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Laser Mirror Could Greatly Improve Optical Devices

Photonics.com
Feb 2007
BERKELEY, Calif., Feb. 13, 2007 -- Engineers have created a high-performance mirror that is thinner, operates across a wider spectrum of light and is easier to make than current high-grade mirrors. The development could overcome the hurdles stalling semiconductor laser advancement and improve the next generation of devices dependent on laser optics, such as LEDs, high-definition DVD players, computer circuits, telecommunications equipment and laser printers.lasermirror.jpg
The high-index-contrast subwavelength grating on the left reflects 99.9 percent of light, the same reflectivity as the much thicker distributed Bragg reflectors on the right. (Images courtesy of Michael Huang, UC Berkeley)
The new mirror developed at the University of California, Berkeley, packs the same 99.9 percent reflective punch as current high-grade mirrors, called distributed Bragg reflectors (DBRs), but it does so in a package that is at least 20 times thinner, functional in a much wider spectrum of light frequencies and easier to manufacture, all of which present critical advantages for today's ever-smaller integrated optical devices.

Connie J. Chang-Hasnain, director of UC Berkeley's Center for Optoelectronic Nanostructured Semiconductor Technologies, developed the superthin mirror, or "high-index-contrast subwavelength grating (HCG)," with her graduate students, Michael Huang and Ye Zhou.

"Today's semiconductor lasers demand mirrors that can deliver high reflectivity, but without the extra thickness," said Chang-Hasnain, who is also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "When you reduce the thickness of a mirror, you are significantly reducing the mass of the device, which also translates into lower power consumption. The mirror we've developed overcomes the hurdles that have stalled the advancement of certain lasers."

To get the coherent, single-wavelength light of a laser beam requires a pair of mirrors at opposite ends of a photon-generating gain medium. Light photons of a specific frequency bounce back and forth between the mirrors, building up energy with each pass. As this effect levels off, the gain is said to be saturated, and the light energy is transferred into a laser beam.

Early versions of semiconductor lasers used crystal for the mirrors, which yielded a mere 30 percent reflection. Such a low reflectivity is too inefficient for vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSEL) -- used in short-range optical communications, optical mice for computers and other applications requiring low power consumption. VCSELs have a particularly short gain medium, so a highly reflective mirror is needed.

High reflectivity can be achieved with DBRs, in which light passes through alternating layers of aluminum gallium arsenide, which has a refractive index of 3.0, and gallium arsenide, which has a higher refractive index of 3.6. The difference in refractive indices allows a small amount of light to be reflected from each pair of alternating layers. The light from the multiple layers adds up to form a strongly reflected coherent beam.lasermirror-SEM.jpg
Scanning electron micrograph image of the grooves in the high-index-contrast subwavelength grating developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.
"DBRs can reflect 99.9 percent of light, but it can take up to 80 layers of material to achieve this high reflectivity," said Huang, lead author of a paper on the research. "The DBR ends up being a relatively thick 5 micrometers wide. The precision necessary for the layers also requires a complicated manufacturing process. Our mirror is thinner and will be easier to manufacture, which keeps the cost low."

Instead of multiple levels of alternating refractive-index layers, the HCG mirror contains only one pair. In this study, the engineers used aluminum gallium arsenide for the high refractive-index layer, coupled with a layer of air, which has a very low refractive index of 1. In addition, the high refractive-index layer contained grooves spaced by a distance that is less than a wavelength of light.

In this configuration, light hitting the mirror surface was directed over the grooves. As the light waves passed each semiconductor-air interface, they were strongly reflected back in the opposite direction. The researchers noted that other materials could replace air as the low refractive-index material. Silicon dioxide, for instance, has a refractive index of 1.5.

To demonstrate the reflectivity of the HCG, the researchers replaced one of the two DBRs in a VCSEL with the new mirror. They confirmed that the HCG is capable of providing reflectivity greater than 99.9 percent, equivalent to the DBR.

"The HCG mirror overcomes many of the hurdles that had slowed the advance of VCSEL research," said study co-author Zhou. "In addition to being thinner, it has the advantage of working in a broader range of light frequencies."

The latter attribute is particularly important as optical disc technologies increasingly employ blue-violet lasers, which operate on a shorter wavelength than red lasers. Shorter wavelengths make it possible to focus on smaller units, enabling significantly higher density data storage.

The engineers are also studying applications for the mobile HCG mirror in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), such as wavelength tunable lasers, which are used in broadband communications.

"Reducing the size of the laser's mirror also means a dramatic reduction in weight, which is particularly important for high-speed MEMS devices," said Chang-Hasnain.

The researchers added that it may be possible to print this mirror on various surfaces, and that it could one day be used to create organic, plastic displays that can be rolled up for easy transport.

"There is a wide range of products based upon laser optics that could benefit with this thinner mirror," said Huang. "They include light-emitting diodes, photovoltaic devices, sensors, computer chips and telecommunications equipment."

DARPA helped fund the research, which is described in the February issue of the journal Nature Photonics.

For more information, visit: www.berkeley.edu


GLOSSARY
mirror
A smooth, highly polished surface, for reflecting light, that may be plane or curved if wanting to focus and or magnify the image formed by the mirror. The actual reflecting surface is usually a thin coating of silver or aluminum on glass.
optical
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
photon
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
reflectivity
The ratio of the intensity of the total radiation reflected from a surface to the total incident on that surface.
semiconductor laser
A semiconductor material which is designed and grown for the efficient production of short wavelength stimulated emission through high gain as well as low internal losses. Materials with band gap energies which emit radiation efficiently within the desired wavelength region are used. Diodes may emit vertically in relation to the laser material junction in a VCSEL configuration or horizontally in an edge emitting configuration. Synonymous with laser diode.  Sometimes used...
silicon dioxide
An abundant material found in the form of quartz and agate and as one of the major constituents of sand. The silicates of sodium, calcium, and other metals can be readily fused, and on cooling do not crystallize, but instead form the familiar transparent material glass.
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