Ruby laser

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Diagram of the first ruby laser. Ruby laser.jpg
Diagram of the first ruby laser.

A ruby laser is a solid-state laser that uses a synthetic ruby crystal as its gain medium. The first working laser was a ruby laser made by Theodore H. "Ted" Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories on May 16, 1960. [1] [2]

A solid-state laser is a laser that uses a gain medium that is a solid, rather than a liquid such as in dye lasers or a gas as in gas lasers. Semiconductor-based lasers are also in the solid state, but are generally considered as a separate class from solid-state lasers.

The active laser medium is the source of optical gain within a laser. The gain results from the stimulated emission of electronic or molecular transitions to a lower energy state from a higher energy state previously populated by a pump source.

Laser device which emits light via optical amplification

A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories, based on theoretical work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.


Ruby lasers produce pulses of coherent visible light at a wavelength of 694.3  nm, which is a deep red color. Typical ruby laser pulse lengths are on the order of a millisecond.

Wavelength spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the waves shape repeats, and thus the inverse of the spatial frequency

In physics, the wavelength is the spatial period of a periodic wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats. It is thus the inverse of the spatial frequency. Wavelength is usually determined by considering the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase, such as crests, troughs, or zero crossings and is a characteristic of both traveling waves and standing waves, as well as other spatial wave patterns. Wavelength is commonly designated by the Greek letter lambda (λ). The term wavelength is also sometimes applied to modulated waves, and to the sinusoidal envelopes of modulated waves or waves formed by interference of several sinusoids.

A millisecond is a thousandth of a second.


A ruby laser rod. Inset: The view through the rod is crystal clear Ruby laser rod and view through.JPG
A ruby laser rod. Inset: The view through the rod is crystal clear

A ruby laser most often consists of a ruby rod that must be pumped with very high energy, usually from a flashtube, to achieve a population inversion. The rod is often placed between two mirrors, forming an optical cavity, which oscillate the light produced by the ruby's fluorescence, causing stimulated emission. Ruby is one of the few solid state lasers that produce light in the visible range of the spectrum, lasing at 694.3 nanometers, in a deep red color, with a very narrow linewidth of 0.53 nm. [3]

Laser pumping Powering mechanism for lasers

Laser pumping is the act of energy transfer from an external source into the gain medium of a laser. The energy is absorbed in the medium, producing excited states in its atoms. When the number of particles in one excited state exceeds the number of particles in the ground state or a less-excited state, population inversion is achieved. In this condition, the mechanism of stimulated emission can take place and the medium can act as a laser or an optical amplifier. The pump power must be higher than the lasing threshold of the laser.

Flashtube Incoherent light source

A flashtube, also called a flashlamp, is an electric arc lamp designed to produce extremely intense, incoherent, full-spectrum white light for very short durations. Flashtubes are made of a length of glass tubing with electrodes at either end and are filled with a gas that, when triggered, ionizes and conducts a high voltage pulse to produce the light. Flashtubes are used mostly for photographic purposes but are also employed in scientific, medical, industrial, and entertainment applications.

In science, specifically statistical mechanics, a population inversion occurs while a system exists in a state in which more members of the system are in higher, excited states than in lower, unexcited energy states. It is called an "inversion" because in many familiar and commonly encountered physical systems, this is not possible. The concept is of fundamental importance in laser science because the production of a population inversion is a necessary step in the workings of a standard laser.

The ruby laser is a three level solid state laser. The active laser medium (laser gain/amplification medium) is a synthetic ruby rod that is energized through optical pumping, typically by a xenon flashtube. Ruby has very broad and powerful absorption bands in the visual spectrum, at 400 and 550 nm, and a very long fluorescence lifetime of 3 milliseconds. This allows for very high energy pumping, since the pulse duration can be much longer than with other materials. While ruby has a very wide absorption profile, its conversion efficiency is much lower than other mediums. [3]

Amplifier electronic device that can increase the power of a signal

An amplifier, electronic amplifier or (informally) amp is an electronic device that can increase the power of a signal. It is a two-port electronic circuit that uses electric power from a power supply to increase the amplitude of a signal applied to its input terminals, producing a proportionally greater amplitude signal at its output. The amount of amplification provided by an amplifier is measured by its gain: the ratio of output voltage, current, or power to input. An amplifier is a circuit that has a power gain greater than one.

