Gregg Sucha, Imra America
Ultrafast lasers are about to enable a variety of new scientific, engineering and industrial applications. These applications range from the technical, such as high-speed circuit testing and biological imaging, to more everyday applications such as inspection of packaged food.
While laboratory researchers have proven that photonics technology works in many of these applications, real-world commercialization awaits behind some barriers, including the complexity, size and cost of conventional ultrafast laser systems.
User-friendliness has clearly not been the hallmark of ultrafast technology. Dye and Ti:sapphire lasers have traditionally been the workhorses of the ultrafast world, and anyone who has worked with ultrafast lasers knows their complexity and their need for frequent "tweaking."
Recently however, a few laser manufacturers have developed turnkey, modelocked laser systems, some with specific industrial applications in mind. The key issues for successful integration is not necessarily raw performance (power, pulsewidth, etc.) but other attributes such as compactness, convenience, reliability, quiet operation, low power consumption and low cost. Laser systems based on rare-earth-doped fibers offer advantages in several of these areas; their architecture provides opportunities for miniaturization and packaging that are simply not possible with bulk solid-state lasers.