes. Since multiple longitudinal modes are present at all times, the power variation in each polarization axis is small and the variation in total power is even smaller. As the length of the laser is increased, these power variations become still smaller.

For extremely low power tubes with a cavity length less than 8 or 9 cm, there will never be more than 1 lasing mode present at any time and during a portion of the mode sweep, there may be exactly 0 modes and no beam at all. There will never be any beat frequency detectable in the output. Since two adjacent modes are needed to force orthogonal polarizations and that never occurs, these tubes may lase with the same polarization each time the single mode appears, or the polarization may come up randomly one way or the other (but will remain the same while it’s present). So perhaps, such tubes can be truly called random polarized. 🙂 However, they are now almost non-existent.

Finally, for most linearly polarized He-Ne lasers, a Brewster plate or Brewster window(s) within the laser cavity provide enough gain asymmetry to force the polarization to be in one plane only. The polarization purity is usually very high – 500:1 or more. Everything above about mode sweep still applies except that all the longitudinal modes have the same polarization. So the diagrams, Power Power shows, and plots will look identical except that all the modes would be the same colour. 🙂 A polarizer will not affect the relative amplitude of the modes, only the intensity and angle of the linearly polarized beam. And whenever more than 1 longitudinal mode is present, there will be a beat signal detectable using a fast photodiode which will contain one or more frequencies depending on the possible distances between all the lasing modes.

So what this all shows is that random is all in the eyes of the polarized beholder. 🙂

More on Mode Cycling in Short He-Ne Lasers

As noted, a randomly polarized He-Ne laser doesn’t really produce arbitrary polarization but the individual longitudinal modes may switch polarizations as the tube warms up and expands. Where the distance between the mirrors is small – 5 or 6 inches as is the case with small He-Ne laser tubes, only two adjacent modes will fit under the inhomogeneously Doppler-broadened gain curve of neon. With only two active modes, effects of mode changes may be obvious even without anything more than Mark-I eyeballs and a polarizing filter but fancy equipment may be needed to fully characterize what’s going on.

(Portions from: Lynn Strickland (stricks760@earthlink.net).)

Our testing suggested that adjacent modes always have orthogonal polarization – (lets go with S and P designations). BUT, in some two-mode tubes, a given mode doesn’t always REMAIN S or P as it changes in frequency (it flips polarization). In “flippers”, certain frequencies only support one polarization. If this frequency range is around the centre of the gain curve, most power will be of one polarization regardless of temperature (so it appears to be linearly polarized). (However, the extinction ratio varies over time, and is generally poor).

Here’s a test setup that shows what’s going on if you have access to some nice instrumentation: Send the beam from a two mode, randomly polarized He-Ne tube (Example: 05-LHR-006) into a Scanning Fabry-Perot Interferometer. (SFPIs are generally exorbitantly priced, but you can build one if so inclined. Put a polarizer in the beam path, aligned to maximize P polarization (or S polarization, doesn’t matter). Normally, the P mode will remain P polarization at all frequencies under the gain curve. So as the frequency changes (due to cavity length changes with temperature), the P mode will trace out a nice pretty sort of bell-shaped curve with a width of about 1.6 GHz FWHM. Bottom line, you can get P-polarized light at every frequency under the gain curve.

In a ‘flipper’, your curve has missing sections. In other words, there are some frequencies where you cannot get P polarization. When the observed, P mode reaches one of these frequency ranges, it will flip and become S-polarized. When the flip occurs, the other, formerly S mode, turns into a P. If you’re just looking at one polarization (as the experiment describes), the observed P mode disappears and pops up again at a frequency delta equal to the longitudinal mode spacing (where the S mode used to be). Some call it mode hop, but it really isn’t, because both modes are still there. Both modes still have, and always had, orthogonal polarization – they just swapped. Some tubes flip at one point under the gain curve, some flip many times under the gain curve.

This has to do with gain asymmetry. What brought it to our attention, is that when the polarizations flip, you get high frequency ‘noise’ if you have polarization sensitive components in your beam path. Solutions are to specify a laser that doesn’t flip, go to a three mode (longer) laser, go to non-polarization sensitive optics all the way through the beam delivery/detection train, or put a bandwidth filter on your detector.

A magnetic field will sometimes make a flipper stop, and sometimes make a non-flipper start – but not always. Sans magnetic field, over time (several thousand operating hours) our test population suggested that flippers always flip, non-flippers always behave.

There is more on flippers below.

He-Ne Mode Flipper Observations

The longitudinal modes of a He-Ne laser tube sweep through the gain curve as the resonator heats and expands. On a random polarized red (632.8 nm) tube, adjacent modes tend to be orthogonally polarized due to non-linear mode competition (or something). With well behaved tubes, once a mode starts lasing with a given polarization as it exceeds threshold on one side of the gain curve, that polarization is fixed until the mode ceases lasing on the other side of the gain curve. The Power Point show [download id=”5602″] demonstrates the effect of changing cavity length on the lasing modes in a well behaved 2 to 3 mW random polarized tube.

A “flipper” tube is one where the polarization orientation of adjacent longitudinal modes swap places at a fixed location on the neon gain curve as the modes sweep through it. Some will flip at multiple locations on the gain curve but this is less common. The Power Point show [download id=”5608″] demonstrates the effect of changing cavity length on the lasing modes in a classic 2 to 3 mW flipper tube.

The issue of why some tubes are flippers is apparently one of those grand mysteries of the Universe that even the Ph.D. types at major laser companies have been pondering for eons without resolution, as it’s still not always possible to manufacture a tube that is guaranteed to be well behaved. 🙂 Flipper behaviour may not be detected where the laser is simply used as a source of photons for the same reason that polarization effects of normal mode sweep tend to be minimal since the total power doesn’t vary that much. However, polarization flips will introduce short noise spikes. And if there are any polarization sensitive optical elements (intentional or not), significant sudden power fluctuations will also be evident in the polarized beam(s).

As with random polarized HeNe lasers not being random at all, flipper behaviour is also mostly deterministic in that for a given tube, flipping will usually always occur at the same place(s) in the mode sweep, but there are exceptions.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)

    Above is of a normal short He-Ne laser tube showing the two polarized modes. Note that the amplitude of each one varies smoothly with no discontinuities.

  • Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup

    Above is a closeup of the mode cycles for a classic case of flipperitis. Note the perfectly vertical edges on the red and blue plots. Based on laser theory, the flips probably require 100s of nanoseconds, but as a practical matter, they are instantaneous.

    Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup (Combined)
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup (Combined)

    Above is the same location but with the two plots superimposed. Ignoring colour (red or blue) and tracing the continuous lines would result in the normal mode cycling behaviour. And this tube is peculiar in that it eventually reverts to normal behaviour once close to thermal equilibrium as shown below:

    Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head at Transition to Normal Behaviour (Combined)
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head at Transition to Normal Behaviour (Combined)

    And this sequence from flipper to normal is totally repeatable if the laser is turned off and allowed to cool down and then turned back on.

  • Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-038 "Flipper" He-Ne Laser Tube
    Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-038 “Flipper” He-Ne Laser Tube

    Above shows another classic case of flipperitis but where the laser always flips so the plot has pretty much the same appearance all the time except for the length of the mode sweep cycles. There are some tiny blips just before the flip and at two other locations during the mode sweep cycle but these do not result in flips. Such blips are generally not present in well behaved lasers unless they are thinking about being naughty. 🙂

  • Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-121 "Flipper" He-Ne Laser Head
    Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-121 “Flipper” He-Ne Laser Head

    Above shows yet another example where the laser always flips. Note that something really peculiar is occurring just before the flip occurs. Apparently, it’s attempting to maintain the normal shape with the double bump but cannot and then flips. Compare this to the expected shape of the modes which is shown below:

    Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-120 He-Ne Laser Tube
    Mode Sweep of Melles Griot 05-LHR-120 He-Ne Laser Tube

    for a physically identical normal bare tube. (Whether a head or tube is irrelevant.). Small bumps and dips are also evident at other locations but do not result in flips. The general shape of the normal mode sweep can be seen in the bad laser but it is distorted.

While I haven’t seen any discussion of flipper theory, here are some thoughts.

In the absence of external influences like magnetic fields, the mode orientation in a laser will be determined by at least two factors:

  • Resonator orientation preference: Since the modes in most random polarized He-Ne laser tubes will tend to be polarized at a fixed pair of orientations with respect to the physical tube (i.e., the exhaust tip-off), this implies some asymmetry in the construction which favours gain at these orientations. If a tube were perfectly symmetric, the modes could appear at arbitrary orientations but this is very rare. In most cases, they are fixed for the life of the tube.
  • Polarization birefringence: Many types of dielectric mirror coatings are not perfectly symmetric with a very slightly higher gain for light polarized at one specific orientation compared to that 90 degrees from it. A certain amount of asymmetry can be tolerated but if it becomes excessive, once the “wrong” polarized mode amplitude becomes large enough, its polarization flips. Since there are two mirrors, the relative orientation would be an important factor. If their birefringence axes were orthogonal, there would be no preference. If they were lined up, it would a maximum. Since no effort is made to orient the mirrors when they are attached to the tube, this could be a source of the behavioural differences between tubes.

Since a transverse magnetic field can also introduce a polarization preference, it is possible to cause a well behaved He-Ne laser tube to exhibit flipper behaviour by the careful placement of s strong magnet near the tube. I’ve demonstrated this with a normal Uniphase 098 laser. With no magnet, the mode sweep is perfectly ordinary with no tendency to flipping. By placing a single rare earth magnet next to the tube near the middle, it can be made to turn into a flipper with a mode plot very similar to that of a natural flipper. With too weak a magnetic field, there is no effect or a sort of shortened aborted flipping. With too strong a magnetic field, the polarization becomes locked to the magnetic field and the output ends up being linearly polarized.

For that peculiar tube above which reverts to normal behaviour at the very end of the warm-up period, a very weak magnetic field will cause it to continue to flip after the point of transition where flipping ceases under normal conditions.

Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head with Various Magnetic Fields Applied (Combined)
Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head with Various Magnetic Fields Applied (Combined)

Above shows the effect of a rare earth magnet at 4 orientations about 4 inches from the center of the laser head compared with no magnetic field. The magnetic field axis was horizontally aligned with one of the polarization axes of the laser. The magnet was rotated 90 degrees approximately every 30 seconds. The first and last orientation shows a mode sweep pattern that is relatively normal. They probably differ slightly because the magnet wasn’t in exactly the same position. The tube was allowed to completely warm up with the magnets in the last orientation with no significant change in the plot, even after the transition point where the tube reverts from flipper to normal behaviour with no magnetic field A closeup is shown below:

Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head with Magnetic Field Induced Somewhat Normal Behaviour (Combined)
Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head with Magnetic Field Induced Somewhat Normal Behaviour (Combined)

While very different than the mode plot of the tube after warm-up with no magnetic field, the flips are gone (no vertical jumps) and it’s relatively well behaved.

Conversely, it should be theoretically possible to suppress flipper behaviour with a suitably placed magnet. Getting this to work is more problematic since the magnetic field has to exactly counteract the natural polarization birefringence. But I was able to somewhat do this with my flipper head so that the mode sweep became well behaved. This was more finicky than going the other way. Almost any magnetic field did disrupt the normal flipper behaviour. But getting it to be really well behaved was more difficult.

Of course, a magnetic field will also introduce other effects due to Zeeman splitting which may be detrimental depending on the application.

Note that mirror alignment which may affect the resonator orientation preference had no effect on flipper behaviour, at least for the one sample I tested. Pressing on the mirror mount of my flipper tube in any direction would reduce the output power significantly due to changing mirror alignment. But the mode flips still occurred, and appeared to be at approximately the same location on the gain curve.

Some observations and questions:

  • One of the polarization axes tends to be aligned with tip-off in many tubes. Why? This isn’t always the case but seems to occur more often than not and thus something more than random chance is going on. Is it some sort of stress introduced during pinch-off, or some phenomenon that is due to something during pump-out and bake?
  • Short barcode scanner tubes with 8mR divergence I tested were almost all flippers. It has been suggested that the non-flippers were selected for more critical applications but I kind of doubt this as such tubes are rarely used for things like stabilized lasers where this would be important. I would expect that it is more likely to be back-reflections from the highly curved outer surface of the output mirror but could it be some other aspect of their design?
  • Some model tubes are consistently well behaved. For example, I can’t recall ever seeing a Spectra-Physics 088 that was a flipper.
  • Will polarization axes remain with tube if it is rotated relative to the mirrors?
  • Will the relative orientation of the mirrors affect polarization or flipping if one is rotated with respect to the other?

Speculation:

  1. No asymmetry: Polarization can be at any orientation at random. Very rarely, if ever seen with He-Ne lasers.
  2. Small assymetry: Normal case. Polarization will always be at fixed orientation and 90 degrees to it. Alternating modes will have orthogonal polarization.
  3. Moderate asymmetry: Flipper. Mirror or tube will slightly favor one polarization orientation. When a mode starts with orthogonal polarization, it will progress until the lower energy state is one where the polarization flips.This state can be forced from (2) by a small transverse magnetic field.
  4. Large asymmetry: Polarized tube, Brewster plate.This state can be forced from (2) or (3) by a large transverse magnetic field.

I now have been able to borrow a dual perpendicular window HeNe (gain) tube and was hoping to shed light (no pun…) on some of these issues by constructing a setup similar to the one described in the section: Transverse Zeeman Laser Testbed 1. This enabled the tube or one of the mirrors to be rotated without affecting alignment. The tube is longer than I’d like – about 14 inches resulting in a mirror spacing of about 16 inches – so it was necessary to really kill the gain with low reflectance mirrors and/or an aperture to get only 2 or 3 modes oscillating. But it should have been adequate to answer some of these questions. However, the somewhat unexpected result turned out to be that the polarization always remained with the tube regardless of mirror orientation even if the intracavity beam was much smaller than the bore so that any imperfections in its shape should not have had any effect. I attribute this to a very small amount of asymmetry in the transmission through the perpendicular windows. It might be AR coating or stress birefringence, distortion, or even the windows not being mounted quite perfectly perpendicular. With the intracavity photons traversing the windows an average of perhaps 100 times, even a minuscule asymmetry would be amplified into something significant. So on to Plan B, putting everything inside the gas envelope and doing away with the perpendicular windows entirely. Unfortunately, implementation of Plan B is currently not a funded project. 🙁 🙂

Polarization of Longitudinal Modes in He-Ne Lasers

It is well known that adjacent longitudinal modes in red (632.8 nm) He-Ne lasers (at least) tend to be orthogonally polarized as discussed above. This is a weak coupling as a magnetic field, Brewster plate, or even some asymmetry in the cavity can affect it or kill it entirely. And some lasers will cause the polarization to suddenly flip as modes cycle through the gain curve. However, the majority of modern well designed red He-Ne lasers will exhibit this phenomenon.

This is not necessarily true of “other colour” He-Ne tubes. My informal tests suggest that in general it is *not*. Long green (543.5 nm), short and long yellow (594.1 nm), and medium length orange (611.9 nm) random polarized He-Ne laser heads all exhibited varying degrees of erratic behaviour with respect to polarization. Usually, modes when part of the way through the gain curve and then either flipped abruptly or oscillated between polarizations for a short time and then flipped. The long yellow head liked to have pairs of adjacent modes with the same polarization but exhibited the flipper behaviour as well. However, adding a modest strength magnet near the long green seemed to force it to behave with adjacent modes having orthogonal polarization. I have no idea if this is significant or the long green He-Ne was simply a cooperating sample.

But what is the underlying cause?

(From: A. E. Siegman (siegman@stanford.edu).)

The reason that He-Ne lasers can run – more accurately, like to run – in multiple axial modes is associated with inhomogeneous line broadening (See section 3.7, pp. 157-175 of my book) and “hole burning” effects (Section 12.2, pp. 462-465 and in more detail in Chapter 30) in the Doppler-broadened laser transitions commonly found in gas lasers (though not so strongly in CO2) and not in solid-state lasers.

The tendency for alternate modes to run in crossed polarizations is a bit more complex and has to do with the fact that most simple gas laser transitions actually have multiple upper and lower levels which are slightly split by small Zeeman splitting effects. Each transition is thus a superposition of several slightly shifted transitions between upper and lower Zeeman levels, with these individual transitions having different polarization selection rules (Section 3.3, pp. 135-142, including a very simple example in Fig. 3.7). All the modes basically share or compete for gain from all the transitions.

The analytical description of laser action then becomes a bit complex – each axial mode is trying to extract the most gain from all the sub-transitions, while doing its best to suppress all the other modes – but the bottom line is that each mode usually comes out best, or suffers the least competition with adjacent modes, if adjacent modes are orthogonally polarized.

There were a lot of complex papers on these phenomena in the early days of gas lasers; the laser systems studied were commonly referred to as “Zeeman lasers”. I have a note that says a paper by D. Lenstra in Phys. Reports, 1980, pp. 289-373 provides a lengthy and detailed report on Zeeman lasers. I didn’t attempt to cover this in my book because it gets too complex and lengthy and a bit too esoteric for available space and reader interest. The early (and good) book by Sargent, Scully and Lamb has a chapter on the subject. You’re probably aware that Hewlett Packard developed an in-house He-Ne laser short enough that it oscillated in just two such orthogonally polarized modes, and used (probably still uses) the two frequencies as the base frequencies for their precision metrology interferometer system for machine tools, aligning airliner and ship frames, and stuff like that.

(From: Sam.)

Indeed, HP has several models of two-frequency He-Ne lasers but the ones I’m familiar with actually use an external magnet to create Zeeman splitting. Rather than two longitudinal modes, a PZT or heater is used to adjust cavity length so that only a single mode is oscillating, which is split by the Zeeman effect. Then, the difference frequency (in the low MHz range) is used in the measurement system as a reference and possibly for stabilizing the (optical) frequency.

The Spectra-Physics model 117A frequency stabilized He-Ne laser is designed more like what you are describing – two modes, no magnets. A heater is used to adjust cavity length in a feedback loop using a pair of photo diodes to monitor the two orthogonal polarized modes. However, I would assume that based on its description, the desired operating conditions would be for it to run with a single mode (which it can with carefully controlled cavity length). The Coherent and Melles Griot stabilized He-Ne lasers are similar.

Power Requirements for He-Ne Lasers

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

  • Operating voltage of 1,000v 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).

    See the chapter: He-Ne Laser Power Supplies for more information and complete circuit diagrams.

  • 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 He-Ne tube powered by 1,400 V at 6 mA 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.

Operating Regions of a He-Ne Laser Tube

There are several distinct operating regions for a He-Ne plasma discharge as a function of tube current each of which has its own properties. The following summary is partially extracted from the He-Ne Laser Manual by Elden Peterson and is mostly just for curiosity sake as there is little reason to run a He-Ne laser tube at anything other than close to the nominal current (which results in maximum power output and rated life) listed in the tube specifications except possibly to implement low level modulation for laser communications. However, some manufacturers do run their tubes at lower current when maximum power isn’t needed, possibly to extend life.

  • Dropout: Below this current, no stable discharge is possible. While increasing ballast resistance (up to 150K to 200K) may reduce the dropout current somewhat, there will come a point where no amount of ballast resistance will be enough. The typical value will be 1/2 to 2/3 of the nominal operating current when the tube is new but this will be affected by the tube and wiring capacitance as well as the condition of tube (age if soft seal; how much it’s been used) and probably other factors. Running the laser at or below dropout will result in a relaxation oscillator which is hard on tubes and power supplies and should be avoided.
  • Plasma oscillation: Slightly above dropout current there may be a regime where there are oscillations in tube current and thus modulation of output power. Increasing the ballast resistance (cathode and/or anode) may eliminate this phenomenon.
  • Nominal: The output power will be maximum and the tube will run happily with the recommended ballast resistance. A few tenths of a mA on either side of nominal won’t cause any harm and only minimal reduction in output power (it’s a smooth maximum). Between dropout and nominal, output power will increase, but not in proportion to current and not linearly. The usable output power variation (e.g., for modulation purposes) is usually in the 15 to 25 percent range.Most healthy tubes will still produce a substantial fraction of their maximum output power even just above the dropout current. However, in rare instances (and probably with a large ballast resistor to push down the stable current as far as possible and/or where the tube low gain due to contamination or end-of-life), lasing will actually cease above the dropout current.
  • Single frequency noise: At a current level a mA or so above nominal, the plasma will begin to oscillate, generally at a few MHz. This will result in both an oscillation in output power (as high as 20 or 30 percent but generally just a few percent) as well as in the current itself.Between nominal and the onset of single frequency noise, output will decrease somewhat, but again not in proportion (or inverse proportion) to current. Attempting to modulate current symmetrically around the nominal current will result in a sort of rectification or absolute value effect on the variation in output power.
  • Broadband noise: Raising the current still further will result in the generation of broadband optical noise which is quite disorganized and random like white noise.
  • Cessation of output: Raising the current even further will result in a total loss of optical output at the lasing wavelength. The only light will be from the very bright plasma discharge. This point is typically reached at a current of 2 to 3 times nominal. It’s interesting to try the experiment – your laser will be happy again once the current is reduced assuming it hasn’t been left in this state for too long. However allowing the tube cook at these currents will shorten its life (and possibly that of your power supply as well) but what will probably die first (and quite quickly) is the ballast resistance unless its power dissipation rating is much higher than required at the nominal current! And if the power supply and ballast resistors don’t die, the tube may crack. In any case, extended operation at these excessive currents should be avoided.

Note that the visual effect of increasing current from dropout to cessation of output will just be a smooth increase and then decrease in coherent optical output power. To detect the single frequency or broadband noise will require a sensor and oscilloscope with a bandwidth of at least a few MHz.

I’ve also seen lasers where single frequency noise occurred close to the dropout current and below the point of maximum output power. However, this was only present with some high mileage tubes in HP-5517 lasers so it’s not clear whether this should be listed as a separate regime, or just a special case of a particular tube and power supply combination.