Optical pumping Method of population inversion

Optical pumping is a process in which light is used to raise electrons from a lower energy level in an atom or molecule to a higher one. It is commonly used in laser construction, to pump the active laser medium so as to achieve population inversion. The technique was developed by 1966 Nobel Prize winner Alfred Kastler in the early 1950s.

Xenon Chemical element with atomic number 54

Xenon is a chemical element with symbol Xe and atomic number 54. It is a colorless, dense, odorless noble gas found in the Earth's atmosphere in trace amounts. Although generally unreactive, xenon can undergo a few chemical reactions such as the formation of xenon hexafluoroplatinate, the first noble gas compound to be synthesized.

In early examples, the rod's ends had to be polished with great precision, such that the ends of the rod were flat to within a quarter of a wavelength of the output light, and parallel to each other within a few seconds of arc. The finely polished ends of the rod were silvered; one end completely, the other only partially. The rod, with its reflective ends, then acts as a Fabry–Pérot etalon (or a Gires-Tournois etalon). Modern lasers often use rods with antireflection coatings, or with the ends cut and polished at Brewster's angle instead. This eliminates the reflections from the ends of the rod. External dielectric mirrors then are used to form the optical cavity. Curved mirrors are typically used to relax the alignment tolerances and to form a stable resonator, often compensating for thermal lensing of the rod. [3] [4]

Silvering is the chemical process of coating glass with a reflective substance. When glass mirrors first gained widespread usage in Europe during the 16th century, most were silvered with an amalgam of tin and mercury, but by the 19th century, mirrors were commonly made through a process by which silver was coated onto a glass surface. Today, sputtering aluminium or other compounds is more often used for this purpose, although the process may maintain the name "silvering".

Brewsters angle

Brewster's angle is an angle of incidence at which light with a particular polarization is perfectly transmitted through a transparent dielectric surface, with no reflection. When unpolarized light is incident at this angle, the light that is reflected from the surface is therefore perfectly polarized. This special angle of incidence is named after the Scottish physicist Sir David Brewster (1781–1868).

Dielectric mirror

A dielectric mirror, also known as a Bragg mirror, is a type of mirror composed of multiple thin layers of dielectric material, typically deposited on a substrate of glass or some other optical material. By careful choice of the type and thickness of the dielectric layers, one can design an optical coating with specified reflectivity at different wavelengths of light. Dielectric mirrors are also used to produce ultra-high reflectivity mirrors: values of 99.999% or better over a narrow range of wavelengths can be produced using special techniques. Alternatively, they can be made to reflect a broad spectrum of light, such as the entire visible range or the spectrum of the Ti-sapphire laser. Mirrors of this type are very common in optics experiments, due to improved techniques that allow inexpensive manufacture of high-quality mirrors. Examples of their applications include laser cavity end mirrors, hot and cold mirrors, thin-film beamsplitters, and the coatings on modern mirrorshades.

Transmittance of ruby in optical and near-IR spectra. Note the two broad blue and green absorption bands and the narrow absorption band at 694 nm, which is the wavelength of the ruby laser. Ruby transmittance.svg
Transmittance of ruby in optical and near-IR spectra. Note the two broad blue and green absorption bands and the narrow absorption band at 694 nm, which is the wavelength of the ruby laser.

Ruby also absorbs some of the light at its lasing wavelength. To overcome this absorption, the entire length of the rod needs to be pumped, leaving no shaded areas near the mountings. The active part of the ruby is the dopant, which consists of chromium ions suspended in a synthetic sapphire crystal. The dopant often comprises around 0.05% of the crystal, and is responsible for all of the absorption and emission of radiation. Depending on the concentration of the dopant, synthetic ruby usually comes in either pink or red. [3] [4]

A dopant, also called a doping agent, is a trace impurity element that is inserted into a substance to alter the electrical or optical properties of the substance. In the case of crystalline substances, the atoms of the dopant very commonly take the place of elements that were in the crystal lattice of the base material. The crystalline materials are frequently either crystals of a semiconductor such as silicon and germanium for use in solid-state electronics, or transparent crystals for use in the production of various laser types; however, in some cases of the latter, noncrystalline substances such as glass can also be doped with impurities.

Chromium Chemical element with atomic number 24

Chromium is a chemical element with symbol Cr and atomic number 24. It is the first element in group 6. It is a steely-grey, lustrous, hard and brittle transition metal. Chromium boasts a high usage rate as a metal that is able to be highly polished while resisting tarnishing. Chromium is also the main additive in stainless steel, a popular steel alloy due to its uncommonly high specular reflection. Simple polished chromium reflects almost 70% of the visible spectrum, with almost 90% of infrared light being reflected. The name of the element is derived from the Greek word χρῶμα, chrōma, meaning color, because many chromium compounds are intensely colored.


