Single Frequency Lasers Tutorial
ECL, DFB, VHG-Stabilized, DBR, and Hybrid Single-Frequency Lasers
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Figure 1: ECL Lasers have a Grating Outside of the Gain Chip
A wide variety of applications require tunable single-frequency operation of a laser system. In the world of diode lasers, there are currently four main configurations to obtain a single-frequency output: external cavity laser (ECL), distributed feedback (DFB), volume holographic grating (VHG), and distributed Bragg reflector (DBR). All four are capable of single-frequency output through the utilization of grating feedback. In addition, an ECL can be combined with a fiber Bragg grating (FBG) to create a hybrid design. However, each type of laser uses a different grating feedback configuration, which influences performance characteristics such as output power, tuning range, and side mode suppression ratio (SMSR). We discuss below some of the main differences between single-frequency diode lasers.
External Cavity Laser
The External Cavity Laser (ECL) is a versatile configuration that is compatible with most standard free space diode lasers. This means that the ECL can be used at a variety of wavelengths, dependent upon the internal laser diode gain element. A lens collimates the output of the diode, which is then incident upon a grating (see Figure 1). The grating provides optical feedback and is used to select the stabilized output wavelength. With proper optical design, the external cavity allows only a single longitudinal mode to lase, providing single-frequency laser output with high side mode suppression ratio (SMSR > 45 dB).
One of the main advantages of the ECL is that the relatively long cavity provides extremely narrow linewidths (<1 MHz). Additionally, since it can incorporate a variety of laser diodes, it remains one of the few configurations that can provide narrow linewidth emission at blue or red wavelengths. The ECL can have a large tuning range (>100 nm) but is often prone to mode hops, which are very dependent on the ECL's mechanical design as well as the quality of the antireflection (AR) coating on the laser diode.
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Figure 2: DFB Lasers Have a Bragg Reflector Along the Length of the Active Gain Medium
Distributed Feedback Laser
The Distributed Feedback (DFB) Laser (available in NIR and MIR) incorporates the grating within the laser diode structure itself (see Figure 2). This corrugated periodic structure coupled closely to the active region acts as a Bragg reflector, selecting a single longitudinal mode as the lasing mode. If the active region has enough gain at frequencies near the Bragg frequency, an end reflector is unnecessary, relying instead upon the Bragg reflector for all optical feedback and mode selection. Due to this “built-in” selection, a DFB can achieve single-frequency operation over broad temperature and current ranges. To aid in mode selection and improve manufacturing yield, DFB lasers often utilize a phase shift section within the diode structure as well.
The lasing wavelength for a DFB is approximately equal to the Bragg wavelength:
where λ is the wavelength, neff is the effective refractive index, and Λ is the grating period. By changing the effective index, the lasing wavelength can be tuned. This is accomplished through temperature and current tuning of the DFB.
The DFB has a relatively narrow tuning range: about 2 nm at 850 nm, about 4 nm at 1550 nm, or at least 1 cm-1 in the mid-IR (4.00 - 11.00 µm). However, over this tuning range, the DFB can achieve single-frequency operation, which means that this is a continuous tuning range without mode hops. Because of this feature, DFBs have become a popular and majority choice for real-world applications such as telecom and sensors. Since the cavity length of a DFB is rather short, the linewidths are typically in the 1 MHz to 10 MHz range. Additionally, the close coupling between the grating structure and the active region results in lower maximum output power compared to ECL and DBR lasers.
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Figure 3: VHG Lasers have a Volume Holographic Grating Outside of the Active Gain Medium
A Volume-Holographic-Grating-(VHG)-Stabilized Laser also uses a Bragg reflector, but in this case a transmission grating is placed in front of the laser diode output (see Figure 3). Since the grating is not part of the laser diode structure, it can be thermally decoupled from the laser diode, improving the wavelength stability of the device. The grating typically consists of a piece of photorefractive material (typically glass) which has a periodic variation in the index of refraction. Only the wavelength of light that satisfies the Bragg condition for the grating is reflected back into the laser cavity, which results in a laser with extremely wavelength-stable emission. A VHG-Stabilized laser can produce output with a similar linewidth to a DFB laser at higher powers that is wavelength-locked over a wide range of currents and temperatures.
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Figure 4: DBR Lasers have a Bragg Reflector Outside of the Active Gain Medium
Distributed Bragg Reflector Laser
Similar to DFBs, Distributed Bragg Reflector (DBR) Lasers incorporate an internal grating structure. However, whereas DFB lasers incorporate the grating structure continuously along the active region (gain region), DBR lasers place the grating structure(s) outside this region (see Figure 4). In general a DBR can incorporate various regions not typically found in a DFB that yield greater control and tuning range. For instance, a multiple-electrode DBR laser can include a phase-controlled region that allows the user to independently tune the phase apart from the grating period and laser diode current. When utilized together, the DBR can provide single-frequency operation over a broad tuning range. For example, high end sample-grating DBR lasers can have a tuning range as large as 30 - 40 nm. Unlike the DFB, the output is not mode hop free; hence, careful control of all inputs and temperature must be maintained.
