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Practical 3-D Microdroplet Laser Unveiled
Dec 2010
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, Dec. 10, 2010 — Versatile electronic gadgets should employ a number of important criteria: small in size, quick in operation, inexpensive to fabricate, and deliver high precision output. A new microlaser, developed at the Jožef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana embodies all these qualities. It is small, tunable, cheap, and is essentially the world's first practical three-dimensional laser.

The schematic view of the arrangement of CLC molecules in a cholesteric microdroplet with parallel anchoring of the LC molecules at the surface. The helical structure of the liquid crystal originates from the center of the droplet and gives rise to concentric shells of constant refractive index. This dielectric structure is optically equivalent to the well-known Bragg-onion optical microcavity. (Image: Optics Express)

As described in Optics Express, a journal published by the Optical Society (OSA), Slovenian scientists Matjaž Humar and Igor Muševic have developed a microdroplet 3-D laser system in which laser light shines forth in all directions from dye molecules lodged within spherical drops of helical molecules dispersed in a liquid solution.

“This is the first practical 3-D laser ever produced,” said Muševic, who expects that the microdroplet lasers, which can be made by the millions in seconds, will be used in making arrays of coherent light emitters. These will be handy for a variety of imaging purposes, for example internal-source holography. Here a 3-D laser would be embedded inside the object which is to be imaged; light coming directly from the source interferes with the light scattered by the surroundings. A three-dimensional image of the object can then be reconstructed from the interference pattern.

The helical molecules are cholesteric liquid crystals, related to the molecules that form the backbone of liquid crystal displays. The cholesteric molecules don’t mix well with the surrounding polymer liquid. This incompatibility sets up a curious condition — the index of refraction of the cholesteric liquid crystal varies periodically outwards through the body of the 15-µm-sized droplet. It’s as if the droplet were an onion with the layers corresponding to materials with a different index of refraction.

Most lasers possess two important ingredients — an active medium in which energy can be turned into light and amplified, and some resonant enclosure in which the developing coherent light can build up to a potent beam emerging as laser light. In the case of the microdroplet laser, the active medium consists of all those fluorescent dye molecules nestled in the liquid crystals. And the resonant enclosure consists not of the usual longitudinal shaped mirrored cavity, but of the nested sequence of “onion-layer” regions of changing index of refraction.

Two more features make this laser design highly workable. First, the laser components are self-assembled. Instead of an expensive fabrication process, the parts of the laser assemble spontaneously through chemistry. Second, the laser can be tuned: by changing the pitch size of the helical molecules — the degree of their corkscrew thread — the wavelength of the light can be altered.

“Scientists have been trying to make these lasers from solid-state materials, but you can imagine how difficult it is to make hundreds of alternating shells of optical materials, which should be very uniform,” said Muševic. "The beauty of our approach is that such a 3-D onion droplet is self-assembled in a fraction of a second.”

To tune the laser you don’t even have to replace the droplets. Their optical properties can be changed by modifying the temperature. Tuning might even be accomplished by applying an extra electric field to the drops.

The paper "3D microlasers from self-assembled cholesteric liquid-crystal microdroplets" by Humar and Muševic appears in the journal Optics Express.

For more information, visit: 

15-micron-sized droplet3-D laser3-D microdroplet laser3-D onion dropletAmericasBasic ScienceBragg-onion optical microcavitycholesteric liquid crystalcoherent light emittersConsumerdye moleculesEuropehelical moleculesIgor Muševicimaginginterference patterninternal-source holographyJožef Stefan Institute in Ljubljanalaser lightlasersLCDlight sourcesMatjaž HumarmirrorsopticsOSApolymer liquidResearch & TechnologySloveniaWashington DC

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