One of the first applications for the ruby laser was in rangefinding. By 1964, ruby lasers with rotating prism q-switches became the standard for military rangefinders, until the introduction of more efficient Nd:YAG rangefinders a decade later. Ruby lasers were used mainly in research. [5] The ruby laser was the first laser used to optically pump tunable dye lasers and is particularly well suited to excite laser dyes emitting in the near infrared. [6] Ruby lasers are rarely used in industry, mainly due to low efficiency and low repetition rates. One of the main industrial uses is drilling holes through diamond, because ruby's high-powered beam closely matches diamond's broad absorption band (the GR1 band) in the red. [5] [7]

Ruby lasers have declined in use with the discovery of better lasing media. They are still used in a number of applications where short pulses of red light are required. Holographers around the world produce holographic portraits with ruby lasers, in sizes up to a meter square. Because of its high pulsed power and good coherence length, the red 694 nm laser light is preferred to the 532 nm green light of frequency-doubled Nd:YAG, which often requires multiple pulses for large holograms. [8] Many non-destructive testing labs use ruby lasers to create holograms of large objects such as aircraft tires to look for weaknesses in the lining. Ruby lasers were used extensively in tattoo and hair removal, but are being replaced by alexandrite and Nd:YAG lasers in this application.


Maiman's original ruby laser 2 Maiman Laser Left Side.jpg
Maiman's original ruby laser

The ruby laser was the first laser to be made functional. Built by Theodore Maiman in 1960, the device was created out of the concept of an "optical maser," a maser that could operate in the visual or infrared regions of the spectrum.

In 1958, after the inventor of the maser, Charles Townes, and his colleague, Arthur Schawlow, published an article in the Physical Review regarding the idea of optical masers, the race to build a working model began. Ruby had been used successfully in masers, so it was a first choice as a possible medium. While attending a conference in 1959, Maiman listened to a speech given by Schawlow, describing the use of ruby as a lasing medium. Schawlow stated that pink ruby, having a lowest energy-state that was too close to the ground-state, would require too much pumping energy for laser operation, suggesting red ruby as a possible alternative. Maiman, having worked with ruby for many years, and having written a paper on ruby fluorescence, felt that Schawlow was being "too pessimistic." His measurements indicated that the lowest energy level of pink ruby could at least be partially depleted by pumping with a very intense light source, and, since ruby was readily available, he decided to try it anyway. [9] [10]

Also attending the conference was Gordon Gould. Gould suggested that, by pulsing the laser, peak outputs as high as a megawatt could be produced. [11]

Components of original ruby laser 5 Maiman Laser Components.jpg
Components of original ruby laser

As time went on, many scientists began to doubt the usefulness of any color ruby as a laser medium. Maiman, too, felt his own doubts, but, being a very "single-minded person," he kept working on his project in secret. He searched to find a light source that would be intense enough to pump the rod, and an elliptical pumping cavity of high reflectivity, to direct the energy into the rod. He found his light source when a salesman from General Electric showed him a few xenon flashtubes, claiming that the largest could ignite steel wool if placed near the tube. Maiman realized that, with such intensity, he did not need such a highly reflective pumping cavity, and, with the helical lamp, would not need it to have an elliptical shape. Maiman constructed his ruby laser at Hughes Research Laboratories, in Malibu, California. [12] He used a pink ruby rod, measuring 1 cm by 1.5 cm, and, on May 16, 1960, fired the device, producing the first beam of laser light. [13]

Theodore Maiman's original ruby laser is still operational. [14] It was demonstrated on May 15, 2010 at a symposium co-hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia by the Dr. Theodore Maiman Memorial Foundation and Simon Fraser University, where Dr. Maiman was Adjunct Professor at the School of Engineering Science. Maiman's original laser was fired at a projector screen in a darkened room. In the center of a white flash (leakage from the xenon flashtube), a red spot was briefly visible.