Also of note is that the He-Ne laser power supply itself will contribute to optical ripple and noise. A DC input switchmode (inverter) power supply will have ripple at the switching frequency. This is typically in the range of 1 to 5 percent of the operating current and will result in an optical power variation of a few tenths of a percent. An AC input linear power supply will have some ripple at 1X or 2X of the line frequency (with some harmonics) even with a regulator. An AC input switcher (most bricks) will have both types of ripple. Special low noise power supplies are available for critical applications. However, for most common uses, the additional cost is not justified.

He-Ne Tube Dimensions, Drive, and Power Output

A large number of factors interact to determine the design of a modern He-Ne laser. Beam/bore diameter, bore length, gas fill pressure, voltage, current, and mirror design, are all critical in determining how much output power will be produced – or whether a given tube will lase at all. Hundreds (at least) of technical papers and entire phone book size volumes filled with equations have no doubt been written on these topics and we can’t hope to do anything serious in a few paragraphs, but at least, may be able to give you a feel for some of the relationships among power output, bore dimensions, gas pressure, and drive requirements in particular.

You have probably wondered why the beam from a typical He-Ne laser (without additional optics) is so narrow. Is it that making a tube with larger mirrors would be more costly?

No, it’s not cost. Even high quality and very expensive lab lasers still have narrow bores. The very first He-Ne lasers did use something like a 1 cm bore but their efficiency was even more mediocre than modern ones. A wide bore tube would actually be cheaper to manufacture than one requiring a super straight narrow capillary. However, it wouldn’t work too well.

A combination of the current density needed in the bore, optimal gas pressure, gain/unit length in the bore, the bore wall itself aiding in the depopulation of lower energy states, and the desire for a TEM00 (single transverse mode) beam (there are multimode tubes that have slightly wider bores), all interact in the selection of bore diameter.

In fact, there is a mathematical relationship between bore size, gas pressure, and tube current resulting in maximum power output and long life.

The optimal pressure at which stimulated emission occurs in a He-Ne laser is inversely proportional to bore diameter. According the one source (Scientific American, in their Amateur Scientist article on the home-built He-Ne laser), the pressure in Torr is equal to 3.6 divided by the ID of the bore. I don’t know whether this exact number applies to modern internal mirror tubes but it will likely be similar. Power output decreases on either side of the optimal pressure but a laser with a low loss resonator may still produce some output above twice and below half this value.

Thus, as the bore diameter is increased, the optimal pressure drops. Aside from having fewer atoms to contribute to lasing resulting in a decrease in gain, below a pressure of about .5 to 1 Torr, the electrons can acquire sufficient energy (large mean-free-path?) to cause excessive sputtering at the electrodes. This will bury gas atoms under the sputtered metal (which may also coat the mirrors) leading to a runaway condition of further decreasing pressure, more sputtering, etc. Even with the large gas reservoir of your typical He-Ne tube (which IS the main purpose of all that extra volume), there may still be some loss over time. A drop in gas pressure after many hours of operation is one mechanism that results in a reduction in output power and eventual failure of He-Ne tubes.

As a result, the maximum bore diameter you will see in a commercial He-Ne laser will likely be about 2 mm ID (for those multimode tubes mentioned above where the objective is higher power in a short tube). Most are in the 0.5 to 1.2 mm range. This results in high enough pressure to minimize sputtering, maximize life, provide maximum power output, and optimal efficiency (to the extent that this can be discussed with respect to He-Ne lasers! Well, ion lasers are even worse in the efficiency department so one shouldn’t complain too much. Since total resonator gain is proportional to bore length and approximately inversely proportional to bore diameter (since the optimal pressure increases resulting in a higher density of lasing atoms), this favours tubes with long narrow bores. But these are difficult to construct and maintain in alignment. Wide bore tubes have lower gain but a higher total number of atoms participating with potentially higher power output at the optimal pressure and current density. Everything is a tradeoff!

However, all this does provide a way of estimating the power output and drive requirements of a He-Ne tube or at least comparing tubes based on dimensions. Assuming a tube with a particular bore length (L) is filled to the optimum pressure for its bore diameter (D), power output will be roughly proportional to D * L, discharge voltage will be roughly proportional to L (probably minus a constant to account for the cathode work function), and discharge current will be roughly proportional to D. (Note that D instead of the cross-sectional area is involved because the optimal pressure and thus density of available lasing atoms is inversely proportional to D.)

So, do the numbers work? Well, sort of. Here are specifications for some selected Melles Griot red He-Ne tubes rearranged for this comparison:

(Bore length was estimated since the cathode-end of the capillary is not visible without X-raying the tube or by optically determining its position through the mirror!)

The general relationships seem to hold though large tubes seem to produce higher output power than predicted possibly constant losses represent a smaller overhead. As noted elsewhere there is also a wide variation even for tubes with similar physical dimensions. Oh well…

Note that there are some multi-mode (non-TEM00) He-Ne tubes with wider bores and a different mirror curvature that produce up to perhaps twice the power output for a given tube length. However, with multiple transverse modes, these are not suitable for many applications like interferometry and holography. They are also not very common compared to single-mode TEM00 He-Ne tubes.

Higher Power He-Ne Laser?

(From: Chris Leubner (cdleubner@ameritech.net).)

The most powerful He-Ne laser I have ever seen was 160 mW of real power and was the only time I’ve ever seen a He-Ne laser burn anything before with raw beamage. It would slowly burn electrical tape placed in the beam and felt warm on your skin. It was made of two almost 6 foot long Spectra-Physics model 125 tubes hooked electrically to separate power supplies and optically in series in a custom made double-wide sized 125 head. Sadly, it doesn’t work any more and is currently resting peacefully in the NTC laser department’s laser graveyard. 🙁

(From: Steve Roberts.)

I’ve seen a normal SP-125 break 160 mW on its own. Two tubes at only 160 mW sounds like it was misaligned, not that I’d like to try to align that one! 🙂

The current record is for a Chinese researcher using 2 tubes with a flattened elliptical profile in a V fold resonator to get 330+ mW into a fiber. The beam shape and divergence from this are not what you would expect from a typical He-Ne laser, even one that runs multi (transverse) mode. Remember that a He-Ne laser’s power is limited by collisions with the tube wall returning Ne atoms to the ground state, so using a flattened tube means more wall area, hence more power. Optimal gas pressure is a function of bore diameter as well. So you’re limited to about a 1 meter tube in most cases by other optics reasons and sputtering. With collisions with the wall increased by a larger wall surface area, what the folks in China did is try tubes with different cross sections. To get enough length they folded the resonator using a 3 optic V-fold. You don’t want to see the beam profile. It’s nasty! It looks kind of like this: <{[=]}>. And the divergence is high as the optics need to fill that whole lasing volume.

Please note, however, that going to a large rectangular or star shaped tube is not possible due to some quirks in the plasma at the pressure required for He-Ne laser operation. Details are in a 1996 issue of Review of Scientific Instruments. A few years ago, Cornell University attempted to sell the rights to the unit in the United States, on behalf of the Chinese Inventor. U.S. patent and marketing were assigned to a group that sadly dropped the ball. At the time, the picture of the unit looked like one of those old foldaway sewing machines like my mum used to have, an ornamental blue box about the size of a PC Tower turned on its side with 4 wooden legs.

In the early days, very long He-Ne lasers were constructed in an attempt to obtain higher power. But optimal gas-fill and bore diameter weren’t known, and mirrors weren’t as good as they are now. Aligning multiple segments with a long narrow bore needed for best gain would have been virtually impossible in any case. Thus, such experimental lasers probably had mediocre performance.

(From: Sam.)

Using a folded resonator, high power He-Ne lasers could be constructed in compact packages but the initial machining and/or alignment would be a real treat. I’ve seen a spec sheet for some with up to 55 mW of output power using a mono-block folded resonator with a volume of 326x280x95 mm (about 13″x10″x4″). I can’t imagine this being cost effective though except maybe for space applications where money is no object!

Boosting the Power Output of a He-Ne Laser?

Unfortunately, given the existing laws of physics, there usually isn’t much you can do to increase the output power of a He-Ne laser above its specified ratings. Unlike an ion laser where higher tube current usually increases power output (at the expense of tube life), boosting current to a He-Ne tube beyond the optimal amount actually *decreases* power output. Options like Q-switching don’t exist for He-Ne lasers.

  • For an internal mirror He-Ne tube, mirror alignment, power supply current, and dirt on the output mirror, can affect output power. If these are optimal, there is only one other possibility that might do something but mostly for longer He-Ne tubes (above 5 mW). That is to add a series of magnets of alternating polarity along the tube as close to the bore as possible (which usually isn’t very close for a typical modern He-Ne tube) to suppress the IR wavelengths which otherwise compete for power with the desired visible (e.g., 632.8 nm) ones. This would require experimentation and a laser power meter to determine what, if any improvement, is possible. Magnets could make things worse particularly if you are dealing with a linearly polarized tube since the magnets will also tend to affect the polarization and may compete with the existing polarization orientation. See the sections starting with: Magnets in High Power or Precision HeNe Laser Heads.
  • For an external mirror He-Ne laser, in addition to the magnets, there may be options with respect to the optics. Playing with mirror curvature and reflectivity may permit output power to be traded off against mode structure, ease of alignment, and stability. However, this isn’t something you will be able to do by trial and error (unless you have a HUGE budget and unlimited time on your hands!). Is probably safe to assume the manufacturer know what they were doing when the laser was designed – unless it was someone’s Master’s Thesis project. 🙂

Bare He-Ne Tubes and Laser Heads

What you have may be a ‘bare’ tube or it may be encased in a cylindrical or rectangular laser head – or something in between:

  • Bare tubes require clip-on connections to the power supply or high voltage connector and an external ballast resistor.
    • Advantages: Less expensive, discharge is fully visible resulting in an interesting display.
    • Disadvantages: Fragile, exposed high voltage terminals, need to provide your own mounting, wiring, and ballast resistor.
  • Laser heads should plug right into a suitable power supply with no fuss, mess, or unexpected Zaps. 🙂
    • Advantages: High voltage safely insulated, wiring is already done for you, generally very high quality, relatively robust, easily mounted, may include beam shutter and mounting holes or bezels to permit the accurate attachment and alignment of additional optical components.
    • Disadvantages: More expensive, discharge not readily visible, repairs to wiring (unlikely to be needed) difficult, tube replacement may not be possible (at least not easily and/or non-destructively) if mounted using large amounts of RTV silicone or something similar.

    Most laser heads include the ballast resistor since it needs to be close to the He-Ne tube anode anyhow (though you may still need additional resistance to match the tube to your power supply). The ballast resistor may be potted into the end cap with the HV cable, a wart attached to the He-Ne tube, or a separate assembly. There may be an additional ballast resistor (e.g., 10K) in the cathode circuit as well.

    The majority of laser heads use a He-Ne laser tube with the output beam emerging from the cathode-end of the tube so there is little or no voltage present on the exposed terminals if the output end-cap is removed. However, some laser heads will place the anode and ballast resistors at the output-end. This is particularly true of some “other colour” He-Ne lasers (e.g., yellow and green) since there are some subtle advantages to this arrangement in terms of output power for a given tube size. But, in some cases, it’s just to be able to install a stock tube.

    The high voltage cable will likely use an ‘Alden’ connector which is designed to hold off the high voltages with a pair of keyed recessed heavily insulated pins. This is a universal standard for small to medium size He-Ne laser power supplies (the longer fatter pin is negative). Typical cable length is from 6 inches to 6 feet.

    Internal wiring may be via fat insulated cables or just bare metal (easily broken) strips. Take care if you need to disassemble one of these laser heads (the round ones in particular) as the space inside may be quite cramped.

    CAUTION: The case, if metal, of the laser head may be wired to the cathode of the HeNe tube and thus the negative of the Alden connector and power supply. This is not always the situation but check with an ohmmeter and keep this in mind when designing a power supply or modulation scheme. The case should always be earth grounded for safety if at all possible (or else properly insulated). DO NOT assume that a commercial power supply is designed this way – check it out and take appropriate precautions.

    Note: Depending on design, the laser tube itself may be mounted inside the laser head in a variety of ways including RTV Silicone (permanent and almost impossible to remove), hot-melt glue (permanent but removable), or 3 or 4 set screws at two locations (front and rear) around the outside of the housing. The latter approach permits precise centering of the beam but don’t over-tighten the screws or you WILL be sorry! (Since RTV silicone has some compliance, very SLIGHT adjustment of alignment may still be possible even if mounted this way – don’t force it, however.)

  • In addition to the ballast resistor, anode, and cathode connections, most Melles Griot and many other heads include a “start tape” which is a fine wire runs from the anode along the tube and terminates in a fine wire which circles the tube near near the cathode (but obviously not close enough to short to it. Its function is to reduce starting time and improve starting reliability. There may be other variations on this scheme. In my experience, the benefits of the start tape are undetectable and it is more likely to cause problems (from insulation breakdown) than solve them. But, apparently, statistically, it’s supposed to help achieve the spec’d start time (usually to be 1 second or less).
  • Some He-Ne laser heads include what appears to be a heater coil on the OC mirror mount, but only if the OC is at the cathode-end of the tube. This is presumably to reduce warmup time. Where the OC is at the anode-end of the tube, the ballast resistors would provide this function. (Typical resistance: 31 ohms, coil fed from an 8v AC source fed on separate wires from a step-down transformer.) Some large laser heads like the Spectra-Physics model 127 have a cover which includes heating elements for this purpose.
  • The output end of the laser head will often include an end-cap with a shutter and mounting holes for accessories like lenses, filters, and fiber couplers. Sometimes, there will be an internal angled window to protect the tube itself from dust and debris. In some cases, this will also be a neutral density filter to cut down on output power. Why would this be needed? The customer’s specifications probably called for a maximum power rating for some regulatory reason (for their particular application). Since there is no way to change the output power of a He-Ne laser electrically over a wide range, an easy solution is to just cut it down with a filter. That way, even a lively batch of tubes can be used – the manufacturer doesn’t have to construct weak tubes on purpose.For example, I found that some recent samples of the popular Melles Griot 05-LHR-911 He-Ne laser head, rated at 1 mW minimum power output, were all made with neutral density filters to assure that the maximum power output was less than 1.5 mW. With the filters removed, it jumped to between 1.8 and 2.1 mW! Apparently, the filters were individually selected to get the lasers as close as possible to 1.5 mW without exceeding it since their attenuations were not all the same and the weakest laser in the batch (with the filter) actually ended up having the hottest tube.

If you have a laser head that is missing the Alden connector, replacements should be available from the major laser surplus suppliers or salvage one from another (dead) head. I also have many available. Where the end-cap on a cylindrical laser head is also missing, there are no readily available commercial sources – fabricate one from a block of wood and paint it black or find some other creative solution. A suitable ballast resistance must also be installed between the positive power supply output and the He-Ne tube anode.

The cylindrical head serves another purpose besides structural support and protection. This is the distribution of heat and equalization of thermal gradients. Thus, removing a long He-Ne tube in particular from its laser head may result in somewhat random or periodic cycling of power output due to convection and other non-uniform cooling effects.

Often, particularly inside equipment like barcode scanners, you will see something in between: A He-Ne tube wrapped in several layers of thick aluminium foil probably to help distribute and equalize the heating of the tube for the reason cited above. However, I haven’t really noticed any obvious difference in stability when this wrap was removed. Spectra-Physics is very fond of this but others may have copied it to sell compatible tubes.

He-Ne Tube Seals and Lifetime

Neon signs last a long times – years – how about He-Ne laser tubes?

The operating lifetime of a typical He-Ne laser tube is greater than 15,000 hours when used within its specified ratings (operating current, proper polarity, and not continuously restarting). Under these conditions, end-of-life occurs when the oxide “pickling” layer of the cathode can gets depleted. Larger diameter (1.5 or 2 inch) tubes last the longest – up to 50,000 hours or more. Small diameter (0.75 or 1 inch) tubes have the shortest lifetime – 10,000 hours or so. Since even 10,000 hours is still very long – over 1 year of continuous operation – He-Ne laser lifetime is not a major consideration for most hobbyist applications. Chances are that even a surplus laser will still have thousands of hours of life remaining.

However, the shelf life of the tube depends on types of sealing method used in the attachment of the optics. There are two types of internal mirror He-Ne tubes:

  • Most modern He-Ne tubes (possibly all tubes manufactured in the last 15 years) are ‘hard sealed’ – the mirrors are fused to their respective mounts by a special glass ‘frit’ – sort of like solder for glass! These seals do not leak – at least not on any time scale that matters. Thus the shelf life of hard sealed tubes is essentially infinite. So, if you are buying a used He-Ne laser – even if it is 10 years old – it’s life expectancy will depend on how much it had been used or abused. If the output is near or exceeds the original specifications, it likely has a lot of life left.The frit is basically powdered low melting point glass mixed with a liquid to permit it to be spread like soft putty or painted on. The frit can be fired at a low enough temperature that the mirror mount or glass mirror itself is not damaged, there is virtually no distortion introduced by the process, and manufacturing is greatly simplified compared to using normal (high temperature) glass or ceramic joints. Some tubes use frit seals at other locations in addition to the mirrors (like the end-caps) rather than glass-to-metal seals. The same process is used for other permanently sealed tubes like those in internal mirror argon ion lasers as well as some xenon flash lamps and similar devices.Note that the electrical connections on those tubes that don’t use the mirror mounts will generally be glass-metal seals which do not leak. Mirrors can’t use glass-metal seals since they require high temperatures to make which would distort or totally destroy the mirrors. You can tell if a seal is frit or Epoxy by how easily it scratches: Frit is like glass and requires something hard to make a mark while Epoxy can be scratched with a good solid fingernail. Another way to tell is the colour: Frit is generally grey or tan while Epoxy is clear or white.Should you care, the metal parts of the tube are likely made from Kovar, an alloy commonly used with frit seals since there is a very good CTE (Coefficient of Thermal Expansion) match of the Kovar to the frit glass.CAUTION: The frit seal is thin and relatively fragile, even more so than the fragile optical glass, so avoid placing any stress on the mirrors!
  • Older tubes are usually soft=sealed – the mirrors are just glued (often with some type of Epoxy) to the metal (or in really old cases, glass) mounts. This adhesive leaks over time and such tubes usually have a shelf life of a only few years – they fail by just sitting around doing nothing. This means that a bargain tube may not be such a bargain if it is beyond its expiration date (yes, just like dates on milk containers) as it may have a very limited life, be hard to start, weak or erratic, or may not work at all. You probably won’t see any of these – at least not in a working condition. Any tube manufactured before 1980 or so is almost certainly soft-sealed is very unlikely to produce a beam (though the tube may light up with a too pink or blue discharge colour). However, some tubes apparently survive for much longer than others. And, I have one really old laser – probably from the late 1960s – whose tube is still serviceable, at least to some extent. Shelf life of soft-sealed tubes is limited by diffusion of the Helium atoms out and air leakage in, water vapour from Epoxy seals, etc. Helium atoms are slippery little devils and diffuse through almost anything. In the case of He-Ne tubes, diffusion takes place mostly through the Epoxy adhesive used to mount the mirrors in non-hard sealed tubes (not common any more) and through the glass itself but at a much much slower rate. Most of the contamination of air leakage will be cleaned up by the getter (if present) until it is exhausted. However, hydrogen may appear, probably from dissociated water vapour (the getter will clean up the O2) and hydrogen (1) kills lasing at very low concentrations and (2) appears virtually impossible to remove. The discharge spectrum will reveal much about the gaseous health of a He-Ne laser tube. CAUTION: Take care in attempting to clean the Brewster windows or mirror mounts of soft-sealed He-Ne or ion laser tubes with alcohol or other solvents as the result may be immediate air leakage and a dead tube. The failure mechanism for this isn’t clear – after all, it can take weeks to loosen up these optics by soaking when trying to salvage them for some other use. However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that instant tube death may result from such cleaning attempts. So, to be safe, avoid getting the area of the sealing adhesive wet with solvent.

A very few tubes apparently have frit at one end and a soft-seal at the other so check both ends. This probably applies only to some low gain “other colour” He-Ne lasers with a mirror that would be affected by even the relatively low temperature at which the frit melts.

Note that other parts of most tubes (except for Brewster windows, if present) use glass-to-metal seals but since these must be manufactured at high temperature, they are not an option for delicate optics. The very best tubes with one or two Brewster windows do not use frit because even at the low temperature at which it is fired, there may still be some unavoidable stresses introduced – these tubes continued to be soft-sealed even after frit was common but now use optical contacted seals. With optical contacted seals, the two pieces are ground and polished optically flat and brought together under clean room conditions. The resulting seal is gas-tight. Just a bit of Epoxy is used for mechanical stability but it doesn’t do the sealing.

The He-Ne gas doesn’t ‘wear out’. A He-Ne tube, when properly connected has a substantial portion of its power dissipated by the bombardment of positive ions at the cathode (the big can electrode) which is made large to spread the effect and keep the temperature down and is “pickled” (coated) to reduce its work function. Hook a tube up backwards and you may damage it in short order and excessive current (operating current as well as initial starting current from some high compliance power supplies) can degrade performance after a while. Electrode material may sputter onto the adjacent mirrors (reducing optical output or preventing lasing entirely) or excessive heat dissipation may damage the electrodes or mirrors directly.

As the tube is used (many thousands of hours or from abuse), operating and starting voltages may be affected as well – generally increasing with the ultimate result being that a stable discharge cannot be initiated or maintained with the original power supply.

(From: Lynn Strickland (stricks760@earthlink.net).)

Typical failure mechanism in a He-Ne is cathode sputtering — seldom gas leakage in the newer (like since 1983) tubes. Shelf life is stated to be about 10 years, but it’s not uncommon at all to see He-Ne lasers built in the early 1980’s that still meet full spec.

Interesting lifetime note – it used to be that you left a He-Ne ‘on’ at all times to prolong life. Since hard-sealing, you should turn it off while not in use. If it’s a 20,000 hour tube, and you only turn it on for a few hundred hours a year, it will last a heck of a long time. Not uncommon at all for the He-Ne to outlive several power supplies. The larger diameter tubes tend to last longer, but it also depends on fill pressure and operating current (higher fill-pressure tubes last longer). The typical 5 mW red HeNe will commonly live to 40k to 50k operating hours.

