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  • THz QCL Made Tunable
Dec 2009
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Dec. 7, 2009 – A new approach to tuning a laser’s frequency could bring us closer to airport scanners that can distinguish explosives from nonthreatening substances, according to scientists at MIT.

QingHu.jpgFor more than 30 years, scientists have been trying to harness the power of terahertz  radiation. Tucked between microwaves and infrared rays on the electromagnetic spectrum, terahertz rays can penetrate clothing, plastic and human tissue, but they are thought to be safer than x-rays. Because they are absorbed to different degrees by different molecules, they also can tell chemicals apart: A terahertz scanner at an airport checkpoint, for example, could determine whether a vial in a closed suitcase contained aspirin, methamphetamines or an explosive.

But practical ways to generate terahertz rays have been hard to find. Traditional gas lasers can operate in the right frequency band, but they are big, expensive and power-hungry. Semiconductor lasers – the kind found in a DVD player – are small and cheap but hard to nudge out of a limited spectral range: Consider how long it took to get from the infrared lasers of the first CD players to the blue lasers of Blu-ray discs.

In 1994, researchers at Bell Labs invented a new kind of small but powerful semiconductor laser called a quantum cascade laser, and in 2002, it was shown to be able to operate at terahertz frequencies. But accurately assessing an object’s chemical composition requires exposing it to a continuous range of frequencies, which are absorbed to different degrees.

In a recent study, Qing Hu, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, and his colleagues describe the first practical method for tuning terahertz quantum cascade lasers (QCLs). What is more, the method is a fundamentally new approach to laser tuning that could have implications for other emerging technologies.

“Since the very beginning of terahertz development in the 1970s, people have been trying to make [high-power] sources that are compact and tunable, and so far, this is really the first example of such a source,” said Peter Siegel, who leads the Submillimeter Wave Advanced Technology group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology. “Qing deserves a lot of credit for all the work he put in and the groundbreaking ideas he pioneered and pushed through despite lots of setbacks and competition from other groups. He really, in the end, came through with a fantastic breakthrough.”

Tuning an ordinary semiconductor laser usually requires changing the length of its light-emitting cavity; occasionally, if the laser doesn’t need a broad frequency range, heating or cooling it will work instead. Hu compares these two approaches to changing the pitch of a guitar string by pressing down on it, changing its length, or screwing its tuning peg, changing its tension. Neither approach, however, works very well with terahertz QCLs.

Graphic: Christine Daniloff

A third way to change the pitch of a guitar string, however, is to change its diameter: The lower-pitched strings on a guitar are thicker than the higher-pitched ones. And Hu’s tuning technique is, roughly speaking, to change the diameter of the light beam.

A light beam traveling through space can be thought of as a wave, undulating up and down indefinitely until it strikes a physical object. But when the same light beam is confined in, say, an optical fiber or a long, thin QCL – it exhibits an electromagnetic field pattern called a “transverse mode.” The transverse mode is somewhat like another wave that is perpendicular to the first one, except that it dies off very quickly – its undulations rapidly get smaller – as it gets farther from the light beam. In fact, its undulations die off so quickly that it can be thought of as simply one big undulation perpendicular to the light beam but centered on it.

Hu’s new tuning technique requires a particular type of QCL called a wire laser, in which the wavelength of the transverse mode – the width of the one big undulation – is actually greater than the width of the laser itself.

Bringing a block of another material close enough to the laser deforms the transverse mode, which in turn changes the wavelength of the emitted light. In experiments, Hu and his colleagues found that a metal block shortened the wavelength of the light, while a silicon block lengthened it. Varying the proximity of the blocks also varies the extent of the shift.

Terahertz QCLs have one big drawback: They must be cooled with liquid nitrogen to very low temperatures. But Jerome Faist of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, one of the inventors of the QCL, said that, although a room-temperature version is a difficult and long-term project, “nothing actually tells us it is impossible.” And Siegel adds that, with Hu’s tuning technique, “I don’t see why it would matter what temperature the laser was operated at.”

Hu points out that his technique also could be applied to a new type of tiny laser that can be used for extremely fine-scale sensing. Ordinarily, visible-light lasers cannot be narrower than the wavelength of the light being used, but researchers have found ways around that fundamental limit by using a virtual particle called a plasmon, which is like a wave passing through a cloud of electrons. Some new types of plasmon lasers also could be tuned through manipulation of their transverse modes.

In its experiments, Hu’s group used a mechanical lever to bring a block of either silicon or metal close to a quantum cascade laser from a single direction. But they have designed and are now building chips that would use electronically controlled microelectromechanical devices to bring the silicon and metal blocks in from different directions, giving the laser a precise and continuous tuning range from short to long wavelengths.

The paper has been published in the journal Nature Photonics.

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electromagnetic spectrum
The total range of wavelengths, extending from the shortest to the longest wavelength or conversely, that can be generated physically. This range of electromagnetic wavelengths extends practically from zero to infinity and includes the visible portion of the spectrum known as light.
optical fiber
A thin filament of drawn or extruded glass or plastic having a central core and a cladding of lower index material to promote total internal reflection (TIR). It may be used singly to transmit pulsed optical signals (communications fiber) or in bundles to transmit light or images.  
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...
quantum cascade laser
A Quantum Cascade Laser (QCL) is a type of semiconductor laser that emits light in the mid- to far-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Quantum cascade lasers offer many benefits: They are tunable across the mid-infrared spectrum from 5.5 to 11.0 µm (900 cm-1 to 1800 cm-1); provide a rapid response time; and provide spectral brightness that is significantly brighter than even a synchrotron source. Quantum cascade lasers comprise alternating layers of semiconductor...
terahertz radiation
Electromagnetic radiation with frequencies between 300 GHz and 10 THz, and existing between regions of the electromagnetic spectrum that are typically classified as the far-infrared and microwave regions. Because terahertz waves have the ability to penetrate some solid materials, they have the potential for applications in medicine and surveillance.
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