The ruby lasers did not deliver a single pulse, but rather delivered a series of pulses, consisting of a series of irregular spikes within the pulse duration. In 1961, R.W. Hellwarth invented a method of q-switching, to concentrate the output into a single pulse. [15]

Ruby laser pistol constructed by Stanford Univ. physics professor in 1964 to demonstrate the laser to his classes. The plastic body recycled from a toy raygun contained a ruby rod between two flashtubes (right). The pulse of coherent red light was strong enough to pop blue balloons (shown at left) but not red balloons which reflected the light. Laser pistol.jpg
Ruby laser pistol constructed by Stanford Univ. physics professor in 1964 to demonstrate the laser to his classes. The plastic body recycled from a toy raygun contained a ruby rod between two flashtubes (right). The pulse of coherent red light was strong enough to pop blue balloons (shown at left) but not red balloons which reflected the light.

In 1962, Willard Boyle, working at Bell Labs, produced the first continuous output from a ruby laser. Unlike the usual side-pumping method, the light from a mercury arc lamp was pumped into the end of a very small rod, to achieve the necessary population inversion. The laser did not emit a continuous wave, but rather a continuous train of pulses, giving scientists the opportunity to study the spiked output of ruby. [16] The continuous ruby laser was the first laser to be used in medicine. It was used by Leon Goldman, a pioneer in laser medicine, for treatments such as tattoo removal, scar treatments, and to induce healing. Due to its limits in output power, tunability, and complications in operating and cooling the units, the continuous ruby laser was quickly replaced with more versatile dye, Nd:YAG, and argon lasers. [17]

Related Research Articles

Laser construction

A laser is constructed from three principal parts:

Maser Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation

A maser is a device that produces coherent electromagnetic waves through amplification by stimulated emission. The first maser was built by Charles H. Townes, James P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger at Columbia University in 1953. Townes, Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov were awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics for theoretical work leading to the maser. Masers are used as the timekeeping device in atomic clocks, and as extremely low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes and deep space spacecraft communication ground stations.

Optical amplifier

An optical amplifier is a device that amplifies an optical signal directly, without the need to first convert it to an electrical signal. An optical amplifier may be thought of as a laser without an optical cavity, or one in which feedback from the cavity is suppressed. Optical amplifiers are important in optical communication and laser physics. They are used as optical repeaters in the long distance fiberoptic cables which carry much of the world's telecommunication links.

Laser diode semiconductor laser

A laser diode, (LD), injection laser diode (ILD), or diode laser is a semiconductor device similar to a light-emitting diode in which the laser beam is created at the diode's junction. Laser diodes can directly convert electrical energy into light. Driven by voltage, the doped p-n-transition allows for recombination of an electron with a hole. Due to the drop of the electron from a higher energy level to a lower one, radiation, in the form of an emitted photon is generated. This is spontaneous emission. Stimulated emission can be produced when the process is continued and further generate light with the same phase, coherence and wavelength.

Q-switching, sometimes known as giant pulse formation or Q-spoiling, is a technique by which a laser can be made to produce a pulsed output beam. The technique allows the production of light pulses with extremely high (gigawatt) peak power, much higher than would be produced by the same laser if it were operating in a continuous wave mode. Compared to modelocking, another technique for pulse generation with lasers, Q-switching leads to much lower pulse repetition rates, much higher pulse energies, and much longer pulse durations. The two techniques are sometimes applied together.

Theodore Harold Maiman American physicist/Inventor of first working laser

Theodore Harold "Ted" Maiman was an American engineer and physicist who was widely, but not universally, credited with the invention of the laser. Maiman's laser led to the subsequent development of many other types of lasers. The laser was successfully fired on May 16, 1960. In a July 7, 1960 press conference in Manhattan, Maiman and his employer, Hughes Aircraft Company, announced the laser to the world. Maiman was granted a patent for his invention, and he received many awards and honors for his work. Maiman's experiences in developing the first laser and subsequent related events are described in his book, The Laser Odyssey.

A helium–neon laser or HeNe laser, is a type of gas laser whose gain medium consists of a mixture of 75% helium and 25% neon at a total pressure of about 1 mm of Hg inside of a small electrical discharge. The best-known and most widely used HeNe laser operates at a wavelength of 632.8 nm, in the red part of the visible spectrum.

Dye laser

A dye laser is a laser which uses an organic dye as the lasing medium, usually as a liquid solution. Compared to gases and most solid state lasing media, a dye can usually be used for a much wider range of wavelengths, often spanning 50 to 100 nanometers or more. The wide bandwidth makes them particularly suitable for tunable lasers and pulsed lasers. The dye rhodamine 6G, for example, can be tuned from 635 nm (orangish-red) to 560 nm (greenish-yellow), and produce pulses as short as 16 femtoseconds. Moreover, the dye can be replaced by another type in order to generate an even broader range of wavelengths with the same laser, from the near-infrared to the near-ultraviolet, although this usually requires replacing other optical components in the laser as well, such as dielectric mirrors or pump lasers.