As for cathode sputtering, the tube has an aluminium cathode that is ‘pickled’ during the production process to add a layer of oxidation about 200 microns thick. The oxidation layer prevents aluminium from being bombarded away from the cathode during plasma discharge. As the tube ages, the oxide layer is depleted until aluminium is exposed. Sputtered aluminium can stick to the mirror, causing power decline, or to the inside of the glass envelope, causing the discharge to arc internally. This arcing, if allowed to continue for a period of time, will also cook the power supply. A tube with no oxidation layer on the cathode will die in about 200 hours of use. OR, once the oxidation layer is depleted, the tube will die in about 200 hours. This is why a He-Ne life curve is usually pretty flat, then quickly degrading to nothing over about a 200 hour period.

An Older He-Ne Laser Tube

The Spectra-Physics 084 (SP-084) was popular for applications like barcode scanners. It was rated at 2 to 3 mW when new. Several shots of one are shown below:

Photos of Spectra-Physics Model 084-1 He-Ne Laser Tube
Photos of Spectra-Physics Model 084-1 He-Ne Laser Tube

(These photos courtesy of Meredith Instruments.) A diagram is shown below:

Construction of Spectra-Physics Model 084-1 He-Ne Laser Tube
Construction of Spectra-Physics Model 084-1 He-Ne Laser Tube

While the main glass tube and end-plates use glass-to-metal (hard) seals, the mirrors appear to be Epoxied in place (soft sealed). Thus, one would expect these tubes to leak over time. However, out of 31 that I have tested, 20 appear to be nearly as good as new showing only slight leakage which their getters have taken care of nicely and no detectable reduction in power output. (Of the others, 7 had weak or no output but most could be at least partially revived. The remainder were totally dead.)

As is typical of Spectra-Physics internal mirror He-Ne tubes, these have thick glass walls (at least compared to tubes from most other manufacturers). For the barcode scanner application (at least) there was an outer wrap (removable) of several layers of thick aluminium foil, apparently for thermal stabilization but it would also reduce electrical noise emissions and light spill from the discharge. (The foil wrap also seems to be common with more modern Spectra-Physics He-Ne barcode scanner tubes when not installed in cylindrical laser heads.) A 100K ohm ballast resistor stack in heat shrink tubing was attached with a clip and RTV Silicone to the anode end-plate stud, and both ends were capped with rubber covers for protection (of the tube and user).

The SP-084-1 is about 9-1/2″ (241 mm) by 1″ (25.4 mm) in diameter with a bore length of 5.5″ (140 mm). Its output is a TEM00 beam about 0.8 mm in diameter exiting through a hole in the cover on the cathode-end of the tube. Power supply connections are made to a stud on the anode end-plate and the exhaust tube on the cathode end-plate. Their optimal operating point is around a tube current of 5 mA resulting in a total operating voltage (across tube + Rb) of about 1.9 to 2.0 kV using the 100K ballast.

Note from the diagram that unlike modern tubes where the mirrors are on mounts that can be adjusted (by bending) after manufacturer, alignment of the SP-084-1 would appear to be totally fixed. Some possible ways of setting alignment might be:

  1. The mirrors were just glued in place expecting alignment to be adequate (but the end-plates do not appear to be specially machined).
  2. The mirrors were aligned at installation using external optics but before the tube had been pumped down and filled with helium and neon.
  3. The manufacturing process provided a means of adjusting the mirrors after filling but before the glue had fully set or by softening it with heat.
  4. There was some means of distorting the end-plates (but this doesn’t seem likely given their thickness).

From appearances, I would guess (2). Since the mirrors are slightly curved (non-planar), their position could be used to adjust alignment slightly – and some were attached very visibly off-center to compensate for end-plates fused to the glass tube at a slight angle.

He-Ne Laser Pointers

While modern laser pointers fit comfortably on a keychain and can be had for $1 or less if you know where to look, the first laser pointers were, well, HUGE and at least several hundred dollars. 🙂 One of the earliest laser pointers using a He-Ne laser tube I’ve seen (dating from the late 1970s) was about 12 inches long by 1-3/4″ in diameter (just like a common He-Ne laser head). The name on it is Bergen Expo Systems, Inc. and it is a model LP6-227 should you want to order one. 🙂 The date of manufacture was 1978. This pointer was tethered via a six foot cord to a separate high voltage power unit.

Bergen He-Ne Laser-Based Laser Pointer
Bergen He-Ne Laser-Based Laser Pointer

The beam on/off button on the side not surprisingly didn’t control the power supply but rather moved a sliding shutter. The actual manufacturer was probably Spectra-Physics as the tube inside was an SP-084 (a common barcode scanner type). It also has the funny 3 pin power supply connector mainly used by Spectra-Physics, though some other Bergen pointers have used the standard 2-pin Alden connector. I don’t have the power supply so can’t say what it looked like. But I’ll bet there was a luggable battery-powered version!

More recent He-Ne laser-based laser pointers became more compact and could typically be powered either from a pair of internal 9 V (“transistor”) batteries or a DC wall adapter. The circuitry was often set up so the both batteries could be inserted in either direction and still work correctly. But they never achieved keychain status, unless they were keys for elephants. 🙂 I have He-Ne laser pointers badged Kodak, Hitachi, and others. They typically output almost 1 mW. Battery life is, well, short. 🙂 A cutaway view of one such unit is shown below:

Draper "Linear 1" He-Ne Laser Pointer
Draper “Linear 1” He-Ne Laser Pointer

It is about 6 inches in length with the laser tube being just over 5 inches long. The He-Ne laser power supply PCB extends the length of the unit with the pot core inverter transformer at one end and the HV components running to the other end. Note the copper strap “start” electrode surrounding the tube!

It was still possible (in 2010) to buy a He-Ne laser in a compact package through Industrial Fiber-Optics (who acquired the Metrologic line of educational lasers). The Metrologic model 811 (red, $399) or 815 (green, $750) is not much over 1″ x 2″ x 7″ and houses a 5 or 6 inch He-Ne laser tube with HV power supply built-in. However, these are still tethered to either a DC wall adapter or box with several 9 V batteries. As of 2014, these were being phased out due to lack of demand and parts inventory!

There’s not much interest in these as pointers any more, though they still are useful as compact lasers for alignment and other optics lab applications. But they are still very cute. 🙂

He-Ne Lasers using External Mirrors

While most of what you will likely come across are the common internal mirror He-Ne tube, having the optics external to the tube is essential for some applications.

  • High performance He-Ne lasers may have Brewster angle windows on the tube for use with external mirrors. Some He-Ne tubes have an internal HR and a Brewster window at the other end for an external OC. Small He-Ne tubes of this type are shown below:
    He-Ne Laser Tube with Two Brewster Windows Mounted in Home-Built Resonator
    He-Ne Laser Tube with Two Brewster Windows Mounted in Home-Built Resonator
    He-Ne Laser Tube with Internal HR and Single Brewster Window with External OC
    He-Ne Laser Tube with Internal HR and Single Brewster Window with External OC

    With either of these arrangements, if the HR is coated for broad band reflectivity, it may be possible to select among at least some of the possible He-Ne wavelengths (red, orange, yellow, green, maybe even IR) by just replacing the OC optic.Note that the intensity of the light between the mirrors of an He-Ne laser may be on the order of 100 times (or more) that of the output beam. Some instruments for making scattering measurements or related applications actually take advantage of this by using this only the ‘internal’ beam. Such a device could be constructed using an He-Ne tube with at least one external mirror with optical sensors to observe only the scattered light from the side. In addition, the amount of attenuation due to the dust will affect the output beam intensity amplified by the gain of the resonator and this behaviour can also be used in conjunction with various types of studies. By using these techniques, many of the benefits of a 1W laser (for example) are available with only a 10 mW tube and at much lower cost. Such a laser is also much safer to use since that 1W beam is in a sense, virtual – if anything of substantial size intercepts it (like an unprotected eyeball), lasing simply ceases without causing any harm. Melles Griot and others offer Brewster window He-Ne tubes rated up to 30 mW or more of output power and 60 Watts of intra-cavity power! As a rough estimate, a He-Ne tube capable of n mW of normal output will be able to do 1000*n mW of circulating power with high quality HRs at both ends. Modern one-Brewster He-Ne tubes for particle scattering or particulate monitoring applications may provide as much as 100 Watts of intra-cavity power using super-polished mirror substrates for the two HRs with ion beam sputter coatings and an optically contacted fused silica Brewster window. (The mirrors are about 15 times the cost of those used in common He-Ne lasers. Don’t ask about the total tube price!) A photo of one such tube is shown below:

    Melles Griot 05-LHB-568 Ultra-High-Q One Brewster He-Ne Laser Tube
    Melles Griot 05-LHB-568 Ultra-High-Q One Brewster He-Ne Laser Tube

     

    The “32” was the measured intra-cavity power for this sample.As noted, the best of these tubes will have optically contacted Brewster windows (rather than frit seals, more on this below). As frit cools, some stresses may build up which can distort the window ever so slightly reducing the tube’s performance where hundreds or thousands of passes through the window are involved. Optical contacting uses lapped and polished surfaces to form a glass-to-glass vacuum-tight seal. Adhesive is only really needed for mechanical protection – it doesn’t hold the vacuum. Soft-seal windows don’t have the distortion problem but do leak over time.

    (From: Lynn Strickland (stricks760@earthlink.net).)

    “Brewster window terminated He-Ne tubes are mostly sold into particle counter applications, where the user pulls an air stream through the cavity. With ultra low-loss ($$$) High Reflecting mirrors on both ends, massively multimode, you can develop 10 to 20 Watts of internal cavity power, we’ve seen as high as 30 Watts. Selling prices for new tubes is upwards of a thousand bucks in volume quantity (tubes only). The high-end models have an optically contacted Brewster window. There are not too many double-Brewster He-Ne laser tubes made any more, mostly on a special order basis. They’re not that hard to align, if you know some tricks.”

  • There are also a few He-Ne tubes with at least one non-angled AR coated window rather than a Brewster window. Such tubes can be used with external mirrors and polarization optics. In addition to laser education, these can be useful where there is a need for an external device to adjust the polarization angle of the laser itself.

A One-Brewster He-Ne Laser Tube

I was given a CLIMET 9048 He-Ne laser head which contains a Melles Griot He-Ne tube with a normal HR mirror at one end but with a frit-sealed Brewster window instead of an OC mirror at the other end. In this case, it is the cathode-end which is nice since there is no high voltage to deal with near the Brewster window. But identical tubes also come with the Brewster window at the anode-end but why anyone would want this escapes me. 🙂

The tube is a Melles Griot model 05-LHB-570. It has an internal HR mirror and Brewster window at the other end of the tube. The HR is similar to those on other Melles Griot tubes (including the use of a locking collar) though the somewhat more silvery appearance of its surface may indicate that it is coated for broadband reflectivity and/or perhaps for higher reflectivity than ordinary HRs. (The mirror reflectivity of the HR on at least some versions of the 05-LHB-570 is greater than 99.9% from 590 to 680 nm but I don’t think this one, which is quite old, has these characteristics.) The total length is about 265 mm (10.5 inches) from the HR mirror to the Brewster window. There is also a power sensor inside the head for (I assume) monitoring what gets through the HR mirror (untested).

CLIMET 9048 One-Brewster He-Ne Laser Head
CLIMET 9048 One-Brewster He-Ne Laser Head

Above shows the aluminium cylinder with its mounting flange at the Brewster window end, ballast resistor, and Alden connector. The other black wire attaches to the solar cell power sensor.

These one-Brewster He-Ne tubes are generally used in applications like particle counting which requires high photon flux to detect specks of dust or whatever. Access to the inside of the resonator is ideal since with appropriate highly reflective mirrors at both ends, several WATTs of “virtual” circulating power can be produced inside the cavity of this He-Ne laser. Thus, for these applications, they have the benefits of a high power laser without the cost or safety issues. There are even He-Ne tubes similar to this that will do up to 45W using super high quality mirrors and Brewster window. And, of course, they are also super expensive. Of course, you can’t siphon off all that power – only be extremely envious and frustrated that it is trapped in there – but also safe from any sneak attacks on an unsuspecting eyeball. 🙂

A rig similar to the one from which the Climet 9048 was removed is a model 8654, whatever that means. It is shown below:

Climet Particle Counter Assembly - Front
Climet Particle Counter Assembly – Front
Climet Particle Counter Assembly - Rear
Climet Particle Counter Assembly – Rear

There really isn’t much inside – just some passages for the particle-containing gas which is directed to through the intracavity beam at one focus of a large aspheric lens which directs any scattered light onto a Photo Multiplier Tube (PMT). The PMT is inside the black box at the lower left with its high voltage power supply above in the front view. The three-screw (sort of) adjustable mount for the external HR mirror is visible in the rear view. What’s interesting is that there is really nothing physical to protect either the B-window or mirror from contamination by the flowing gas, except presumably by the flow pattern and pressure. There are separate compartments for the B-window and mirror, but they aren’t sealed. However, it appears that during operation, those compartments are provided with a flow of higher pressure gas, filtered by the large canister visible in the photos. But, how they are expected to remain clean when the thing is shut down is a mystery. It is a particle counter after all. Aren’t particles basically dust? 🙂 OK, well, part of the secret is that apparently these things are intended to be looking at really clean air without many particles. A typical use would be in a semiconductor Fab Class 10 cleanroom – 10 or fewer particles (2 microns or larger) per cubic foot. This isn’t your normal room air, which would be Class 10000 to Class 100000! 🙂 Even so, the recommended service interval printed on the label is only 6 months.

With its wide bore, this tube has an optimal operating point (maximum power) of about 7.5 to 8mA at about 1kV (though the recommended current is actually 6.5mA). This may just be a peculiarity of the sample I tested.

I have constructed a simple mirror mount so that various mirrors could be easily installed and there is easy access to the inside of the cavity.

He-Ne Laser Tube with Internal HR and Single Brewster Window with External OC
He-Ne Laser Tube with Internal HR and Single Brewster Window with External OC

Using various mirrors, both from deceased He-Ne lasers as well as from laser printers and barcode scanners, output power reached more than 3 mW and the circulating power inside the resonator peaked at over 1W (but not with the same mirrors). With optimum high quality mirrors, it should be capable of more power in both areas. Photos of this laser are shown in

Sam's External Mirror Laser Using One-Brewster He-Ne Laser Head.
Sam’s External Mirror Laser Using One-Brewster He-Ne Laser Head.

I have attempted to get wavelengths other than boring 632.8 nm red out of this and similar 1-B tubes. However, all attempts have failed but one – installing a somewhat larger 05-LHB-670 in place of the dead tube of a PMS/REO tunable He-Ne laser. (This 1-B tube did 7.5 mW with the same OC mirror as used above. The 1-B tube in the Climet head probably wouldn’t have enough gain.) The HR mirror on the tuning prism is broadband coated for 543.5 to 632.8 nm. In this case, I was able to convince just a few 611.9 nm orange photons to cooperate and lase. However, the only way to collect them was from the reflections off the Brewster surfaces of the tube or prism, or from the HR mirror of the 1-B tube. The total orange power was around 225 microwatts – 50uW from the HR mirror, 65uW reflected from the Brewster prism, and 110uW reflected from both surfaces of the tube’s Brewster window. When 633 nm was selected, the output from the HR mirrors was about 350uW (I didn’t measure the red power from the Brewster reflections).

Designing a Helium-Neon Laser Tube

(From: Lynn Strickland (stricks760@earthlink.net).)

H. Weichel and L.S. Pedrotti put out a good summary paper which includes the equations used in the design process of a gas laser. In particular, section V tells you how to calculate mode radius at any point, given mirror curvature, spacing and wavelength. If you know that, the aperture size (the capillary bore usually) and the magic number for the ratio between the two, you can design a TEM00 gas laser. Using a He-Ne tube with a Brewster window, you could do some fun stuff with predicting aperture sizes and locations to force TEM00 operation.

The paper was published by the Department of Physics, Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright-Patterson Airforce Base, OH. The title is “A Summary of Useful Laser Equations — an LIA Report”. Don’t know where you’d find it, but the Laser Institute of America (LIA) might be a good start.

Parallel Plate He-Ne Laser Tube

When He-Ne lasers were becoming really popular in the late 1970s, efforts were under way to reduce costs. Not surprising, huh? 🙂 IBM reported on a novel approach using moulded parallel plates which had some similarity to flat panel display fabrication. See:

Needless to say, the parallel plate He-Ne laser never took off but it was an interesting approach.

Theory of Operation, Modes, Coherence Length

Instant He-Ne Laser Theory

The term laser stands for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. However, lasers as most of us know them, are actually sources of light – oscillators rather than amplifiers. (Although laser amplifiers do exist in applications as diverse as fibre optic communications repeaters and multi-gigawatt laser arrays for inertial fusion research.) Of course, all oscillators – electronic, mechanical, or optical – are constructed by adding the proper kind of positive feedback to an amplifier.

All materials exhibit what is known as a bright line spectra when excited in some way. In the case of gases, this can be an electric current or (RF) radio frequency field. In the case of solids like ruby, a bright pulse of light from a xenon flash lamp can be used. The spectral lines are the result of spontaneous transitions of electrons in the material’s atoms from higher to lower energy levels. A similar set of dark lines result in broad band light that is passed through the material due to the absorption of energy at specific wavelengths. Only a discrete set of energy levels and thus a discrete set of transitions are permitted based on quantum mechanical principles (well beyond the scope of this document, thankfully!). The entire science of spectroscopy is based on fact that every material has a unique spectral signature.

The HeNe laser depends on energy level transitions in the neon gas. In the case of neon, there are dozens if not hundreds of possible wavelength lines of light in this spectrum. Some of the stronger ones are near the 632.8 nm line of the common red HeNe laser – but this is not the strongest:

The strongest red line is 640.2 nm. There is one almost as strong at 633.4 nm. That’s right, 633.4 nm and not 632.8 nm. The 632.8 nm one is quite weak in an ordinary neon spectrum, due to the high energy levels in the neon atom used to produce this line.

 Bright Line Spectra of Helium and Neon
Bright Line Spectra of Helium and Neon

(The relative brightnesses of these don’t appear to be accurate though at present.) More detailed spectra can be found at the: Laser Stars – Spectra of Gas Discharges Page. And there is a photo of an actual HeNe laser discharge spectra with very detailed annotation of most of the visible lines in: Skywise’s Lasers and Optics Reference Section. The comment about the output wavelength not being one of the stronger lines is valid for most lasers as if it were, that energy level would be depleted by spontaneous emission, which isn’t what is wanted!

There are also many infra-red lines and some in the orange, yellow, and green regions of the spectrum as well.

The helium does not participate in the lasing (light emitting) process but is used to couple energy from the discharge to the neon through collisions with the neon atoms. This pumps up the neon to a higher energy state resulting in a population inversion meaning that more atoms in the higher energy state than the ground or equilibrium state.

Helium-Neon Excitation and Lasing Process
Helium-Neon Excitation and Lasing Process

 

It turns out that the upper level of the transition that produces he 632.8 nm line (as well as the other visible He-Ne lasing lines) has an energy level that almost exactly matches the energy level of helium’s lowest excited state. The vibrational coupling between these two states s highly efficient.

  1. A DC electrical discharge or RF field excites He atoms to the 2s energy state.
  2. Collisions efficiently transfer energy raising Ne atoms to the 3s2 energy state. Note the relatively high energy levels involved – over 20 eV for the upper energy states.
  3. Stimulated emission (lasing) causes a drop to one of several Ne 2p states.
  4. Radiative decay (spontaneous emission) drops Ne from the terminal lasing state to the 1s state.
  5. Collisions with the tube wall drops Ne from the 1s state to the Ground state.

For 632.8 nm, one mirror will be highly reflective at 632.8 nm (typically 99.9 percent or better). This is the “High Reflector” or HR. The other mirror will have a typical reflectivity of 99 percent at 632.8 nm. This is the “Output Coupler” or OC from which the useful beam emerges. In order to suppress lasing at other wavelengths, the mirrors will generally be designed to have lower reflectivity there. (Though given the low gain of all the He-Ne lasing lines, especially the “other colour” lines, this isn’t much of a problem at 632.8 nm.)

The rate at which (4) and (5) can take place ultimately limits the power of a He-Ne laser and explains why increasing the excitation (1) actually reduces power above some optimum level.

The gas mixture must be mostly helium (typically 5:1 to 10:1, He:Ne), so that helium atoms can be excited. The excited helium atoms collide with neon atoms, exciting some of them to the state from which they can radiate at 632.8 nm. Without helium, the neon atoms would be excited mostly to lower excited states responsible for non-laser lines. And the gas mixture has to be super pure as any contamination results in excitation of rogue atoms (like H, O, and N) to lower energy states where all that will happen is that they will glow like a poorly made neon sign.

A neon laser with no helium can be constructed but it is much more difficult and the output power will be much lower without this means of energy coupling. Therefore, a He-Ne laser that has lost enough of its helium (e.g., due to diffusion through the seals or glass) will most likely not lase at all since the pumping efficiency will be too low.

However, pure neon will lase superradiantly in a narrow tube (e.g., 40 cm long x 1 mm ID) in the orange (611.9 nm) and yellow (594.1 nm) with orange being the strongest. Superradiant means that no mirrors are used although the addition of a Fabry-Perot cavity (e.g., mirrors!) does improve the lateral coherence and output power. This from a paper entitled: “Super-Radiant Yellow and Orange Laser Transitions in Pure Neon” by H. G. Heard and J. Peterson, Proceedings of the IEEE, Oct. 1964, vol. #52, page #1258. The authors used a pulsed high voltage power supply for excitation (they didn’t attempt to operate the system in CW mode but speculate that it should be possible).

(From: Steve Roberts.)