Nd:YAG laser

Nd:YAG (neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet; Nd:Y3Al5O12) is a crystal that is used as a lasing medium for solid-state lasers. The dopant, triply ionized neodymium, Nd(III), typically replaces a small fraction (1%) of the yttrium ions in the host crystal structure of the yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG), since the two ions are of similar size. It is the neodymium ion which provides the lasing activity in the crystal, in the same fashion as red chromium ion in ruby lasers.

Ti-sapphire laser

Ti:sapphire lasers (also known as Ti:Al2O3 lasers, titanium-sapphire lasers, or Ti:sapphs) are tunable lasers which emit red and near-infrared light in the range from 650 to 1100 nanometers. These lasers are mainly used in scientific research because of their tunability and their ability to generate ultrashort pulses. Lasers based on Ti:sapphire were first constructed and invented in June 1982 by Peter Moulton at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Diode-pumped solid-state lasers (DPSSLs) are solid-state lasers made by pumping a solid gain medium, for example, a ruby or a neodymium-doped YAG crystal, with a laser diode.

Yttrium aluminium garnet (YAG, Y3Al5O12) is a synthetic crystalline material of the garnet group. It is also one of three phases of the yttrium-aluminium composite, the other two being yttrium aluminium monoclinic (YAM, Y4Al2O9) and yttrium aluminium perovskite (YAP, YAlO3).

A fiber laser or fibre laser is a laser in which the active gain medium is an optical fiber doped with rare-earth elements such as erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium, thulium and holmium. They are related to doped fiber amplifiers, which provide light amplification without lasing. Fiber nonlinearities, such as stimulated Raman scattering or four-wave mixing can also provide gain and thus serve as gain media for a fiber laser.

Output coupler

An output coupler (OC) is the component of an optical resonator that allows the extraction of a portion of the light from the laser's intracavity beam. An output coupler most often consists of a partially reflective mirror, allowing a certain portion of the intracavity beam to transmit through. Other methods include the use of almost-totally reflective mirrors at each end of the cavity, emitting the beam either by focusing it into a small hole drilled in the center of one mirror, or by redirecting through the use of rotating mirrors, prisms, or other optical devices, causing the beam to bypass one of the end mirrors at a given time.

Neodymium-doped yttrium lithium fluoride (Nd:YLF) is a lasing medium for arc lamp-pumped and diode-pumped solid-state lasers. The YLF crystal (LiYF4) is naturally birefringent, and commonly used laser transitions occur at 1047 nm and 1053 nm.


  1. Maiman, T.H. (1960) "Stimulated Optical Radiation in Ruby". Nature, 187 4736, pp. 493-494.
  2. "Laser inventor Maiman dies; tribute to be held on anniversary of first laser". Laser Focus World. 2007-05-09. Retrieved 2007-05-14.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Principles of Lasers By Orazio Svelto – Plenum Press 1976 Page 367–370.
  4. 1 2 Laser Fundamentals by William Thomas Silfvast – Cambridge University Press 1996 Page 547-549.
  5. 1 2 Solid-State Laser Engineering by Walter Koechner – Springer-Verlag 1965, page 2.
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  8. Silfvast, William Thomas. Laser Fundamentals. Cambridge University. p. 550.
  9. The History of the Laser By Mario Bertolotti - IOP Publishing 2005 Page 211–218
  10. How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist By Charles H. Townes – Oxford University Press 1999 page 85–105.
  11. How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist By Charles H. Townes – Oxford University Press 1999 page 104.
  12. Beam By Jeff Hecht – Oxford University press 2005 page 170–172
  13. How the Laser Happened: Adventures of a Scientist By Charles H. Townes – Oxford University Press 1999 page 105
  14. "Video: Maiman's first laser light shines again". SPIE Newsroom. 2010-05-20. Retrieved July 9, 2010.
  15. Solid-State Laser Engineering by Walter Koechner - Springer-Verlag 1965 page 1
  16. Astronautics 1962 - Page 74
  17. Lasers in Aesthetic Surgery by Gregory S. Keller, Kenneth M. Toft, Victor Lacombe, Patrick Lee, James Watson – Thieme Medical Publishers 2001 page 254.