“Various IR lines will lase in pure neon, and even the 632.8 nm line will lase, but it takes a different pressure and a much longer tube. 632.8 nm also shows up with neon-argon, neon-oxygen, and other mixtures. Just about everything on the periodic table will lase, given the right excitation. See “The CRC Handbook of Lasers” or one of the many compendiums of lasing lines available in larger libraries. These are usually 4 volume sets of books the size of a big phone book just full of every published journal article on lasing action observed. It’s a shame that out of these many thousands and thousands of lasing lines, only 7 different types of lasers are under mainstream use.

There are many possible transitions in neon from the excited state to a lower energy state that can result in laser action. (Only the three found most commonly in commercial He-Ne lasers are shown in the diagram, above.) The most important (from our perspective) are listed below:

Notes:

 

  • Output Wavelength is approximate. In addition to slight variations due to actual lasing conditions (single mode, multimode, doppler broadening, etc.), some references don’t even agree on some of these values to the 4 or 5 significant digits shown.
  • He-Ne Laser Name is what would be likely to be found in a catalogue or spec. sheet. All those that have an entry in this column are readily available commercially.
  • Perceived Beam Colour is how it would appear when spread out and projected onto a white screen. Of course, depending on the revision level of your eyeballs, this may vary someone from individual to individual. 🙂
  • Lasing Transition uses the so-called “Paschen Notation” and indicates the electron shells of the neon atom energy states between which the stimulated emission takes place.
  • Typical Gain (%/m) shows the percent increase in light intensity due to stimulated emission at this wavelength inside the laser tube’s bore. This is the single pass gain and will be affected by tube construction, gas fill ratio and pressure, discharge current, and other factors. The first column is from various sources. The second column is from Hecht, “The Laser Guide Book”. However, a newer text: Mark Csele, “Fundamentals of light sources and lasers” (ISBN 0-471-47660-9, Wiley-Interscience, 2004) lists the typical gain as 1.2 to 1.5 at 633 nm. And measurements by myself and others seem to show that this slightly higher value may be more accurate, at least under some conditions.
  • Gain at 1,523 nm may be similar to that of 543.5 nm – about 0.5%/m. Gain at 3,391 nm is by far the highest of any – possibly more than 100%/m. I know of one particular He-Ne laser operating at this wavelength that used an OC with a reflectivity of only 60% with a bore less than 0.4m long. Yet, the output power of the largest 3,391 nm commercial He-Ne laser is still only a fraction of that at 632.8 nm.

Maximum Power shows the highest output power lasers commercially available in a TEM00 beam for each wavelength. The first number is rated power while the number in () is achieved output power for a particularly lively tube. Lasers operating with multiple (spatial) modes (non-TEM00) may have somewhat higher output power.

The most common and least expensive He-Ne laser by far is the one called ‘red’ at 632.8 nm. However, all the others with named ‘colours’ are readily available with green probably being second in popularity due to its increased visibility near the peak of the of the human eye’s response curve (555 nm). And, with some He-Ne lasers with insufficiently narrow-band mirrors, you may see 640 nm red as a weak output along with the normal 632.8 nm red because of its relatively high gain. There are even tunable He-Ne lasers capable of outputting any one of up to 5 or more wavelengths by turning a knob. While we normally don’t think of a He-Ne laser as producing an infra-red (and invisible) beam, the IR spectral lines are quite strong – in some cases more so than the visible lines – and He-Ne lasers at all of these wavelengths (and others) are commercially available.

The first gas laser developed in the early 1960s was an HeNe laser operated at 1,152.3 nm. In fact, the IR line at 3,391.3 is so strong that a HeNe laser operating in ‘superradiant’ mode – without mirrors – can be built for this wavelength and commercial 3,391.3 nm HeNe lasers may use an output mirror with a reflectivity of less than 50 percent. Contrast this to the most common 632.8 nm (red) He-Ne laser which requires very high reflectivity mirrors (often over 99 percent) and extreme care to minimize losses or it won’t function at all.

When the He-Ne gas mixture is excited, all possible transitions occur at a steady rate due to spontaneous emission. However, most of the photons are emitted with a random direction and phase, and only light at one of these wavelengths is usually desired in the laser beam. At this point, we have basically the glow of a neon sign with some helium mixed in!

To turn spontaneous emission into the stimulated emission of a laser, a way of selectively amplifying one of these wavelengths is needed and providing feedback so that a sustained oscillation can be maintained. This may be accomplished by locating the discharge between a pair of mirrors forming what is known as a Fabry-Perot resonator or cavity. One mirror is totally reflective and the other is partially reflective to allow the beam to escape.

One mirror may be perfectly flat (planar) or both may be spherical with a typical Radius of Curvature (RoC = 2 * focal length) slightly longer that the length of the cavity (L) or even longer. Where both mirrors have an RoC equal to L, the configuration is called ‘confocal’ (the focii of the two mirrors are coincident), but it is marginall stable, so the RoCs will be at least slightly longer than L. A cavity with two planar mirrors is borderline stable and essentially impossible to align or maintain in alignment over time, so it is never used in He-Ne lasers (but is in some pulsed solid state and other lasers). Curved mirrors result in an easier to align more stable configuration but are more expensive than planar mirrors to manufacture and are not as efficient since less of the lasing medium volume is used (think of the shape of the beam inside the bore). The confocal arrangement represents a good compromise between a true spherical cavity (r = 1/2 * L) which is easiest to align but least efficient and one with plane parallel mirrors (f = infinity) which is most difficult to align but uses the maximum volume of the lasing medium. (But as noted above, for a practical confocal cavity, RoCs slightly longer than L are used to assure stability.)

These mirrors are normally made so that the two mirrors together has peak reflectivity at the desired laser wavelength. (For technical reasons, it’s sometimes easier to make mirrors like cliffs – high reflectivity that drops to low reflectivity at a given wavelength, in either direction – than to guarantee a particular peak reflectivity.) When a spontaneously emitted photon resulting from the transition corresponding to this peak happens to be emitted in a direction nearly parallel to the long axis of the tube, it stimulates additional transitions in excited atoms. These atoms then emit photons at the same wavelength and with the same direction and phase. The photons bounce back and forth in the resonant cavity stimulating additional photon emission. Each pass through the discharge results in amplification – gain – of the light. If the gain due to stimulated emission exceeds the losses due to imperfect mirrors and other factors, the intensity builds up and a coherent beam of laser light emerges via the partially reflecting mirror at one end. With the proper discharge power, the excitation and emission exactly balance and a maximum strength continuous stable output beam is produced.

Spontaneously emitted photons that are not parallel to the axis of the tube will miss the mirrors entirely or will result in stimulated photons that are reflected only a couple of times before they are lost out the sides of the tube. Those that occur at the wrong wavelength will be reflected poorly if at all by the mirrors and any light at these wavelengths will die out as well.

Summary of the He-Ne Lasing Process

The He-Ne laser is a 4 level laser (see the table above for the specific energy level transitions for the common wavelengths):

  • Collisions with excited helium atoms raise the neon atoms from level 1 (ground state) to level 4 (which is the 3s state for visible wavelengths).
  • The visible lasing transitions are from the 3s to various 2p states (depending on wavelength) or level 3.
  • The neon atoms then decay rapidly to the 1s state or level 2.
  • Return to the ground state or level 1 is aided by collisions with the He-Ne laser tube’s bore/capillary walls.

For most common IR wavelengths, level 4 is the 2s state and level 3 are various 2p states. However, the very strong 3.93 um line originates from the 3s state just like the visible wavelengths – and is the reason it competes with them in long He-Ne tubes and must be suppressed to optimize visible output.

The ‘s’ states of neon have about 10 times the lifetime of the ‘p’ states and thus support the population inversion since a neon atom can hang around in the 2s state long enough for stimulated emission to take place. However, the limiting effect is the decay back to level 1, the ground state, since the 1s state also has a long lifetime. Thus, one wants a narrow bore to facilitate collisions with its walls. But this results in increased losses. Modern He-Ne lasers operate at a compromise among several contradictory requirements which is one reason that their maximum output power is relatively low.

Approximate Reference Values for the Red (632.8 nm) He-Ne Laser

Here are some common values and relationships that may come in handy when doing calculations. These are not the most exact since they may depend on other factors like the precise gas-fill and environmental conditions but are generally good enough for government work. 🙂

  • Wavelength: 632.8 nm.
  • Optical Frequency: 474 THz.
  • Gain Bandwidth of Neon: 1.6 GHz or 2.136 nm.
  • 1 nm at 632.8 nm: 749 GHz.
  • 1 GHz at 632.8 nm: 1.335 nm.

Longitudinal Modes of Operation

The physical dimensions of the Fabry-Perot resonator impose some additional constraints on the resulting beam characteristics.

While it is commonly believed that the 632.8 nm (for example) transition is a sharp peak, it is actually a Gaussian – bell shaped – curve. (Strictly speaking, it is something called a “Voigt distribution” which is a combination of Gaussian and Lorentzian – but that’s for the advanced course. Gaussian is close enough for this discussion since the discrepancy only shows up way out in the tails of the curve.) In order for a linear or (Fabry-Perot) cavity to resonate strongly, a standing wave pattern must exist. This will only occur when an integral number of half wavelengths fit between the two mirrors. This restricts possible axial or longitudinal modes of oscillation to:

Where:

  • L is the distance between the mirrors (m).
  • W denotes the possible wavelengths of oscillation (m).
  • n is a large integer (order of 948,000 for W around 632.8 nm, L = .3 m).
  • F denotes the possible frequencies of oscillation (Hz).
  • c is the speed of light (approximately 300 million m/s).

The laser will not operate with just any wavelength – it must satisfy this equation. Therefore, the output will not usually be a single peak at 632.8 nm but a series of peaks around 632.8 nm spaced c/(2*L) Hz apart. Longer cavities result in closer mode spacing and a larger number of modes since the gain won’t fall off as rapidly as the modes move away from the peak. For example, a cavity length of 150 mm results in a longitudinal mode spacing of about 1 GHz; L = 300 mm results in about 500 MHz. The strongest spectral lines in the output will be nearest the combined peak of the lasing medium and mirror reflectivity but many others will still be present. This is called multimode operation.

Think of the vibrating string of a violin or piano. Being fixed at both ends, it can only sustain oscillations where an integer number of cycles fits on the string. In the case of a string, n can equal 1 (fundamental) and 2, 3, 4, 5 (harmonics or overtones). Due to the tension and stiffness of the string, only small integer values for n are present with a significant amplitude. For a He-Ne laser, the distribution of the selected neon spectral line and shape of the reflectivity function of the mirrors with respect to wavelength determine which values of n are present and the effective gain of each one. And n will be much greater than 1!

For a typical HeNe laser tube, possible values of n will form a series of very large numbers like 948,161, 948,162, 948,163, 948,164,…. rather than 1, 2, 3, 4. 🙂 A typical gain function showing the emission curve of the excited neon multiplied by the mode structure of the Fabry-Perot resonator and the reflectivity curve of the mirrors may look something like the following:

Or, see the following for some slightly more aesthetically pleasing diagrams of the longitudinal modes of random polarized He-Ne lasers. 🙂

Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW HeNe Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW He-Ne Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 3 mW HeNe Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 3 mW He-Ne Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 8 mW HeNe Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 8 mW He-Ne Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 30 mW HeNe Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 30 mW He-Ne Laser

Mode Sweep

Since the mode locations are determined by the physical spacing of the mirrors, as the tube warms up and expands, these spectral line frequencies are going to drift downward (toward longer wavelengths). However, since the reflectivity of the mirrors as a function of wavelength is quite broad (for all practical purposes, a constant), new lines will fill in from above and the overall shape of the function doesn’t change.

In the diagrams above, a single arbitrary mode position is shown, but for well behaved lasers, the lasing lines will move smoothly through the gain curve as the laser warms up. This is called by various names including “mode sweep” and “mode cycling”. While present with most lasers, the effects are quite striking with low to medium power He-Ne lasers due to their relatively narrow neon gain bandwidth (which is only a small multiple of the longitudinal mode spacing in low to medium power He-Ne lasers), the rather fortuitous phenomenon that for red (633 nm) He-Ne lasers at least, adjacent longitudinal modes tend to be orthogonally polarized, and nearly ideal behaviour in other respects with the Physics mostly cooperating. (Murphy has seen the LASER DANGER signs and stays away!) Much more on all this below (except perhaps for Murphy).

In the nice diagram above 🙂 of the 8 mW laser, there are 5 longitudinal cavity modes that see gain above the lasing threshold (the right-most just barely). These become lasing modes (red and blue) producing a total output power of somewhat over 8 mW in this specific example. For the 30 mW laser, there are twice as many lasing modes one half the distance apart, and each mode has more power. Interestingly, adjacent modes in a so-called “random polarized” red (632.8 nm) He-Ne laser are almost always orthogonally polarized, with the polarization axes fixed relative to the tube. (Here, one of them is arbitrarily referenced as 0 degrees, more on this later). As the distance between the mirrors is increased, the number of oscillating modes increases as well, though the actual power in each mode increases only slightly.

Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser
Mode Sweep of 8 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser

One complete cycle (red or blue) represents a change in cavity length of one wavelength (at 633 nm) and a change in optical frequency of 2 times the mode spacing of c/2L. The additional factor of 2 arises because the adjacent modes of the red (633 nm) HeNe are orthogonally polarized. This is not true with most other lasers and even HeNe lasers at other wavelengths. Note that while the profile of the mode sweep is affected by the neon gain curve, the period is NOT directly related to it, only c/2L.

However, note that as HeNe lasers get longer, mode competition results in greater and greater instability, so don’t expect to see a nice orderly march with a Spectra-Physics 127 (39 inch cavity). In fact while the envelope of the modes will generally follow the gain curve, each mode will be jumping up and down in a quasi-chaotic dance! Instability may appear in the display of a Scanning Fabry-Perot Interferometer (SFPI) when viewing the longitudinal modes of a 633 nm HeNe with tubes rated at 7 to 10 mW. 5 mW lasers are usually quite clean while 35 mW lasers can be a real mess.

For very short HeNe tubes, the width of the gain curve may be similar to or even narrower than the spacing between modes. With those, the output power will become very low or go to zero during portions of the mode sweep. Very few HeNe lasers were produced with cavity lengths where this would be an issue since maximum output power would be very low. The only one I know of was the Spectra-Physics 119 stabilized laser with a 100 mm cavity length (mode spacing of 1.5 GHz). The very short cavity was required to provide special characteristics for this system.

In fact, it’s often possible to go so far as to identify a specific manufacturer and even model of a HeNe laser tube based solely on the plots of its polarized mode sweep, providing a sort of “fingerprint” for lasers. 🙂 For example, the type of tube installed in a Zygo or Teletrac/Axsys stabilized laser can be determined without opening the case!

He-Ne Laser Mode Sweep Fingerprints
He-Ne Laser Mode Sweep Fingerprints

These tubes are all physically similar yet have dramatically different mode sweep plots. And, it’s often possible to determine key information about the health of a laser tube by comparing its mode sweep with that of a new one. Over most of its life, the general shape will remain the same, but as the power declines, in addition to the total height of the plot decreasing, the amplitude of the variation (i.e., the AC component) relative to the total will increase. However, near end-of-life when power is way down and fewer modes are oscillating, the distinctions will tend to disappear.

For very long tubes like the 30 mW one in the example above where there are many longitudinal modes, the actual appearance of mode sweep may be rather chaotic as power shifts among the modes in a random dance. When I first observed this behaviour with a Melles Griot 05-LHP-928 (35 mW) He-Ne producing over 40 mW, I thought it might have been defective in some way despite the high power. But two other healthy samples behaved in a similar manner. So, don’t expect to see nice well behaved marching modes for these high power lasers. There is often a hint of instability even in shorter tubes though it may be subtle – a few percent variation in the peak amplitudes not attributable to other causes like normal movement under the gain curve or power supply ripple.

The effects of mode sweep are more dramatic with short low pressure carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers because for a given resonator length, the ratio of wavelengths (10,600 nm for CO2 compared to 632.8 nm for He-Ne means that the longitudinal mode spacing is 16.7 times larger). In these cases, the laser output will turn on and off as it heats up and the distance between the mirrors increases due to thermal expansion. For this to happen in a 632.8 nm He-Ne would require the tube to be less than about 75 mm (3 inches) in length.

A linearly polarized He-Ne laser would have the same longitudinal mode spacing, but all the lasing modes would have the same polarization orientation (red or blue) as shown in the diagrams and animations, above.

Longitudinal Modes of Typical Linearly Polarized 8 mW He-Ne Laser
Longitudinal Modes of Typical Linearly Polarized 8 mW He-Ne Laser

So, someone with red/blue color-blindness (if there is such a thing) would see the diagrams for all them as being linearly polarized!

A label on the polarized laser will indicate the plane or orientation of polarization of the output beam. For a random polarized He-Ne laser, a polarizer oriented at 45 degrees with respect to the plane of polarization would produce an output with respect to mode sweep that is similar to that of a linearly polarized laser, except that even with an ideal polarizer, the output power would be cut in half.

Now for some actual numbers: The Doppler-broadened gain curve for neon in a red (632.8 nm) He-Ne laser has a Full Width Half Maximum (FWHM, where the gain is at least half the peak value) on the order of 1.5 or 1.6 GHz. So, for a 500 mm long (high gain) tube with its mode spacing of about 300 MHz (similar to what is depicted above), 5 or 6 lines may be active simultaneously and oscillation will always be sustained (though there would be some variation in output power as various modes sweep by and compete for attention). However, for a little 10 cm tube, the mode spacing is about 1,500 MHz. If this laser were to be really unlucky (i.e., the distance between mirrors was exactly wrong) the cavity resonance might not fall in a portion of the gain curve with enough gain to even lase at all! Or, as the tube heats up and expands, the laser would go on and off. There are very few commercial He-Ne laser tubes that short. It is possible to widen the gain curve somewhat by using a mixture of neon isotopes (Ne20 and Ne22) rather than a single one since the location of their peak gain differ slightly. This would allow a smaller cavity to lase reliably and/or reduce amplitude variations from mode sweeping in all size He-Ne lasers. The actual lasing threshold will also determine the effective width of the neon gain curve over which lasing occurs, so it may be wider than the FWHM.

A high speed silicon photodiode and oscilloscope or RF spectrum analyzer can be used to view the frequencies associated with the longitudinal modes of a He-Ne laser. The clearest demonstration would be using a short tube where at most two longitudinal modes are active. This will result in a single difference frequency when both modes are lasing. A polarized tube is best as it forces both modes to have the same polarization as a photodiode will not detect the difference frequencies for orthogonally polarized modes. Adjacent longitudinal modes of random polarized tubes are almost always orthogonally polarized (for a 633 nm He-Ne at least). But, adding a polarizer at 45 degrees to the polarization axes can compensate for this with a slight loss in signal strength. Without a polarizer, the beat frequencies of a random polarized laser will tend to be at multiples of twice the mode spacing since only those modes with the same polarization orientation beat with each-other in the photodiode. (If measured very accurately, it will be seen that these frequencies will not generally be exactly at multiples of the mode spacing based on c/2L and will vary slightly during mode sweep. The is due to mode pulling or pushing effects, reserved for the advanced course!)

Passive stabilization (using a structure made of a combination of materials with a very low or net zero coefficient of thermal expansion or a temperature regulator) or active stabilization (using optical feedback and piezo or magnetic actuators to move the mirrors, or a heating element to control the length of the entire structure) can compensate for these effects. However, the added expense is only justified for high performance lab quality lasers or industrial applications like interferometric based precision measurement systems – you won’t find these enhancements on the common cheap He-Ne tubes found in barcode scanners.

Thus, a typical HeNe laser is not monochromatic though the effective spectral line width is very narrow compared to common light sources. Additional effort is needed to produce a truly monochromatic source operating in a single longitudinal mode. One way to do this is to introduce another adjustable resonator called an etalon into the beam path inside the cavity. A typical etalon consists of a clear optical plate with parallel surfaces. Partial reflections from its two surfaces make it act as a weak Fabry-Perot resonator with a set of modes of its own. Then, only modes which have the same optical frequency in both resonators will produce enough gain to sustain laser output.

The longitudinal mode structure of an optional intra-cavity etalon might look like the following (not to scale):

Notice that since the distance between the two surfaces of the etalon is much less than the distance between the main mirrors, the peaks are much further apart (even more so than shown). (The etalon’s index of refraction also gets involved here but that is just a detail.) By adjusting the angle of the etalon, its peaks will shift left or right (since the effective distance between its two surfaces changes) so that one spectral line can be selected to be coincident with a peak in the main gain function. This will result in single mode operation. The side peaks of the etalon (-1, +1 and beyond) will may coincide with weak peaks in the main gain function shown above but their combined amplitude (product) is insufficient to contribute to laser output.

Intracavity Etalon for Line Selection in a Single Mode He-Ne Laser
Intracavity Etalon for Line Selection in a Single Mode He-Ne Laser

This example is based on the same 30 mW laser as in the diagram in the section: Longitudinal Modes of Operation. Adding an etalon inside the cavity introduces an additional loss function with peaks every GHz or so. (Note that such an etalon would be about 15 cm long, so the plasma tube for this laser needs to be short enough to allow for that much space between it and one of the mirrors, but that’s just a detail!) Only where the product of the original net (round trip) gain and the etalon transmission is above one will the laser lase. For this example, there is only place where a cavity mode and etalon mode coincide – just to the left of centre of the neon gain curve peak. And, now that there is only a single mode oscillating, it will have an output power of over 15 mW, rather than the ~3 mW or less in each of several multiple modes. There is always some loss in adding an etalon, so the full 30+ mW originally present isn’t usually possible, though the ~50 percent reduction in output power shown here may be excessive.

(From: Prof Harvey Rutt (h.rutt@ecs.soton.ac.uk).)

The standard, small He-Ne laser normally lases on only one transition, the well known red line at about 632.8 nm.

The He-Ne gain curve is inhomogeneously Doppler-broadened with a gain bandwidth of around 1.5 GHz (at 632.8 nm). (The width of the Doppler-broadened gain curve depends on the lasing wavelength. At 3,391 nm, it is only about 310 MHz.) For a typical laser, say 30 cm long, the axial modes are separated by about 500 MHz. Typically, two or three axial modes are above threshold, in fact as the laser length drifts you typically get two modes (placed symmetrically about line centre) or three modes (one near centre, one either side) cyclically, and a slow periodic power drift results. Shorter lasers, less modes, more power variation unless stabilized. But it needs a huge He-Ne laser to get ten modes, and since they are closer of course they still only spread over the 1.5 GHz line width.

Most He-Ne lasers which do not contain a Brewster window or internal Brewster plate are randomly polarized; adjacent modes tend to be of alternating orthogonal polarizations. (Note that this is not necessarily true for He-Ne lasers operating at wavelengths other than 632.8 nm and/or can be overridden with a transverse magnetic field, see below.

Some frequency stabilized HeNe lasers are NOT single mode, but have two, and the stabilization acts to keep them symmetrical about line centre – i.e., both are half a mode spacing off line centre. A polariser will then split off one of them or a polarizing beamsplitter will separate the two.

(From: Sam.)

The party line is that adjacent modes in a He-Ne laser will be of orthogonal polarization. However, I’ve seen samples of small (e.g., 5 or 6 inch) random polarized tubes only supporting 2 active modes where this is not the case – they output a polarized beam that remains stable with warmup and in any case, applying a strong transverse magnetic field will override the natural polarization. So, it’s not a strong effect. Only if everything inside the tube is reasonably symmetric, will the modes alternate. Modes may also remain one polarization as they move through part of the gain curve and then abruptly – and repeatably – flip polarization. But the majority of tubes are well behaved in this regard.

Resonator Length and Mode Hopping

Here are some additional comments that address the common fear of the novice laser enthusiast that the resonator length has to be stabilized to the nm or else the laser will blink off.

(Portions from: Steve Roberts.)

Flames expected, as I’m ignoring some of the physics and am trying to explain some of this based on what I observe, aligning and adjusting cavities on He-Ne and argon ion lasers as part of repairing them. Anyone who only goes by the textbooks has missed out on the fun, obviously having never had to work on an external mirror resonator. It can be quite a education!

Due to the complex number of possible paths down the typical gain medium, you will see lasing as long as the mirrors are reasonably aligned. The cavity spacing is not always that critical and will change anyway as the mirror mounts are adjusted (there will always be some unavoidable translation even if only the angle is supposed to be changed). No, lasers don’t really flash on and off in interferometric nulls as you translate the mirrors – they instead change lasing modes. They will find another workable path. You will in some cases see this as a change in intensity but it is more properly observed on a optical spectrum analyzer as a change in mode beating. Eventually you can translate them far apart enough that lasing ceases, but this is a function of your optics not the resonator expansion.

I have seen what you fear in some cases by adding a third mirror to a two mirror cavity with a low gain medium such as He-Ne where the third mirror can be positioned in such a way to kill many possible modes. This usually occurs when I use a He-Ne laser to align an argon laser’s mirrors and the HeNe laser will flicker from back reflections. See the section: External Mirror Laser Cleaning and Alignment Techniques. But unless you have a extremely unstable resonator design, translation will just cause mode hopping, this becomes important on a frequency stabilized or mode locked laser if you have a precision lab application. Otherwise, most commercial lasers are not length stabilized in the least. There are equations and techniques for determining if you have a stable optical design – stable in this case meaning it will support lasing over a broad range of transverse and longitudinal modes. For examples see any text by A. E. Siegman or Koechner. If your library doesn’t have any similar texts, find a book on microwave waveguides. It might aid you in visualizing what is going on.

Either an intracavity etalon or active stabilization systems are usually used on single frequency systems anyway, by either translating the mirror on piezos or by pulling on mirror supports with small electromagnets, or in the case of smaller units, heaters to change the cavity length on internal mirror tubes. An etalon is basically a precision flat glass plate in the lasing path between the mirrors, its length is changed by a oven and it acts as a mode filter.

Length stabilization to the 50 or 100 nm you might have expected to be needed would be gross overkill anyhow, and would be impossible to achieve in practice by stabilizing the resonator alone. Depending on the end use of the product, most lasers are simply built with a low expansion resonator of graphite composite or Invar, although in many products a simple aluminium block or L shape is used, a few rare cases use rods made of two different materials designed to compensate by one short high expansion rod moving the mirror mount in opposition to the main expansion. A small fraction of a millimeter is a more reasonable specification.

(From: Prof Harvey Rutt (h.rutt@ecs.soton.ac.uk).)

The basic idea, that the laser can only work at the frequencies where an integral number of half waves fit in the cavity, is perfectly correct. The separation between adjacent modes is just 1/(2*L) where L is the cavity length in cm. From this we get the separation in ‘wavenumbers’. One wavenumber is 30 GHz, so in more usual units it is just 30 GHz/(2*L). Or, to make it easy, in a 50 cm long laser the modes are 300 MHz apart. That is not very far optically.

The laser operates by some molecule, gas, ion in a crystal, etc. making a transition between two levels. But those levels are not perfectly ‘sharp’; we say they are ‘broadened’. The reason can be many things:

  • In a gas – Doppler (or temperature) broadening. The molecules move about randomly, and the light is Doppler shifted a random amount.
  • Collision (pressure) broadening. Collisions either relax or dephase the state – i.e., ‘mess it up’ and broaden it!
  • In a solid various things can happen, but for example in a glass different laser ions are in slightly different positions, and this causes them to have slightly different energies.

In any case no transition is *perfectly* sharp, the fact that it has a finite lifetime gives it a certain width, but this is not often the real limit, something else is usually more important.

These broadening mechanisms ‘blur out’ the line – we see optical gain over that *range* of frequencies, the gain bandwidth.

An example is carbon dioxide. The ‘natural width’ is very small, of order Hz. The Doppler width at 300 °K is about 70 MHz. The collision-broadened width increases about 7 MHz/Torr; so well below 10 Torr the width is Doppler-limited, ~70 MHz; above 10 Torr pressure broadened (e.g. ~700 MHz at 100 Torr).

If I take a typical He-Ne laser it might ‘blur’ out over a GHz or so – **more** than that 300 MHz mode spacing – so there are *always* two or thee modes within the ‘gain bandwidth’ and it will always lase. For a glass laser there might be *thousands* of modes, because the glass gain is very wide indeed.

But there *are* cases that go the other way. For carbon dioxide, at low pressure, the line is Doppler-broadened and about 70 MHz wide, much **LESS** than that 300 MHz mode spacing. So short carbon dioxide lasers really do turn on and off as the cavity length changes, and you have to ‘tune’ the cavity length to get a mode inside the gain width. This mainly happens with short, gas lasers in the infrared.

For a *high pressure* CO2 laser at 760 Torr (1atm), the line width is several GHz, much more than the mode spacing, so the effect disappears.

Observing Longitudinal Modes of a He-Ne Laser

Monitoring the output power of any He-Ne laser while it’s warming up will show a variation in output power due to longitudinal mode cycling. There is even a specification called the “Mode Sweep Percentage” which indicates how large the variation is in relation to the output power. For short tubes, the power fluctuations can approach 20 percent; for long tubes, they may be less than 2 percent.

There are many ways to actually “see” the modes of a laser including the use of an instrument called a Scanning Fabry-Perot Interferometer. However, for a short tube with only 1 or 2 modes, it’s quite straightforward to interpret what’s going on from the output power and polarization alone. All that’s needed is a photodiode and multimeter (or continuous reading laser power meter), and polarizing filter. (A lens from a pair of polarized Sun glasses or a photographic polarizing filter will do.) The power monitor can be set up in the output beam and the polarizing filter in the waste beam from the HR mirror. Alternatively, a non-polarizing beamsplitter can be used to provide the two beams. Adding a polarizing beamsplitter oriented so that it separates the two polarization orientations in one of the beams can simplify the interpretation of the polarization changes.

Changing the orientation of the polarizer will affect the amplitude of the intensity variations. For most red He-Ne lasers, the longitudinal modes will generally remain at two fixed orthogonal orientations, with adjacent modes usually being orthogonal to each other. As the tube heats and the cavity length increases, the modes march along under the gain curve with those at one end disappearing and new ones appearing at the other end as described above. But for well behaved tubes, they don’t flip polarization. When the polarizer is oriented at 45 degrees to the polarization axes of the tube, the reading will remain constant. When aligned with the polarization axes of the tube, the reading will fluctuate the most.

As a specific example, consider an He-Ne laser tube with a mirror spacing of 120 mm (about 4.75 inches, one of the shortest commercially available laser tubes). This corresponds to a mode spacing of about 1.25 GHz – rather close to the FWHM of 1.5 to 1.6 GHz for the neon gain bandwidth. With this tube, at most 2 modes will be oscillating at any given time. When the output power and polarization is monitored while the tube is warming up, a very distinctive behaviour will be observed. One might think that it should be a periodic variation in output power with a simple sinusoidal or similar characteristic. However, there will actually be two peaks for each cycle: A large one corresponding to when there is a single lasing mode at the centre of the gain curve, and a smaller one when there are two modes symmetric around the centre of the gain curve. For most tubes, the polarization of adjacent modes is orthogonal and will remain fixed with the mode. So, as the modes cycle under the gain curve successive large peaks will have opposite polarization. The small peaks will have equal components of both polarizations. Even though two modes are oscillating, the gain for each one is so much closer to the lasing threshold that their combined power is still lower than for the single mode at the peak of the gain curve. There may also be rather sudden changes in output power as modes on the tails of the gain curve come and go. However, for some tubes which are affectionately called “flippers”, the polarization of the modes will tend to suddenly change orientation as they move through the gain curve. This should also be apparent when viewing the beam through a polarizing filter.

Waveforms and RF Spectrum of Longitudinal Modes

While the beam from a healthy He-Ne laser appears by eye to be constant (except possibly for the normal variation in output power during mode sweep), only a single frequency laser has an output which is truly DC. With a high speed photodiode and basic test equipment, a great deal of information can be determined as a result of the interaction among the multiple longitudinal modes (also called axial modes) that are present in all but the shortest He-Ne lasers (or stabilized single frequency lasers). OK, well perhaps this requires some not quite so basic test equipment like a high speed oscilloscope and/or RF spectrum analyzer. 🙂 While these instruments may not be something you have handy, if you’re friendly with someone in a research lab at a local college or university, they may have may be able to help and then everyone could learn a lot from some simple experiments! 🙂

The photodiode (PD) must have a frequency response that extends beyond at least the longitudinal mode spacing of the laser. A fancy costly one may not be essential, only that the PD is quite small. One with a 1 GHz response is typically around 1 mm square, with the frequency response being roughly inversely proportional to area. Candidate PDs may turn up in all sorts of equipment, even old optical mice. The PD should be back-biased with a few volts to improve frequency response and set up to drive into a 50 ohm load terminating at the scope input. Basing the circuit on something like the Thorlabs DET10A would be perfect. (Search for this on the Thorlabs Web site. The spec sheet will have the circuit diagram.)

The first approach is to view the resulting mode beating on a fast oscilloscope. For a random polarized laser, a linear polarizer will be required in front of the PD oriented at 45 degrees to the principle polarization axes of the laser to force adjacent modes that are usually orthogonal to have the same polarization at the PD. The adjacent longitudinal modes will then produce a beat equal to their difference frequency. There will also be weaker beats from all other combinations of modes. Common HeNe lasers have a fundamental mode spacing of between 1.5 GHz (for a tiny 0.5 mW barcode scanner tube, around 10 cm between mirrors) and 161 MHz (for a 35 mW SP-127, around 95 cm between mirrors).

Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of Melles Griot 05-LHP-151 He-Ne Laser
Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of Melles Griot 05-LHP-151 He-Ne Laser

This laser is rated 5 mW with a mode spacing of 438 MHz (around 58 cm between mirrors). The waveforms were taken using a Thorlabs DET210 photodetector and my special edition laser-zapped Tektronix 2467 oscilloscope – formerly resident in the test department of a major laser manufacturer – evident from the 5 unsightly black blobs on the lower part of the screen where the CRT phosphor has been blown away by a high power pulsed laser! 🙂 While the fundamental can usually be seen, information about any higher difference frequencies is hard to interpret. And even this relatively fast scope doesn’t have much sensitivity beyond the 438 MHz fundamental. The screen shots are in no particular order in the montage other than to make the sequence somewhat pleasing. 🙂 This is further complicated by higher order effects like mode pulling, which slightly shift the positions of the modes based on their location relative to the centre of the neon gain curve. Thus, beyond confirming that the mode spacing is as expected, not much more can be easily determined and switching to the frequency domain will be more fruitful.

The output from the PD may also be applied to an RF spectrum analyzer, there will be significant power detected at the longitudinal mode spacing and its harmonics (hundreds of MHz or more) due to beating between longitudinal modes, as well as under 1 MHz (due to second order beats and mode pulling).

RF Spectra of Melles Griot 05-LHP-151 He-Ne Laser During Mode Sweep
RF Spectra of Melles Griot 05-LHP-151 He-Ne Laser During Mode Sweep

The above image shows the primary beat signal for the same laser head using a Thorlabs DET210 1 GHz silicon photodetector and an HP 8590L RF spectrum analyzer. (As with the scope, for a random polarized laser, a polarizer would need to be placed in front of the PD oriented at 45 degrees to the polarization axes to detect adjacent beats.) The centre frequency is around 437 MHz and the span is 1 MHz. (Each box is 100 kHz.) (The spec’d value for the mode spacing of this laser is 438 MHz but it’s possible the spectrum analyzer is in need of calibration! Otherwise, complain to Melles Griot!) The sequence of screen shots show about half the full mode sweep cycle.

If there were no mode pulling, the display would always look like the one in the upper left corner (or even narrower) – a single frequency. However, the individual modes move slightly compared to the cavity resonances, so the spectrum spreads out as a function of the position of the modes on the neon gain curve.

Interestingly, the display remains where there is a single narrow peak for longer than could be accounted for based on the normal speed with which the frequencies are changing. In fact, it’s impossible to capture a situation where the peak is just slightly wider – it snaps from a FWHM of about 1/5 box (top left in composite photo) to approximately 1 box (top centre) and vice-versa. Nothing in between ever appears. This suggests that there is a self-locking process taking place, as mentioned in the previous section.

When set for a frequency range covering 0 to 200 kHz, peaks are present similar to what appears on the right side of those shown above. But a linear He-Ne laser power supply had to be used to avoid seeing the ripple frequency and harmonics of the switchmode brick overlaid on the beats! There are multiple strong beats at around 874 MHz as well, 2 times the mode spacing. They vary a way similar way as the others. This makes sense since there are are 3 longitudinal modes oscillating most of the time, with 4 modes for a brief period during mode sweep. The spectrum analyzer also claims there are weak peaks at around 1,311 MHz and 1,748 MHz during most of the mode sweep cycle, not simply that period where the self mode-locking takes place. However, it’s not clear where these originate, or if they are even real. To be direct, the one at 1,748 MHz would require 5 modes to produce a beat at 4 times the mode spacing of 437 MHz. But there are never 5 modes present, let alone for most of the cycle. Perhaps they are the sum of second-order beats. Or, they could simply be an artefact of the analyzer, perhaps leakage from an internal mixer.

Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of JDS Uniphase 1145P He-Ne Laser
Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of JDS Uniphase 1145P He-Ne Laser

The above image shows scope display for a JDS Uniphase 1145P, with a mode spacing of 438 MHz (around 34 cm between mirrors). The additional complexity is due both to the lower beat frequencies (and thus better response of the scope) as well as the greater number of modes oscillating. An RF spectrum of this laser would have many more peaks closer together, but would look generally similar to that of the 5 mW laser.

Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of Melles Griot 05-LHP-121 He-Ne Laser
Typical Longitudinal Mode Beat Waveforms of Melles Griot 05-LHP-121 He-Ne Laser

Mode spacing of 687 MHz (around 22 cm between mirrors). With only 3 longitudinal modes oscillating (and stressing the bandwidth capabilities of the poor scope), the display is a fairly clean sine wave. The only obvious difference during mode sweep is that the amplitude changes slightly. However, most of the time, it is a relatively clean sine wave and for a higher power healthier tube, the reduction in amplitude is not that great as in this example.

Transverse Modes of Operation

Lasers can also operate in various transverse modes. Laser specifications will usually refer to the TEM00 mode. This means “Transverse Electromagnetic Mode 0,0” and results in a single beam. The long narrow bore of a typical HeNe laser forces this mode of oscillation. With a wide bore multiple sub-beams can emerge from the same cavity in two dimensions. The TEM mode numbers (TEMxy) denote the number (minus one) or configuration of the sub-beams.

Here is a rough idea of what transverse modes might look like for a rectangular cavity:

I have only shown the rectangular case because that’s the only one I could draw in ASCII!

Other (non-cartesian) patterns of modes will be produced depending on bore configuration, dimensions, and operating conditions. These may have TEMxy coordinates in cylindrical space (radial/angular), or a mixture of rectangular and cylindrical modes, or something else!

To achieve high power from a He-Ne laser, the tube may be designed with a wider but shorter bore which results in transverse multimode output. Since these tubes can be smaller for a given output power, they may also be somewhat less expensive than a similar power TEM00 type. As a source of bright light – for laser shows, for example – such a laser may be acceptable. However, the lower beam quality makes them unsuitable for holography or most serious optical experimentation or research. An example of a high power multimode He-Ne laser head is the Melles Griot 05-LHR-831 which has a rated output power of 25 mW. Compared to their 05-LHR-827 which is a 25 mW TEM00 laser head, the multimode laser is about 2/3rds of the length and runs on about 3/5ths of the operating voltage at lower current.

(Note that it is easy in principle to convert the output of a TEM00 laser into multimode by using a length of fiber-optic cable with lenses at each end to focus the beam into it and collimate the beam coming out. If the core diameter of the fiber is greater than that needed for the fiber itself to be single mode, then the result will be that multiple modes will propagate inside and the output will be multimode. To assure single mode propagation at 632.8 nm with the index of refraction of a typical glass fiber, a 4 um or smaller core is needed. The actual core diameter of the fiber will determine how many modes are actually generated. A core diameter of 10 um will result in a few modes while one of 125 um will produce dozens of modes. Why this would be desired is another matter.) However, all these modes will be exactly the same wavelength since they originate from a single TEM00 beam.

Sometimes, laser companies don’t quite get it right either and a laser tube that is supposed to be TEM00 may actually be multi-transverse mode all the time or whenever it feels like it (e.g., after warmup). I have a 13.5 mW Aerotech tube that is supposed to be TEM00 but produces a beam that has an outer torus (doughnut shape) with a bright spot in the middle. I’ve also seen an apparently factory-new Uniphase green He-Ne laser that produces a similar doughnut beam. Both of these are probably the result of one or both mirrors having a radius of curvature that is too short for the bore diameter. They may have been manufacturing goofups. Everyone can have a bad day, even if it results in a bunch of dud lasers. 🙂 Good for us though. Everyone (well everyone who cares!) has seen a nice TEM00 He-Ne laser. How many have one that does three wavelengths with different mode structures! 🙂

Note that the mode structure implies nothing about the polarization of the beam. Single mode (TEM00) and multimode lasers can be either linearly polarized or randomly polarized depending on the design and for the multimode case, each sub-mode can have its own polarization characteristics. HeNe (and other) lasers will be linearly polarized if there is a Brewster window or Brewster plate inside the cavity. The majority of HeNe laser tubes produce a TEM00 beam which has random polarization. For internal mirror tubes, linear polarization may be an extra cost option. External mirror HeNe lasers also generally produce a TEM00 beam but are linearly polarized since the ends of the tube are terminated with Brewster windows.

A fast photodiode (PD) and oscilloscope or RF spectrum analyzer can be used to view the frequencies associated with transverse modes. The transverse difference frequencies are very low compared to the longitudinal mode spacing so a really high speed PD isn’t needed. A response of a few MHz should be sufficient. Typically less than 2 mm square silicon PD will have an adequate frequency response if back biased. But the modes do have to overlap on the detector so it may be necessary to spread the beam of a multimode He-Ne laser using a lens. A polarized tube is best as it forces the modes to have the same polarization (a PD will not detect the difference frequencies for orthogonally polarized modes). But, adding a polarizer can partially compensate for this, though the polarization may drift with a randomly polarized laser.

Multi-Transverse Mode He-Ne Lasers

As noted, most He-Ne lasers are designed to operate with a single transverse (spatial) mode or TEM00. However, to obtain the highest power for a given tube size or by a goof-up in design, a higher order mode structure may be produced. A non-TEM00 mode may be present if:

  • The bore is too short.
  • The bore is too large in diameter.
  • The mirror RoC is too short.
  • The mirror is too far from the bore-end (same effect as bore being too short).

All of these are really somewhat equivalent and simply mean that more than one mode fits inside the available active mode volume.

  • For a laser designed to be multimode, a low order mode pattern is typical, though it may not look like the examples in textbooks. Mode patterns that resemble hexagonal close-packed honey combs are often the rule rather than the exception since the circular bore doesn’t really favour Cartesian modes like TEM11 or TEM22. And tubes designed to be multimode will probably have higher order modes than TEM01 or TEM10. Multimode He-Ne lasers typically have 50 to 100 percent more output power for their length than equivalent lasers operating TEM00.
  • For a laser with a very wide bore like one using the Melles Griot 05-LHB-570 one-Brewster laser tube and a short RoC mirror, a high order mode structure will be produced with a dozen or more individual spots in a more or less random (possibly sort of hexagonal) pattern.Where there is access to the inside of the cavity (as with a one-Brewster tube), a laser that operates multimode can be forced to operate TEM00 with a stop (aperture) between the external mirror and tube-end. However, there will be a (possibly substantial) reduction is output power. Where both mirrors are external, it may be possible to substitute longer RoC mirrors to force TEM00 mode (again at the expense of some output power).
  • For a laser that is supposed to be TEM00 but due to a design error isn’t, a TEM01 or TEM10 pattern is typical or it may produce a beam shaped like a doughnut (torus) with or without a spot in the middle. I have several long Aerotech He-Ne lasers heads rated 12 mW (actual output power around 13.5 mW) that produce a beam like this. This was either by design, or an “oops” and the heads were relabelled with an “M” indicating multimode.
  • Sometimes, slight misalignment of the mirrors will produce a multimode (probably TEM01 or TEM10) beam in a laser that otherwise operates reliably TEM00. A warped or misaligned bore may also do this.

Note that a speck of dirt or dust on the inside of a mirror or window (if present), or damage to an optical surface, can result in a multi-transverse mode beam even if the bore and mirror parameters are correct for TEM00 operation. Unfortunately, convincing a bit of dust to move out of the way isn’t always easy on the inside of an internal mirror He-Ne laser tube! Yes, though not common, it can happen. This is one reason not to store tubes vertically. I’ve heard of people successfully using a Tesla (Oudin) coil to charge up the errant dust particle, causing it to just out of the way via electrostatic repulsion. Your mileage may vary. 🙂

Coherence Length of HeNe Lasers

Common He-Ne lasers have a coherence length of around 10 to 30 cm. By adding an etalon inside the cavity to suppress all but one longitudinal mode, coherences lengths of 100s of meters are possible. Naturally, such He-Ne lasers are much more expensive and are more likely to be found in optics research labs – not mass produced applications. However, slightly less exotic and expensive stabilized He-Ne lasers are readily available which oscillate on two orthogonal longitudinal modes and locked so they are in a fixed position. When one mode is blocked with a polarizer, the resulting beam is then (nearly) single frequency with a coherence length of hundreds of meters – much longer than can even be measured without a great deal of effort and expense.

The following actually applies to all lasers using Fabry-Perot cavities operating with multiple longitudinal modes. It was in response to the question: “Why does the coherence length of a He-Ne laser tend to be about the same as the tube length?” The answer is that the coherence period is equal to the tube length but the useful coherence length is generally less (except for the special case above of a single mode).

(From: Mattias Pierrou.)

In a He-Ne laser you typically have only a few (but more than one) longitudinal modes. These cavity modes must fulfil the standing-wave criterion which states that must be an integer number of half wavelengths between the mirrors. In the frequency domain this means that the ‘distance’ between two modes is delta nu = c/(2L), where L is the length of the laser.

The beat frequency between the modes gives rise to a periodic variation in the temporal coherence with period 2L/c, i.e. full coherence is obtained between two beams with a path-difference of an n*2L (n integer).

If you have only one frequency, the coherence length is infinite (that is, if you neglect the spectral width of this mode which otherwise limit the coherence length). If you have two modes, the coherence varies harmonically (like a sinus curve).

The more modes you have in the laser, the shorter is the regions (path-length differences) of good coherence, but the period is still the same.

You can try this by setting up a Michelson interferometer and start with equal arm-lengths which of course gives good coherence. Then increase the length of one arm until the visibility of the fringes disappear. This should occur for a path-difference slightly less than 2L (remember that the path-difference is twice the arm-length difference!). If there are only two modes is the laser the zero visibility of fringes should occur at exactly 2L. Now continue to increase the path-difference until you reach 4L (arm-length difference of 2L). You should again see the fringes clearly due to the restored coherence between the beams.

Ripple, Noise, and Other Artifacts in HeNe Lasers

While one normally thinks of a He-Ne laser as a constant or “Continuous Wave” (CW) source, this is far from the case over a wide range of time scales from nanoseconds to hours. Only to our long obsolete Mark I eyeballs does a typical He-Ne laser really look like the DC equivalent of light. 🙂

Some of these artefacts result from implementation but others are fundamental to the lasing process. The following apply to normal He-Ne lasers (not those involving Zeeman splitting or something more exotic):

  • Mode sweep (seconds to hours):
  • Longitudinal mode beating (less than 100 MHz to 1.5 GHz):
  • Transverse mode beating (1 MHz to 100s of MHz):
  • Plasma oscillations (100 kHz to several MHz):
  • Plasma instability:
  • Higher order mode pulling (1 kHz to 1 MHz):
  • Mirror birefringence (100 kHz to 1 MHz):
  • HV power supply line frequency ripple (50/60 Hz and harmonics):
  • HV power supply switching frequency ripple (20 to 100 kHz and harmonics):
  • Mode flipping (0.1 s to minutes):

The closest to a constant output would probably be an intensity stabilized He-Ne operating on a single longitudinal mode, often called “single frequency” (which is close but even that is not totally accurate), with a highly filtered He-Ne laser HV power supply.

Longitudinal Mode Pulling

While introductory textbooks may state that lasers oscillate on multiples of the cavity resonance frequency, c/2L, it turns out that this is actually not true in most cases. (The exceptions would be where the gain curve is essentially flat but that’s another story.) Longitudinal modes that aren’t exactly centered on the gain curve will be at frequencies very slightly offset from these, pulled toward the center of the gain curve with those that are farthest away seeing the most shift. This is a well known effect called “mode pulling” with highly developed theory to back it up. (Mode pulling isn’t unique to lasers. For example, a quartz crystal oscillator can be tuned over a small range using an external capacitor even though its mechanical resonance frequency differs from the output frequency.)

Although the math can get to be rather hairy, one way of thinking of mode pulling is that the cavity bandwidth has a finite extent which depends primarily on the reflectivity of the mirrors and cavity length. So, if the net gain is greater slightly off to one side due to the position of the gain curve relative to the cavity resonance, the lasing line will be shifted in that direction.

When the laser beam hits a high speed photodetector like a photodiode, which is a non-linear (square law) device, in addition to the DC power term, there are the primary difference frequencies which are close to multiples of c/2L (but not exactly due to mode pulling), but also the differences of the difference frequencies – the second order intermodulation products – which will be at (relatively) low frequencies compared to c/2L. As the cavity length changes and the lasing modes drift across the gain curve, the mode pulling effect on each one varies slightly. But, small differences between large numbers can result in dramatic changes in these second order terms, rapidly rising and falling in frequency, and coming and going as modes drop off one end of the gain curve and appear at the other. The amplitude of the second order beat will be much lower than that of the primary beat but is still detectable with a spectrum analyzer, or in some cases with an audio amplifier.

For a He-Ne laser, the range of second order frequencies is typically in the 1 kHz to 100s of kHz range while for a solid state laser it will be in the MHz to 10s or 100s of MHz range. Note that there will generally not be any beat in the range from 0 Hz to some minimum frequency (e.g., 1 kHz or so in the case of the He-Ne laser) as would be expected when the modes are almost symmetric on either side of the gain curve where there would be very low second order frequencies. Apparently, a self mode-locking effect occurs to force these to be exactly zero frequency over a small range of mode positions. This behaviour can easily be observed in the mode beat RF spectrum of a medium power (e.g., 5 mW) He-Ne laser. See the next section.

For these second order beat frequencies to be present, the laser has to be able to oscillate on at least 3 longitudinal modes simultaneously. (With only 2 modes, there will be only a single difference frequency.) The Doppler-broadened gain curve of neon for the He-Ne laser is about 1.5 GHz Full Width Half Maximum (FWHM) at 632.8 nm. To get 3 modes requires the modes to be less than about 500 MHz apart implying a c/2L tube length of about 30 cm or more – typical of a 5 mW or more (rated) He-Ne laser. It should be polarized to force all modes to be of the same polarization – orthogonal polarizations do not mix in a photodetector. For a randomly polarized laser which typically produces alternating polarizations for adjacent modes, a longer tube length would be required to guarantee enough same-polarized modes and/or a polarizer at 45 degrees to the beam polarizations could be added (but this would cut the power to the photodiode by 50 percent or more).

This effect can be demonstrated using a medium length He-Ne laser, high speed photodiode, and audio amplifier. Initially when the laser is turned on and is heating up and expanding the fastest, they may sound like clicks or pops or just non-random noise. As the expansion slows down, more distinct chirps and other interesting sounds will appear. The complexity of the symphony will also depend on the tube length and thus how many modes are oscillating.

A more precise way to look at mode pulling would be to monitor the beat frequencies produced by a high speed photodiode using an RF spectrum analyzer. By expanding the region around c/2L, the changes during mode sweep will be clearly evident. There will be smooth movement as well as sudden shifts corresponding to mode hops. I even did this by beating not a single laser, but two identical stabilized He-Ne lasers against each-other. With two modes from each laser, there are then as many as 6 beat frequencies if 45 degree polarizers are placed in front of each laser and they are then combined in a non-polarizing beam-splitter. I’ll leave analysis of this behaviour as an exercise for the student. It is at first a bit confusing, but with some thought, makes perfect sense. Simply concentrating on the mode pulling of each laser’s longitudinal mode where one laser was locked and the other was allowed to mode sweep yielded a shift of about 500 kHz.

(From: Roithner Lasertechnik (office@roithner-laser.com).)

You can “listen” to a single mode He-Ne tube: Take an X-rated photodiode and an AC power amplifier – guide a small part of the He-Ne laser beam to the photodiode (don’t let it saturate!) – and listen to the “chirping oscillations” during warming up with a speaker. Hint: There are no birds inside the tube. 😉 But it sounds similar! Looks like sin(x)/x.

Low Level Oscillation due to Mirror Birefringence

This is a phenomenon whereby a low level oscillation in output power at hundreds of kHz is present during part of the mode sweep. It’s not something you would see by eye or likely run into by accident, as the variation is typically only around 1 percent of the total power of the tube. But it is in the category of “interesting”. 🙂 In fact, the oscillation was detected only because the spectrum generated by an optical instrument using a laser with this affliction as a wavelength reference was being corrupted by spikes at frequencies that should not have been there. It would go unnoticed by at least 99.999% of the users of He-Ne lasers. 😉

For the following, refer to [download id=”5602″] and click on the last slide to enter the animation. Though slightly shorter, the tube simulated in the animation will have mode sweep similar to that of the tubes in question, with no more than 3 modes present at any time. The red and blue modes denote the two orthogonal polarization axes of the tube called “p” and “s”.

  • The tubes in which these low level oscillations have been observed are all between around 9.0 and 10.5 inches (approximately 225 to 260 mm) in length with random polarization. These have at most 3 modes. It may be present in longer tubes with more modes but this has not been confirmed. Tubes with fewer than 3 modes are immune.
  • So far, only the Zygo 7701/2 and another unidentified Zygo tube, and the Siemens/LASOS LGR-7621s have unequivocally exhibited these oscillations. Tests with the Melles Griot 05-LHR-038 and 05-LHR-117, Spectra-Physics 088-2, and Siemens LGR-7631A resulted in no detectable oscillation even though these tubes are physically similar. When a tube exhibits oscillations, all samples of the same model will do so as well. At least until contradicted. 🙂
  • The oscillation will be present ONLY where 3 longitudinal modes are present – there are 2 blue modes on either side of a red mode, or 2 red modes on either side of a blue mode in the animation. Most of the time, it will appear instantly as soon as a third mode pokes its head above the noise. But in some instances, there will be a delay, and then appear instantly. (Not ramp up to any degree.)
  • The phase of the oscillation is opposite for p and s polarization and their amplitude is similar. Thus, unless only p or only s is selected with a linear polarizer, little or no oscillation may be detected. This means that the p modes are changing in amplitude 180 degrees out of phase with respect to the s modes. And this has been confirmed by observing the p and s oscillations simultaneously using a Polarizing Beam-Splitter (PBS) and two biased photodiodes, while also viewing the longitudinal modes on a Scanning Fabry-Perot Interferometer (SFPI). This would then seem to be some sort of mode competition between the p modes and s modes. (I’ve heard that this opposite phase may not be true with every sample of the same model where the oscillations occur but until I see it with my own eyes, I’ll continue to make the claim!)
  • The p-p amplitude of the oscillation is only on the order of 1 percent of the total output power of the tube. (See why I said you probably wouldn’t see this!) For a tube outputting 3.5 mW total with 2 to 2.5 mW peak in each polarization, this ends up being about 10 mV p-p from the photodiodes. Its amplitude varies somewhat, peaking near the center of the period in which the oscillation is present. The variation may be small or as much as 2:1 depending on the specific laser tube, but does NOT track the amplitude of either of the side modes. The signal appears almost instantly at a minimum of 1/2 its maximum.
  • The frequency of the oscillation is typically between 200 and 600 kHz and differs for each sample of the laser tube (even of the identical model) and possibly depending on whether a p or s mode is in the center (meaning the orientation is a factor). Thus, it is dependent on a physical characteristic of the tube. It also depends on the temperature of the tube to some degree. (No pun….) Here are some *very* rough estimates of the frequencies ranges for several tubes:

    Interestingly, both oscillation frequencies for the Zygo Unknown model tubes were similar, and in one case identical within the uncertainty of my measurements. This was also the only sample of those tubes that I had added “wedge” to the HR mirror since they lacked it for some reason. So possibly the slight back-reflections from the outer surface of the mirror substrate do have some minor effect.

    Additional frequencies at around 1.95 MHz were seen on some of these tubes but they were at much lower levels, and possibly NOT correlated with the presence of 3 longitudinal modes. Another mystery.

  • Except for where the oscillation nearly abruptly appears or disappears (which can have a huge change), the frequency increases or decreases more or less monotonically by up to 10s of percent during the period in which it is present. Whether it increases or decreases depends on if the p or s polarization is in the center, another indication of a physical dependence on tube construction. The monotonicity also indicates an asymmetry in the behaviour with respect to the gain curve or something related to it. Note that the LASOS 7621s and Zygo 7701/2s only varied by 15 to 30 kHz while some of the unknown Zygo tubes varied by almost 200 kHz.

Since the precise behaviour depends on whether the p and s polarization is in the center, and polarization axes are locked to tube orientation, the current hypothesis is that these result from (or are at least affected by) mirror birefringence. Mirror birefringence results from mirror coating processes that are not perfectly symmetric due a crystalline structure or whatever. The result in an effective depth of reflection – and thus cavity length – that depends on orientation, with a typical variation of a fraction of 1 nm.

1 nm of cavity length change at 633 nm for a tube with a cavity length of 9 inches (around 225 mm) represents a frequency change of approximately 2 MHz. So, the observed shifts being in the 100s of kHz would be consistent with p and s modes being shifted off of normal c/2L cavity resonances by a fraction of 1 nm, resulting in some sort or low level mode competition. Perhaps the LASOS and Zygo tubes differ in whether 1 or both mirrors have significant birefringence. But exactly how this all works beyond the above statments would be total hand waving, as if it isn’t already. 😉

Not all coating processes exhibit birefringence but it’s quite possible those used in most common He-Ne laser tubes do since they tend to have fixed polarization axes. And there can also be birefringence resulting from other asymmetries in the tube construction, though they may be smaller. Known exceptions with very low birefringence are REO (based on their own claims and that where fixed polarization axes are required as with most stabilized He-Ne lasers, REO tubes must be more complex to get around this “feature”) and HP/Agilent Zeeman He-Ne tubes (which have very peculiar mode sweep without their Zeeman magnets). Because REO and HP/Agilent tubes are so strange to begin with, it would not be possible to test them for this type of oscillation. Nor is there any easy way of determining if those tubes that don’t exhibit the oscillations have lower or no birefringence. But there must be some asymmetries because they all have fixed polarization orientation.

In coming to the conclusion of mirror birefringence or something related, the following have been ruled out:

  • Higher order longitudinal mode beating: While the primary longitudinal modes differ in frequency by close to cavity mode spacing of c/2L, they aren’t precisely c/2L due to mode pulling effects, which can result in them being off by frequencies in the 100s of kHz range. Then the second order beats – the beats of the beats – could have a difference frequency in this range. However, this would not explain the opposite phase or how a single mode could have the oscillation. And, it would not explain why the low level oscillation is absent from other similar tubes.
  • Transverse mode beating: Not only would it be extremely unlikely for all of these TEM00 tubes to have significant higher order transverse modes, but an explanation involving them would also not be able to account for the opposite phase behavior or the oscillation from a single longitudinal mode. LASOS tube ID #2 did have a non-TEM00 mode of about 2 percent of total power that appeared for a portion of the mode sweep cycle, but it’s occurrence did not coincide with the low level oscillation. LASOS tube ID #1 had a barely detectable non-TEM00 mode of about 0.05 percent, too small to be a factor. Any non-TEM00 modes in the other tubes were even smaller or non-existent.
  • Zeeman splitting: There are no magnets or magnetized material in the vicinity. Also, the amplitude of the oscillation is a maximum when a polarizer passes the entire center mode leaving no opportunity to combine two sub-modes in the PD. The mode itself could be split somehow into two sub-modes that cannot be resolved on the SFPI, but (1) there is no basic principle to support this, (2) it doesn’t explain how the side modes have the same frequency, and (3) that they are out of phase.
  • Plasma oscillations: While these may occur in the 100s of kHz range, they do not depend on mode position. And in addition, varying the power supply current has essentially no effect on the observed behaviour with respect to the low level oscillations.
  • Harmonics of the power supply ripple: Multiple power supplies have been tested with these tubes and there was absolutely no difference, as well as having no correlation to mode position.
  • Back-reflections: This is sort of grasping at optical straws, but to rule it out, I added wedge to the HR mirror on one Zygo tube that didn’t have it. This minimizes reflections from the uncoated outer surface of the mirror substrate from getting back into the cavity. As expected, there was no change.

While I believe the same phenomenon is responsible for these oscillations in LASOS and Zygo tubes, there are differences. Notably with the Zygo tubes, the frequency changes by almost 2:1 compared to only 20 kHz or so for the LASOS tubes. On one sample, ranging from around 200 kHz to 360 kHz. And compared to the LASOS tube where the two frequencies differed by almost 2:1 (around 280 and 500 kHz) they are similar enough for the Zygo tube that they may in fact be the same, but alternately increasing and decreasing depending on whether a p or s mode is in the center.

I’m sticking with mirror birefringence for now. It may be a feature, not a bug. 🙂 Specifically, that a higher birefringence coating on one or both mirrors is used to lock the polarization orientation, required to be able to use these tubes in stabilized He-Ne lasers, though I’m not sure LASOS and Zygo are that sophisticated!

The test to reproduce this phenomenon is relatively simple and doesn’t require fancy expensive instrumentation. The main components are a polarizer or polarizing beam-splitter, a biased silicon photodiode (almost any type will do using a circuit similar to what’s in a Thorlabs DET210 or DET10A (Google will find it), and an oscilloscope (almost any type since the frequencies involved are under 1 MHz). Terminate the output in 2k to 5k ohms and set the scope for a vertical sensitivity of a few mV/division, AC-coupled, and a sweep speed of a few µs/division. The tubes should be red (633 nm), random polarized, and healthy. (I have no idea what happens with other colour tubes!) They should be between 8 and 10 inches in overall length. Shorter tubes will have only 2 modes at most. Longer tubes with more modes may work, but that is left as an exercise for the student. 🙂 Since the signal is so low level – around 10mV even from a tube producing 3 or 4 mW, eliminating other sources of ripple and noise can be a challenge. Specifically, the current ripple from the He-Ne laser power supply may overwhelm and bury the low level oscillation signal. A highly filtered linear supply is best though some modern switchmode “bricks” have decently low ripple. And an external ripple reducer can be added to these. The photodiode will also need to be blocked from room light as the variation in intensity from lamp ballasts will be picked up. Power everything up and look for a clear oscillation in the 100s of kHz range that comes and goes, at a decreasing rate as the tube warms up. Rotate the tube over 45 degrees to align for maximum signal. If you have an SFPI, use a non-polarizing beam-splitter to sample a portion of the tube’s output for it to show how the oscillation correlates with the number of modes and their position. As noted above, only selected tubes exhibit this phenomenon and unfortunately, they are not the most commonly available ones. So your mileage – and success – may vary. 🙂

What is Mode Locking?

The normal output of a He-Ne or other CW laser is a more or less constant intensity beam. Although there may be long term variations in output power as well as short term optical noise and ripple from the power supply, these are small compared to the average intensity. Mode locking is a technique which converts this CW beam to a periodic series of very short pulses with a length anywhere from picoseconds to a fraction of a nanosecond. The separation of the pulses is equal to the time required for light to make one round trip around the laser cavity and the pulse repetition rate (PRF) will then be: c/(2*l). For example, a laser resonator with a distance of 30 cm (1 foot) between mirrors, would have a mode locked PRF of about 500 MHz.

Mode locking is implemented by mounting one of the mirrors of the laser cavity on a piezo-electric or magnetic driver controlled by a feedback loop which phase locks it with respect to the optically sensed output beam.

Without mode locking, all the modes oscillate independently of one another with random phases. However, with the mode locked laser, all the cavity modes are forced to be in phase at one point within the cavity. The constructive interference at this point produces a short duration, high power pulse. Destructive interference produces a power of almost zero at all other points within the cavity. The mode locked pulse then bounces between the two laser mirrors, and a portion passes through the output coupler on each pass.

As a practical matter, you probably won’t run into a mode locked He-Ne laser at a garage sale!

Cavity Dumped Pulsed He-Ne Laser

Here’s another one that won’t turn up at a swap meet. Inside the cavity of a typical He-Ne laser, the circulating power is 50 to 1,000 times the output power. If only all those photons could be accessed! Well, it turns out there is a way to do this sort of, at least in principle and for a short time. It’s called “cavity dumping”. The idea is use a high speed optical switch to briefly divert the Intra-Cavity (IC) beam outside the cavity. This sounds simple, right? 🙂 There are just a couple of problems. With the low gain of the typical He-Ne laser, any optics inside the cavity has to either be at the Brewster angle or have very good AR-coated surfaces so as not to significantly impact circulating power, or kill lasing entirely. And since any practical He-Ne laser is limited in size perhaps 2 meters at most, the switching has to take place in nanoseconds to get any significant fraction of the IC power to exit the laser.

The optical switch is the key to making this work. Either it has to actually deflect the beam or change its polarization so some other optical element will then reflect it out of the cavity. There are devices like Kerr cells and Pockels cells that could potentially be fast enough but they require high voltage to operate and may have excessive losses. Other approaches use an Acousto-Optic Modulator (AOM) as a deflector to divert the IC beam just enough to be reflected out of the cavity. However, AOMs don’t operate instantaneously since they depend on a high frequency acoustic wave to propagate in their crystal. Even a high performance AOM would require 10s or even 100s of nanoseconds to switch states.

I’m sure a literature search would turn up some mouldy papers describing the cavity dumping technique with a HeNe laser, but a “proof of concept” experiment was performed recently by Kevin Zheng, a very talented high school student, while at the Stony Brook Laser Teaching Center. See Kevin’s Research Journal and Poster. While the performance wasn’t that fabulous (forget any ideas of a hole burning HeNe laser!), just being able to get this work at all with relatively limited resources is impressive.

He-Ne Laser Output Power Fluctuation During Warmup

While not generally visible by eye alone except possibly for very short or tired (low gain) He-Ne lasers, there is a quasi-periodic variation of output power with time. For the typical He-Ne laser tube shortly after turn-on, the frequency is quite rapid (a cycle every few seconds) and gradually slows down as the tube temperature reaches a steady state value (after a half hour or more).

Note that while the frequency of the power variations in output power of a He-Ne laser goes to beyond the GHz range, the following deals with what can be seen by human eyeballs with the aid of only a photodiode and multimeter or chart recorder (or a PC with a data aquisition module).

Here is a plot of the measured output power of mid-size (probably around 5 mW) He-Ne laser tube from power-on to 20 minutes:

Typical He-Ne Laser Output Power Versus Time During Warmup
Typical He-Ne Laser Output Power Versus Time During Warmup

(Plot courtesy of Ryan Haanappel). (Though typically, the output power starts out at a much higher value, often above 75 percent of its value after full warmup. But there are exceptions.) Many more plots can be found later in this section.

Examining the actual plot of output power versus time such as shown below:

He-Ne Laser Output Power Fluctuation During Warmup
He-Ne Laser Output Power Fluctuation During Warmup

(or careful observation of laser power meter readings) of a He-Ne laser reveals that the curve is not simple but may include several types of behaviour:

  • Long term trend in output power: With a laser that is in good condition, this is a generally increasing function until it levels off after warmup. The dominant effect is that as the laser tube heats, various parts expand and the laser approaches optimal alignment (which should have been the way it was originally adjusted during manufacture). If the mirror alignment is not quite correct, power may go up and then down, or just down, and/or may never reach rated power. If the cause is alignment, gently pressing side-ways on one of the mirror mounts at the correct angle with the correct force (with an insulated tool!) should result in near maximum power even when just powered on.There is also usually an increase of power due to the heating of the laser tube (independent of thermal expansion effects) as well. But this may be only a fraction of the effects of alignment and is related to the increase in internal temperature and pressure.In addition, especially with soft-seal tubes, there may be a power increase as the cathode, acting as a weak getter, removes contaminants from circulation that may have accumulated from a period of non-use. Or depending on how far gone they are, the power may go down as various parts outgas from the heat!Depending on the particular laser, the initial output power can be very low even where the final output power exceeds rated power. Striking examples can be found in a non-negligible percentage of long JDS Uniphase He-Ne lasers like the 1145P. With these, a cold power of 1 or 2 mW for a laser that reaches 24+ mW after 20 minutes isn’t unheard of. The dominant cause is a change in mirror alignment.
  • Short term variations in output power: As the laser tube heats and expands, the longitudinal modes of the laser drift across the 1.5 GHz neon gain curve. The output power varies depending on where they are and may change suddenly as a mode drops off one end or appears at the other. For a 6 inch tube (c/2L=0.5 GHz), there are 1 or 2 active modes; for a 24 inch tube (c/2L=125 MHz), there may be 8 or 10 active modes. The short tube will usually have much more dramatic variations in power due to this mode cycling. Specifications range from 20 percent (for 5 inch tubes) to less than 2 percent for long ones. For a short random polarized tube, the polarized modes may vary by 100 percent. Note that the variations may not be of a single frequency but often exhibit the double-dip behaviour shown in the plot, above. This is probably due to the number of modes oscillating and how they are centered on the gain curve. There may also be a slight difference on alternate cycles due to the polarizations of adjacent modes seeing slightly different gain.These effects are collectively called “mode sweep” or “mode cycling”. Plotting and analyzing this behaviour for various tubes under a variety of conditions can be quite fascinating. More in the next section.
  • Medium term variations in output power: (These are generally less common with lasers that are properly designed and manufactured.) There are two common types of medium term effects:
    1. IR Mode competition: This is generally only a problem with higher power lasers. It is usually at the high gain 3.39 um mid-IR He-Ne lasing wavelength and may result in an additional variation in output power. While longer tubes generally are designed with mirror coatings highly transparent at the 3.39 um wavelength and/or with IR suppression magnets, their effect isn’t always perfect. These power variations will be at a frequency 0.633/3.39 (for 633 nm, red He-Ne lasers) of the fundamental frequency of the primary mode cycling, above. The effect will be negligible for red He-Ne lasers of less than 15 or 20 mW but may appear in relatively short “other colour” (e.g., yellow) He-Ne lasers due to the low gain of the lasing wavelength. A simple test is to carefully place a few reasonably powerful magnets at several locations near the tube. If the problem is mode competition, the amplitude of the variations should be reduced and output power at the design wavelength may increase by 10 or 20 percent or more. Modern He-Ne lasers rarely suffer from IR mode competition.
    2. Non-wedged mirror substrates: Another source for power variations on a similar time scale is a lack of wedge in the HR and/or OC mirror glass substrates. Wedge means that the two surfaces are ground at a slight angle. Without wedge, the mirror coating and the uncoated outer surface (HR) or AR-coated outer surface (OC) form an etalon whose transmission varies as the glass expands during warmup due to constructive and destructive interference within the mirror glass. The result is that the power of the waste beam from the HR mirror may vary periodically by an amount much larger than that of the mode sweep specification, and it doesn’t track the power of the main beam as would be expected. Lack of wedge for the HR mirror is particularly nasty since the approximately 4 percent Fresnel reflection from the outer suface is enough to vary the transmission through the HR – and thus the waste beam power – by a ratio of up to 2.25:1. Waste beam power variation due to lack of wedge for the OC mirror is less severe since the AR coating results in less reflection but still may be 10 percent or more. While most applications don’t care what the waste beam does, there may also be ripples in the main beam of 1 or 2 percent. These will be superimposed on all the other power variations described above. For an enclosed cylindrical laser head, there may be up to 10 or more of these power variation cycles while a bare tube will go through fewer cycles because its temperature increase is not as great. These small power variations may be considered normal behaviour for short tubes where it is much less than those due to mode sweep, and no one (at least almost no one!) cares what the waste beam does. Mass produced barcode scanner tubes – built for low cost, not highest performance – are most likely to have this problem but many of them not too bad. Higher quality tubes will have both made with wedged substrates. Plots of power output during warmup for a few typical cases are also shown below.

Goofups in design and manufacturing can result in various combinations of these and other effects, though for the most part, He-Ne laser companies generally know what they are doing! 🙂 But see the plots below for both normal and abnormal behaviour, and a link near the end of the section for a case study of one dramatic example of an “oops”. 🙂

Plots of HeNe Laser Power Output and Polarized Modes During Warmup

Here are some plots of power output versus time for a variety of typical He-Ne laser tubes and heads from nearly the shortest available through mid-size. (For longer tubes, the appearance will be very similar, but with even a smaller short term fluctuation in power.) The shape of the plots is mostly the result of what’s called “mode sweep” or “mode cycling” as the longitudinal modes of the laser move with respect to the neon gain curve due to thermal expansion of the laser cavity. However, where the plot covers a long time (e.g., most of the warmup period), there will generally be an increasing trend in output power due to other factors as noted above.

Most of these are from Melles Griot but the behaviour of lasers from other manufacturers will be relatively similar, though the detailed shape of the individual polarized modes (more below) can differ significantly. The majority are healthy samples but a few show some rather dramatic peculiarities. There are also plots of a Coherent model 200 and Hewlett Packard model 5517A frequency stabilized He-Ne lasers from power-on to locking.

Plots such as these are almost like fingerprints for He-Ne lasers. Many of the physical characteristics of the laser can be determined by their appearance, and some features are unique to a particular model or manufacturer.

For most of the plots, my “instrumentation” consisted of a pair of $2 photodiode feeding two of the analog inputs of a DATAQ RS232 Chart Recorder Starter Kit attached to my ancient 486DX-75 Kiwi laptop running Win95. The photodiodes are reverse biased by 30VDC from a +/-15VDC power supply with a variable load resistor to set the calibration. The output is taken between the junction of the resistor and the photodiode, and power supply common (0 VDC). One channel is shown below:

The values shown were selected for lasers with a maximum power output of around 1 mW. For higher power lasers, R2+R3 can be decreased or an attenuation filter can be placed in the beam. The later is preferred to avoid shifting the 0 mW reference level, and is what I did for most of the plots.

The capacitor across the input is intended to minimize noise pickup. The resulting filter rolls off at around 0.1 Hz. For reasonably well behaved He-Ne lasers, even during the initial warmup period, this bandwidth is more than adequate. The sampling rate for all the plots is at least 10 Hz to allow for averaging since the A/D seems to have an uncertainty of about 2 LSBs.

In most cases, the two photodiodes are positioned at the outputs of a Polarizing Beam-Splitter (PBS) cube and the laser tube is oriented so that they are aligned with its natural polarization axes.

For monitoring power from the waste beam (which is much lower), a dedicated beam sampler assembly was constructed, which along with a photodiode preamp, enabled power levels as low as a few uW to fully utilize the 20 V p-p range of the A/D.

Some of the plots have been acquired with the same photodiodes, but feeding a dual channel preamp and also a summer tp compute the total power without requiring a separate photodiode channel. (Of course, for this to be meaningful, the photodiodes and premaps have to be set up so the two channels have equal gain.) The premap results in lower noise in the plots especially for low power lasers.

And as of 2011, I’ve “upgraded” to USB versions of the DATAQ device (DI-158U and DI-145) and laptops that are only 10 years old. 🙂 The original DATAQ RS232 module died and the Kiwi laptop doesn’t have USB and is falling apart (though is still usable). The PDs are now each attached to a general purpose trans-impedance amp rather than the simple bias network. [See the section: Sam’s Photodiode Preamp 1 (SG-PP1).] And in addition to channels 1 and 2, the outputs also feed a pair of resistors and a pot to adjust balance to channel 3 so their sum (which would usually be total power) is always present.

Although some of these plots aren’t as nicely annotated as the one above, zero power is near the bottom of the plot so relative power variations can still be easily seen (who cares about absolute power anyhow!) and the time/division is indicated. The plots are arranged by increasing laser tube length.

For the following, “Total” means all the power in the beam; “Polarized” means a polarizing beam-splitter is used to separate the two orthogonally polarized modes with either one or both plotted. (This is Only done for random polarized lasers.) The scale factor for the “polarized” plot has been adjusted so that the peak amplitude is approximately the same as for the “total” plot for ease of viewing. However, it should be understood, that the sum of the power in the two orthogonal polarizations must add up to the total power. All are red (632.8 nm) HeNe lasers unless otherwise noted.

Note: I have “edited” (doctored?) some of the plots to clean up unsightly randomness and other blemishes, mostly due excessive electrical noise at low optical power levels. However, the important features are unchanged.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-007 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup.
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-007 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup

    This is the shortest commercial HeNe laser I know of with a total length of about 4-5/8 inches. The rated output power is 0.5 mW but this sample produces about 0.8 mW. Only 2 longitudinal modes will be oscillating with a mode sweep of about 10 percent. The large peaks correspond to a single mode being at the center of the gain curve. If the distance between the mirrors were much shorter, it wouldn’t be possible for even 2 modes to coexist and the output would turn off for a portion of the mode cycle. Note that the actual tube tested was a Siemens 007 but it has identical specs to the Melles Griot 05-LHR-007 so I figured it’s better to be consistent. 🙂 It was necessary to construct a tent over this (and other) bare tubes to even get this far without random air currents affecting the temperature too much. (The peaks beyond 20 minutes where this and the next run terminated were unrecognizable!) An enclosed laser head would take much longer to stabilize but be more tolerant of ambient conditions.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-007 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-007 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)

    This is the same tube but with a non-polarizing beamsplitter followed by orthogonal polarizing filters inserted in the beam. The orientation of the polarizing filters is adjusted for minimum transmission when its mode is not present since as can be seen, the power actually goes to 0 mW for about half the period of each polarized mode. Alternate similar height peaks on the total power plot correspond to the same mode polarization. A careful examination will confirm that they actually alternate very slightly in amplitude due to minor variations in gain as a function of polarization. (I have adjusted the scale factors to make the plot looks similar.) The reason why the peak spacing on the two plots differs is that the tube was likely not quite at the same temperature when each run was started.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup

    The 05-LHR-640 is very nearly second shortest commercial HeNe laser tube as shown below

    Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube
    Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube

    It is only about 5 inches in total length and as with the 05-LHR-007, only 2 longitudinal modes are oscillating. The rated output power is 0.5 mW but this sample produces about 1.2 mW. As can be seen in this plot, the “mode sweep percentage” is still rather modest – about 5 to 7 percent. The specification for this tube allows for up to 20 percent. This bare He-Ne laser tube has nearly fully stabilized in under 20 minutes.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)

    . This is the same tube with the polarized modes separately plotted. Similar comments apply for this tube as for the 05-LHR-007, above.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)

    Above shows the two polarized modes and total power in a laser with a cavity length of about 7 inches. This is just about at the point where 3 modes can barely lase simultaneously when one is centered on the neon gain curve.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-640 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Polarized)

    This uses a slightly longer tube – almost 8 inches – which probably supports three simultaneous lasing modes. The rated output power is 1.5 mW but this sample produces about 2.0 mW. Since the 05-LHP-131 is a polarized laser, the polarization of all modes in the output beam is the same. As the length of the laser tube increases, the amplitude of the short term power variations will tend to decrease – for this laser head, it is under 2 percent. This is actually quite good – well below the 10 percent in the specifications. Being an enclosed laser head, even after 30 minutes, the power hasn’t fully stabilized.

  • Plot of Spectra-Physics 088 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup
    Plot of Spectra-Physics 088 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup

    This is a slightly longer random polarized tube, about 8.5 inches between mirrors. In addition to having been used by the hundreds of thousands in barcode scanners peaking during the 1980s, tube like this was used in the Spectra-Physics 117 and SP-117A (and similar Melles Griot 05-STP-901) stabilized HeNe laser. Note the well behaved mode sweep with smoothly varying polarization components and no flipping. A closeup is shown below

    Plot of Spectra-Physics 088 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Detail)
    Plot of Spectra-Physics 088 He-Ne Laser Tube During Warmup (Detail)
  • Plot of Siemens LGR-7641 He-Ne Laser Tube With Variable Waste Beam Power During Warmup (Uncorrected)
    Plot of Siemens LGR-7641 He-Ne Laser Tube With Variable Waste Beam Power During Warmup (Uncorrected)

    While nearly identical in length to the SP-088, note the dramatic difference in the shape of the mode waveforms. Each is nearly a perfect triangle wave like the Melles Griot 05-LHR-911, above. This is especially evident near the end of the warmup period but it is very similar throughout. This shape seems to be characteristic of all these Siemens tubes as I’ve tested several with essentially the same mode waveforms. The mode shape of the Uniphase 098, another barcode scanner tube, is identical. The resonator length of the 088 and 098 is virtually identical, while that of the LGR-7641 is about 1/8″ longer. The cause is unknown but based on this, it doesn’t seem to be related to the size. A wild guess would be that it has something to do with the isotopic purity (or lack thereof) or ratio of the gas-fill resulting in a wider neon gain curve curve so that as with the 05-LHR-911, 3 longitudinal modes can just barely lase simultaneously when one is centered.However, the dramatic variation in mode amplitude over the course of warmup is an artefact of the way that data is being collected for this run and a peculiarity of the tube that doesn’t noticeably affect its useful output. Rather than using the output beam, the P and S Modes are taken from the waste beam leaking through the HR mirror at the back of the laser. The Total Power (Waste) is then simply the sum (in an op-amp) of the modes. Compare this to the Total Power (Output) curve, which was measured from the main beam. The cause of the rear beam power variation is interference from multiple internal reflections in the HR mirror glass – between the HR coated inner surface and the uncoated outer surface. The result is a weak Fabry-Perot etalon which varies the effective reflectance of the HR mirror. It doesn’t take much: A change from 99.975% to 99.95% would double the waste beam power – from about 15 uW to 30 uW. The 15 uW lost from the main beam power of about 1 mW is almost undetectable on the plot. The HR mirror glass is apparently not wedged on these tubes so the surfaces are very parallel. And indeed there was no ghost beam next to the waste beam as would be the case if wedge was present. The cause was confirmed by putting a dab of 5 minute Epoxy on the outer surface of the mirror. The Epoxy is smooth and clear enough to pass sufficient power for the photodiodes (though it is reduced), but the Epoxy surface is lumpy enough to greatly reduce the power variation. Why? The glass and Epoxy are fairly closely index matched so that the dominant reflection is no longer from the planar glass surface but from the lumpy surface of the Epoxy. There is minimal reflection directly back along the optical axis and thus minimal etalon effect resulting in a reduction of power variation from nearly 100 percent to under 10 percent. Using Norland 65 UV cure optical cement to glue an angled plate to the HR mirror reduced the ripples even more as shown below.

    Plot of Siemens LGR-7641 He-Ne Laser Tube With Variable Waste Beam Power During Warmup (Uncorrected)
    Plot of Siemens LGR-7641 He-Ne Laser Tube With Variable Waste Beam Power During Warmup (Uncorrected)

    .

  • Plot of Uniphase 098 He-Ne Laser Tube With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Bare, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Uniphase 098 He-Ne Laser Tube With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Bare, Uncorrected)

    is another similar (basically interchangeable) barcode scanner tube with the same malady as the LGK-7641: No HR wedge and large variation in waste beam power due to etalon effects. Insulating the same tube by installing it in a head cylinder allows for several cycles of the waste beam variation as shown below:

    Plot of Uniphase 098 He-Ne Laser Tube With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Uniphase 098 He-Ne Laser Tube With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    A close examination of the Total Power (Measured) shows small dips representing the power being stolen by the waste beam from main beam! The measured output power is about 1 mW. The amplitude of the waste beam power variation for this tube is from around 5 uW to 10 uW.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube #1 With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube #1 With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    and

    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube #2 With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube #2 With Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    are examples of common short (6 inch) Melles Griot barcode scanner tubes with varying degrees of the same problem. #1 has nearly the theoretical maximum waste beam power variation ratio of 2.25:1.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube With Minimal Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube With Minimal Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    shows the behaviour of another virtually identical short (6 inch) tube with a small amount of wedge. But it’s enough to virtually eliminate power fluctuations in the waste beam. The residual ripples may actually be due to lack of wedge in the OC mirror and adding an angled plate to the OC mirror with optical cement actually made the ripples larger as shown below

    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube With Moderate Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup Due to Messed Up OC AR Coating (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-006 He-Ne Laser Tube With Moderate Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup Due to Messed Up OC AR Coating (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    . This is somewhat as expected since it’s not possible to index match to an AR-coated surface without removing the AR coating. So, the reflections there would increase.

  • Plot of Uniphase 1007 He-Ne Laser Tube With Minimal Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Uniphase 1007 He-Ne Laser Tube With Minimal Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    has even less. But another Uniphase tube had among the worst case as shown in

    Plot of Uniphase 1007 He-Ne Laser Tube With Large Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)
    Plot of Uniphase 1007 He-Ne Laser Tube With Large Waste Beam Power Variation During Warmup (Insulated, Uncorrected)

    These were identical model numbers used in the identical barcode scanners.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    This is a very common medium size HeNe laser with a tube about 13 inches in length so 4 or 5 modes are oscillating. The rated output power is 5 mW but this sample produces about 7.5 mW. The power fluctuations are virtually undetectable on these plots – well under 1 percent.

  • Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LHR-151 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)

    This is the same laser head but with the two orthogonal polarizitions separated (as described for the shorter tubes, above) and oriented for maximum variation (“ripple”). They are plotted separately to reduce clutter. Since there are always modes of both polarization present regardless of polarizer orientation, the output power in doesn’t go to zero as with the shorter laser but their ripple is almost perfectly complementary. As expected, the size of the fluctuations in each polarization – 5 to 10 percent – is more in line with the total power behavior of a laser with only 2 or 3 modes. Even this amplitude seems remarkable given the almost perfectly smooth behavior of the total (randomly polarized) power. If the plots are examined very carefully, it will be noted that their envelopes are not identical – there is a very subtle slow variation over the course of the warmup period. This may be attributed to a small rotation of the polarization axes as the tube expands. With some samples of these lasers, it can be much more dramatic including polarization flips whenever it feels like it. But such behavior is still considered normal since for a random polarized laser, only the total power really matters, not any peculiar gyrations the modes may go through.

  • Plot of Normal Melles Griot 05-LYR-173 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of Normal Melles Griot 05-LYR-173 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    This is a typical yellow (594.1 nm) HeNe medium-long HeNe laser. The rated output power is 2.0 mW but this sample produces about 4.1 mW. Due to the low gain of the yellow lasing line, the amplitude of the power fluctuations is somewhat greater than for even the slightly shorter 05-LHR-151 red laser, above.

    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LYR-173 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Melles Griot 05-LYR-173 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)

    The same laser with a polarizing filter in the beam. The fluctuations are larger as expected both because of the fewer modes in the polarized beam, and the lower gain of the 594.1 nm lasing line.

  • Not all lasers are manufactured properly. For example, one sample of a laser similar to the 05-LYR-171 exhibits a slow large amplitude oscillation in power. Compare:
    Plot of Variable Melles Griot 05-LYR-171 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of Variable Melles Griot 05-LYR-171 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    and

    Plot of Variable Melles Griot 05-LYR-171 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)
    Plot of Variable Melles Griot 05-LYR-171 He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup (Polarized)

    with the plots above. The plots in blue are for the normal output beam from the front (OC) of the laser. The plots in red are for the excessively large waste beam from the rear (HR) of the laser – a clue to the part of the cause of the power oscillations. That has to be one spectacular screwup. I wonder how many laser heads were built that way. 🙂

  • Plot of Coherent Model 200 Stabilized He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of Coherent Model 200 Stabilized He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    . Finally, here is how a laser with active mode stabilization behaves. This laser is designed to provide a single longitudinal mode output with a frequency stability on the order of 1 MHz. Since the laser head has optics to separate the modes with orthogonal polarization, the raw beam already varies by more than 2:1 in output power without any additional polarizer. Yes, that is the actual spread – the vertical scale hasn’t been stretched! The actual HeNe laser tube inside is a specially selected Melles Griot 05-LHR-120, which by itself would have a normal mode sweep with a small ripple. From a cold start to lock takes about 20 minutes.

    Plot of Coherent Model 200 Stabilized He-Ne Laser Head Near End of Warmup
    Plot of Coherent Model 200 Stabilized He-Ne Laser Head Near End of Warmup

    This plot zooms in on the last two cycles. Notice that there is a slight distortion on the rising part of the second cycle in the plot. That is probably when the active feedback is switched on. Before then, the heater is simply running at a constant current to bring the tube up to operating temperature. It only takes less than one full additional cycle to achieve lock. The amplitude is then quite stable (uncertainty of less than 0.5 percent on the plot), but the frequency stability which is d(power)*slope(frequency/power), will be under 0.125 percent of the mode spacing of around 750 MHz, so less than 1 MHz.

  • Plot of Hewlett Packard Model 5517C Stabilized Laser During Warmup
    Plot of Hewlett Packard Model 5517C Stabilized Laser During Warm up

    Above shows how another even more highly stabilized (or at least more expensive!) laser behaves. Note that the entire warm up period from laser on to locked is only around 3.5 minutes because the heater for the active mode control is inside the laser tube, wrapped directly around the bore. The control algorithm during warm up is also a bit more sophisticated, pausing periodically to determine the “mirror spacing rod” temperature by measuring the heater resistance, and entering a “fine adjust” mode about half way through. In fact, from the relative shapes of the red and blue mode cycles, it can be seen that for this particular laser, during most of the time from power on (a cold start) to lock, the tube is heating (about 75 cycles), but it switches to steady cooling (about 6 cycles) just before locking.

  • Plot of Hewlett Packard Model 5517C Stabilized Laser Near End of Warmup
    Plot of Hewlett Packard Model 5517C Stabilized Laser Near End of Warm up

    Above shows the 5 mode cycles just before locking and the final transition to the locked state. The peculiar shape of these Zeeman-split modes is clearly evident in this expanded view.The actual beat frequency is shown for the last few cycles and after locking in both these plots. This is the actual measured frequency captured along with the F1 and F2 modes, and total output power. (Showing the frequency plot earlier would be a mess.) The beat only appears for a small percentage of the mode cycles with some variation during the time it is present. The warm up and locking algorithm is partially responsible for the distorted nature of these plots compared to those for “normal” unstabilized He-Ne lasers or even other common stabilized He-Ne lasers due to the periodic pauses and switching from heating to cooling that may occur. However, the peculiar shape of the mode cycles themselves is due to the fact that these are not linearly polarized modes as with all the previous lasers. Rather, they are Zeeman-split modes distorted by a magnetic field and include (mostly) components differing in frequency by at most a few MHz, rather than the normal longitudinal mode spacing, which is 1.2 GHz for this laser.

  • Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    This is a very naughty laser. 🙁 🙂 As can be seen, for most of the mode cycles during the warm up period, rather than the two orthogonal polarizations (called P and S) changing smoothly as they cycle, each one moves to a distinct point and then instantaneously swaps places with the other one. Tubes with flipper behaviour will generally not be useful for a stabilized He-Ne laser but may be perfectly satisfactory when simply used as a light source without polarizing optics.However, near the very end of the warm up period (measured in terms of mode cycles, not time) something very interesting occurs: The tube seems to have reverted to being well behaved! This only happens when the tube is approaching thermal equilibrium where each complete mode cycle is taking over 90 seconds. There are perhaps 3 or 4 beyond what is on the plot but the tube temperature is so close to its final value that any disturbance like moving near the laser head will disrupt the sequence. This behaviour is consistent from run to run. The cause is unknown, nor is it known whether the tube would continue to behave if stabilization was attempted. But it might since the operating temperature will be somewhat above the natural point of thermal equilibrium.

    Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup

    Above is a close up of the mode variations when flipping. The shapes are nearly identical from the start of warm up until the transition to normal behaviour. Also note that the frequency of the mode cycles for a flipper is double that of a normal tube – each mode would normally be what resulted from tracing the continuous curve and not taking the discontinuities as is evident below:

    Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup (Combined)
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During First Part of Warmup (Combined)

    So following red-blue-red, etc., ignoring the green lines.

    Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head at Transition to Normal Behaviour (Combined)
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head at Transition to Normal Behaviour (Combined)

    Above is a closeup of the point where flipping ceases. Note that the “envelope” of the mode plot is virtually unchanged at this point but the green transitions have disappeared. At the transition point, the period of a full mode sweep cycle is about 80 seconds. There are then an additional 10 full cycles (only 4 or 5 are shown) requiring about an hour until thermal equilibrium.

  • Plot of "Flipper" Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup
    Plot of “Flipper” Aerotech OEM1R He-Ne Laser Head During Warmup

    Above is an example of consistent flipper behavior. The character of the plot does not change from power-on to full warmup. There is a consistent flip at the same point in the mode sweep cycle. Interestingly, there is a slight asymmetry in the mode sweep envelope, unusual for most HeNe lasers. Whether this has any profound cosmic significance is unknown. 😉 These tubes were found in some barcode scanners due to their physical robustness – They could fall on the floor – or probably be used as hammers – without sustaining any damage! See the section: Metrologic Steel-Ceramic Hard-Seal He-Ne Laser Tubes.

These have all been high quality HeNe lasers and except as noted, have relatively predictable mode performance. For information and plots for a really ill-mannered beast, see the section: Far East HeNe Laser Tubes.

Mode Competition in Short He-Ne Lasers

If you haven’t been wondering why some of the output power plots are so strange, you should be. 🙂

The primary reason that the output power in any give longitudinal mode doesn’t vary in a nice smooth (Gaussian) manner is due to mode competition. If not for mode competition, the gain would not saturate and be the same for all modes. Everyone would thus trace out the envelope of the neon gain curve. However, since the lasing modes are actually competing for a limited resource – the atoms in the upper lasing state – whenever there are more than one mode present, they have to be nice and share. This is most dramatic when only 2 or 3 modes are present since each one has a large fraction of the total output power. With those, the shapes of the envelopes of the polarized output power curves can be decidedly non-Gaussian. And for Zeeman-split lasers, downright weird. But once the various regions are understood – where there are 1, 2, 3, or more modes competing – then the resulting shapes make more sense:

1 mode: The output power will change smoothly during mode sweep roughly following the profile of the Gaussian neon gain curve (minus the lasing threshold). The only way a real laser could be single mode throughout mode sweep would be either for the cavity to be around 10 cm or less (in which case lasing may cease entirely for a part of mode sweep) or for there to be an additional means of forcing SLM operation (such as an etalon inside the cavity). But slightly longer tubes will operate with a Single mode over a portion of mode sweep with 2 modes for the remainder.

Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 1 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube shows the appearance for a Melles Griot 05-LHR-007, the shortest modern laser tube I’m aware of. Over approximately 50 percent of the mode sweep cycle, it is pure single mode with power sharing during the remainder.

2 modes: When a second mode appears, it will start eating into the power of the first mode. Where the modes are balanced on either side of the neon gain curve, their power will be equal. Between these 2 points, they will share power. The total output power may remain relatively constant or increase slightly when equal (usually up to around 20 percent). Tubes with a cavity length of 12 to 16 cm will operate with 1 or 2 modes.

3 modes: When a third mode appears, it will start eating into the power of the other two. The relative and total power will depend on their location on the neon gain curve and is at the very least, not intuitively predictable. 🙂 Tubes with a cavity length of 20 to 25 cm will operate with 2 or 3 modes during mode sweep.

Plot of Mode Sweep of Typical 3 mW Random Polarized He-Ne Laser Tube shows the appearance for a Spectra-Physics 088 (same as the Melles Griot 05-LHR-088) used in the SP-117/A/B/C and Melles Griot 05-STP-901 stabilized lasers. It is similar a common barcode scanner tube. At the peaks of the polarized modes (minimum for total power), there are 2 modes. Where the polarized modes cross, there are 3 modes. The overall shape of the mode sweep depends on many factors including the exact length of the cavity which determines where it switches from 2 to 3 modes.

4 or more modes: The same general rules apply, but since the contribution of each mode is smaller, the effects of mode competition are also smaller and more difficult to see and interpret.

Inhomogeneous Broadening in Neon and Mode Sweep

The shape of the neon gain curve is by now familiar, but what does it really mean? The popular notion of it being the result of some magical process is fine as a first step, but doesn’t help in attempting to understand how it is affected by wavelength, or for explaining phenomena like the Lamb Dip.

What is really being depicted in the gain curve is a combination of a curve derived from what’s called the “natural line width of neon” which is homogeneously broadened, and the distribution of atomic velocities of excited neon atoms as they translate into a distribution of Doppler shifts in optical frequency.

Ignoring Special Relativity (which is acceptable for the velocities involved), the Doppler shift in optical frequency is equal to the relative velocity of the excited atom divided by the speed of light multiplied by the optical frequency or:

Where:

  • Δf is the optical frequency shift.
  • f0 is the original optical frequency.
  • va is the velocity of an atom in the upper lasing energy state relative to a photon traveling along the axis of the laser tube.
  • c is the speed of light.

At any temperature above absolute zero, all atoms are in motion and have a probabilistic distribution of velocities (speed and direction), which all contribute to the Doppler broadening. For a Fabry-Perot (linear) cavity, the photons traveling in either direction “experience” the relative speed of the excited atoms. Stimulated emission will only occur when the Doppler-shifted energy of the photon matches a possible lasing transition of an excited atom. The width of the Doppler broadening is directly proportional to optical frequency, but it is also affected by other factors including temperature and pressure, since these impact the distribution of atomic velocities. The shape of the Doppler broadening curve is then the result of the aggregate of the motion of all the atoms available for stimulated emission. And the width of the inhomogeneously broadened neon gain curve is the width due to homogeneous line-width of neon plus the inhomogeneous Doppler broadening. Since they are added like independent noise souces using the square-root of the sum of the squares, the increase in neon gain bandwidth due to the homogeneous line-width is quite small (just over 5 percent even at 3,391 nm). Thus, the change is close to 1/5th even if the homogeneous part is ignored.

Assuming the FWHM value of 1.6 GHz for the entire inhomogeneously Doppler-broadened gain bandwidth of the common red wavelength of 632.8 nm, at the mid-IR wavelength of 3,391 nm it is only 315 MHz. And at the green wavelength of 543.5 nm it is about 1.86 GHz. The optical frequency difference between cavity modes (c/2L) is only dependent on cavity length and the speed of light. Thus, the number of lasing modes possible for a given cavity length decreases as the gain bandwidth becomes narrower at longer wavelengths.

Note that the lasing modes themselves will have a very narrow bandwidth – possibly as small as 5 kHz or even lower for a laser operating with a single mode. At that point, physical vibrations, laser power supply noise, and other external effects are the limiting factors, not the theoretical minimum bandwidth for the HeNe laser which is under 1 Hz! (Schawlow-Townes linewidth). I originally thought that finding values for the bandwidth of commercial HeNe lasers would be straightforward, but it seems to be near impossible. The only specifications I am aware of from a laser manufacturer are in Laboratory for Science brochures. The best is for their model 220 Ultra Stable HeNe laser, which lists 5 kHz over a period of 1 second. But the value for the type of HeNe laser tube that used to be found in barcode scanners may not be all that much greater if it is mounted to minimize vibrations and driven with a well filtered HeNe laser power supply.

One would expect that with the much smaller gain bandwidth at 3,391 nm of 315 MHz, there would be fewer longitudinal modes oscillating compared to 632.8 nm. Or equivalently, a laser tube would need to be much longer for the same number of modes to fit within the FWHM of 315 MHz. But because of the very high gain at 3,391 nm, the lasing threshold will be lower and thus the effective gain bandwidth of the neon gain curve is going to be wider. I do not know by how much, but with a potential gain over 40 times that of the 632.8 nm transition, it could be very significant. There might even be more modes than at 632.8nm.

Due to the longer wavelength, mode sweep for a laser tube at 3,391nm will have a complete cycle that is over 5 times as long as one at 632.8nm. These same numbers would apply to mode competition at 3,391 nm interfering and stealing power from a 632.8nm laser.

Number of Longitudinal Modes at Other He-Ne Wavelengths

As described above, the gain bandwidth of neon is roughly inversely proportional to the wavelength (or proportion to the frequency) of the lasing transition. However, this assumes that the lasing threshold is at the same location relative to the peak of the neon gain curve, often specified as the Full Width Half Maximum or FWHM. At 632.8nm, this turns out (not coincidentally!) to be reasonable and results in the expected number of lasing modes and mode sweep plots to go along with them.

For very low gain wavelengths like green (543.5nm) and yellow (594.1nm) – which may have 1/10th the gain or less compared to the common red (632.8nm) wavelength, the lasing threshold will be far higher on the roughly Gaussian shaped gain curve, where it is narrower. So, while the FWHM of the neon gain curve may be slightly wider at these wavelengths, fewer modes will be oscillating because of the narrowing due to the higher lasing threshold. However, until the lasing threshold approaches the peak of the gain curve, the reduction in number of modes won’t be that dramatic. And every effort is made to eliminate losses inside the cavity for these low gain lasers, so in fact, the lasing threshold may not even get that high relative to the peak during the expected life of the laser.

For very high gain wavelengths, the reverse will happen. There’s really only one – the mid-IR transition at 3,391nm which behaves more like a solid state laser with a gain over 40 times that of 632.8nm. The lasing threshold will be much lower on the gain curve extending the useful region well out into the tails of the distribution. In this situation, many more modes could end up oscillating than would be accounted for by the much narrower FWHM of the neon gain curve of 315MHz – roughly 1/5th the width compared to 632.8nm. If calculations based solely on this small gain bandwidth were valid, a 75cm 3,391nm laser would have a similar number of longitudinal modes to a 14 cm 632.8nm He-Ne where there are only 1 or 2 active modes at any given time. Since 3,391nm lasers much shorter than 75 cm are commercially available and don’t have dramatic variations in output power with mode sweep, this must not be the case. For example, REO has one with a cavity length of less than 50cm and maximum power variation of 5 percent, which implies that there are several longitudinal modes always present.

Here are results so far:

  • 543.5 nm (green): TBD.
  • 594.1 nm (yellow): TBD.
  • 604.6 nm (orange): TBD.
  • 611.9 nm (orange): TBD.
  • 632.8 nm (red): See other info below and in the sections starting with Inexpensive Home-Built Frequency or Intensity Stabilized HeNe Laser.
  • 1,152 nm (near-IR): TBD. Other than my rebuilt SP-119 laser head, a sample of one of these may be difficult to find. The only thing that can be said about the IR SP-119 is that it is short enough that lasing ceases entirely for a portion of the mode sweep.
  • 1,523 nm (near-IR): Initial testing of a Melles Griot 05-LIR-150 with a cavity length of 34.2 cm and a strategically placed magnet seem to show that its behavior is similar to that of a 632.8 nm laser with a cavity length of 20 or 25 cm. But, the amplitude of the two polarizations are not equal implying that it is probably operating at least in part as a transverse Zeeman laser, which isn’t that surprising given the magnet. However, with 3 strategically placed magnets, the behavior reverts back to what would be expected of a 633 nm tube of 20 or 25 cm with two pure orthogonally polarized modes separated by the longitudinal mode spacing of the tube are present for most of mode sweep with just a hint of a third mode when one is near the center of the neon gain curve. So, it would look like:
    Longitudinal Modes of Random Polarized 1 mW IR (1,523 nm) He-Ne Laser
    Longitudinal Modes of Random Polarized 1 mW IR (1,523 nm) He-Ne Laser

    which is the same diagram as

    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW He-Ne Laser
    Longitudinal Modes of Typical Random Polarized 1 mW He-Ne Laser

    with different numbers.) With my $2 SFPI modified for 1,5XX nm operation (replaced PD with cut-open germanium transistor photodiode), I have confirmed that the modes of the 05-LIR-151 are also similar in number and appearance to those of a 20 to 25 cm 632.8 nm laser. There are 2 modes most of the time with 3 appearing briefly when a mode is close to the center of the gain curve.

  • 3,391 nm (mid-IR): TBD, maybe.

Intensity Stability of He-Ne Lasers

There are at least three kinds of intensity variations present with He-Ne (or other gas) lasers: long term as various longitudinal modes compete for attention, short term due power supply ripple or discharge instability, and beat frequencies between modes that are active.

Common internal mirror He-Ne laser tubes include a specification called “Mode Cycling Percent” or something similar. This relates to the amount of intensity variation resulting from changes in longitudinal modes due to thermal expansion. Typical values range from 20 percent for a small (e.g., 6 inch, 1mW) tube to 2 percent or less for a long (e.g., 15 inch, 10mW) tube. These take place over the course of a few seconds or minutes and are very obvious using any sort of laser power meter or optical sensor. Even the unaided eyeball may detect a 20 percent change. The more modes that can be active simulataneously, the closer those that are active can be to the same output power on the gain curve. Very short tubes or those with low gain (other wavelengths than 632.8nm or due to age/use or poor design) may vary widely in output intensity or even cycle on and off due to mode cycling. (Note that since the polarization for each mode may be different, reflecting the beam of one of these He-Ne lasers from a non-metallic reflective surface (which acts somewhat as a polarizaer) can result in a large variation in brightness as the dominant polarization changes orientation over time.) Trading off between tube size and mode cycling intensity variations is one reason that He-Ne tubes with otherwise similar power output and beam characteristics come in various lengths.

There are also stabilized He-Ne lasers which use optical feedback to maintain the output intensity with a less than 1 percent variation. (They usually also have a frequency stabilized mode but can’t do both at the same time.) An alternative to doing it in the laser is to have an external AO modulator or other type of variable attenuator in a feedback loop monitoring optical output power. See the next section for more info.

Short term changes in intensity may result from power supply ripple and would thus be at the frequency related to the power line or inverter. These can be minimized with careful power supply design.

Intensity variations at 100s of MHz or GHz rates result from beats between the various longitudinal modes that may be simultaneously active in the cavity. For most common applications, these can be ignored since they will be removed by typical sensor systems unless designed specifically to respond to these high beat frequencies.

Also see the section: Amplitude Noise.

Stabilized Single Frequency He-Ne Lasers

The common red (633 nm) He-Ne laser, while highly monochromatic, generally does not produce just a single frequency (or equivalently, wavelength) of light. As noted in the section: Longitudinal Modes of Operation, several closely spaced frequencies will generally be active at the same time and their precise values and intensities will change over time. For many applications, this doesn’t matter. However, for others, it makes such a laser useless.

If you have, say, $5,000 to spend, you can buy a red (633nm) He-Ne laser that actually produces a single frequency with specifications guaranteed stable for days and that don’t change over a wide temperature range. While the operation of such a He-Ne laser is basically the same as the one in a barcode scanner (and in fact may use the identical model He-Ne laser tube!), several additional enhancements are needed to eliminate mode sweep and select a single output frequency. Simply constructing the laser cavity of low thermal expansion materials isn’t enough when dealing with distances on the order of a fraction of a wavelength of light! Active feedback is needed. The most common implementation of these lasers starts with a short red (632.8 nm) tube that can only oscillate on at most 3 longitudinal modes. (For technical reasons, stabilized lasers at the other common visible and IR He-Ne wavelengths are more difficult to implement and are much less common. More on this below.) It then adds optical feedback to keep them in a fixed location on the He-Ne gain curve by precisely adjusting the distance between the mirrors over a range of about 1/2 the lasing wavelength. This is most often done with a heating coil (inside or outside the tube), but a PieZo Transducer (PZT, an expensive version of the beeper element in a digital watch) may also be used. The PZT reduces the time for the system to stabilize to a few seconds, compared to up to 30 minutes for the heater. But, for a laser that will be left on continuously, this probably doesn’t matter. Some lasers use a means of cooling in addition to the heater like a piezo fan, probably to allow the laser to run stably over a wider temperature range. And a few including the Melles Griot 05-STP-909/910/911/912 (originally based on the Aerotech Syncrolase 100) use a miniature RF induction heater surrounding the HR mirror mount to control only its length, not that of the entire tube. With direct heating of such a small mass, the response is quite fast. This also makes for a more compact package than a full tube heater.

Many schemes work well and it’s amazing how dirt simple these really are considering their hefty price tags! It’s easy to build perfectly usable systems from a common surplus HeNe laser tube and a few common junk parts.

The common ones are listed below:

Note that an etalon inside the laser cavity could also be used to select out a single longitudinal mode. For high power lasers which would require long tubes supporting many modes, this would be needed with both the overall mirror spacing and etalon being feedback controlled. But for low power lasers (e.g. 1 to 3 mW), the use of a short tube to limit the number of modes in conjunction with basic feedback control is a much less complex lower cost approach.

Stabilized lasers (or anything that needs to be regulated to some precision) can be classified as two types. The technique is “intrinsic” – basically derived from an internal reference – if what is used to regulate the device is a fundamental property of its construction – the laser physics in this case. It is “extrinsic” if some external reference is used. Most commercial stabilized HeNe lasers are of the first type since they exploit the known and essentially fixed frequency/wavelength and shape of the neon gain curve in the E/M spectrum. Additional techniques may be used to further reduce the uncertainty.

Most common commercial stabilized HeNe lasers are red at 633 nm, partially because of all the available HeNe wavelengths with a single frequency output power of less than 2 mW. Systems like this are both relatively easy to implement and generally useful for a wide range of applications. The approaches usually fall into one of two subclasses:

  1. One or Two Mode stabilized systems: These use random polarized HeNe laser tubes that are short enough th