In contrast to the complicated control structure for the multiple-electrode DBR, a simplified version of the DBR is engineered with just one electrode. This single-electrode DBR eliminates the complications of grating and phase control at the cost of tuning range. For this architecture type, the tuning range is similar to a DFB laser but will mode hop as a function of the applied current and temperature. Despite the disadvantage of mode hops, the single-electrode DBR does provide some advantages over its DFB cousin, namely higher output power because the grating is not continuous along the length of the device. Both DBR and DFB lasers have similar laser linewidths. Currently, Thorlabs offers only single-electrode DBR lasers.
Ultra-Low-Noise Hybrid Laser
Thorlabs Ultra-Low-Noise (ULN) Hybrid Lasers each consist of a single angled facet (SAF) gain chip coupled to an exceptionally long fiber Bragg grating (FBG). They are designed to create a laser cavity, similar to an ECL, through the length of fiber. This cavity provides the ULN hybrid laser with a very narrow line width on the order of 100 Hz and low relative intensity noise of -165 dBc/Hz (typical). The FBG reflects a portion of the light emitted from the gain medium while remaining thermally isolated from it. The grating period can be changed by introducing thermal stress to the fiber, allowing users to temperature tune the laser output while being able to independently stabilize the gain medium's temperature. Because the laser's configuration provides excellent low-noise performance, it is likely the laser will not be the limiting factor at low-noise levels. It is critical to monitor the laser's environment to limit external noise contributions like acoustic and seismic vibrations, as well as driving the laser with a low-noise current source.
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Figure 5: Thorlabs Hybrid Lasers have a Fiber Bragg Grating Coupled to the Active Gain Medium
ECL, DFB, VHG, DBR, and hybrid laser diodes provide single-frequency operation over their designed tuning range. The ECL can be designed for a larger selection of wavelengths than either the DFB or DBR. While prone to mode hops, it provides narrow linewidths (<1 MHz). In appropriately designed instruments, ECLs can also provide extremely broad tuning ranges (>100 nm).
The DFB laser is the most stable single-frequency, tunable laser configuration. It can provide mode-hop-free performance over its entire tuning range (<5 nm), making it one of the most popular forms of single-frequency laser for much of industry. It has the lowest output power due to inherent properties of the continuous grating feedback structure.
The VHG laser provides stable wavelength performance over a range of temperatures and currents and can provide higher powers than are typical in DFB lasers. This stability makes it excellent for use in OEM applications.
The single-electrode DBR laser provides similar linewidth and tuning range as the DFB (<5 nm). However, the single-electrode DBR will have periodic mode hops in its tuning curve.
Hybrid lasers can be used to achieve extremely low-noise signals. In order to take advantage of this characteristic, the laser must be isolated from unwanted noise sources, such as acoustic and seismic vibrations and drive current noise.
Two elements are required for a laser to operate: (1) an active gain medium that amplifies the optical signal and (2) a feedback mechanism to provide sustained laser oscillation. In a Fabry-Perot laser, two mirrors having a reflection coefficient r1 and r2 (power reflectance R1 = r12 and R2 = r22) provide feedback for the optical field, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Fabry-Perot Laser Structure
The round-trip gain for the optical field within a cavity of length L can be expressed as:
Equation 1: Round-trip Gain for Optical Field
where g and αi are the gain and internal loss coefficients, respectively, λ is the vacuum wavelength, neff is the effective refractive index, and L is the cavity length. Solving for unity results in the threshold amplitude and phase conditions:
Equation 2: The amplitude condition
Equation 3: The phase condition
where αm is defined as the mirror loss and N is a running integer index representing the mode number.
In a semiconductor (diode) laser, the gain medium is excited by injecting a current into the junction region of a forward biased diode. The high concentration of electrons and holes in the engineered quantum-well junction of a semiconductor laser makes it possible to create the population inversion required for optical gain.
When the gain medium is a semiconductor material, a Fabry-Perot cavity can be created by the Fresnel optical reflections at the cleaved facets of the chip. the junction is effectively a waveguide that extends from one facet to the other. An uncoated "as-cleaved" facet perpendicular to the waveguide has a reflectivity of R~30%. However, the maximum output power of the device can be optimized by modifying the reflectance of the facets with optical coatings. Maximum power for a Fabry-Perot laser diode is typically achieved with a high-reflectivity (HR) coating on the back facet and a low-reflectivity (LR) coating on the front facet.
The emission spectrum of the Fabry-Perot laser diode device will be dependent on the injection current. When biased below threshold with g > αi the emission spectrum consists of a broad series of peaks corresponding to the longitudinal modes of the Fabry-Perot cavity defined by the phase equation. Lasing does not occur until the injection current is increased to the point where g = αi + αm. The lasing wavelength is determined by the longitudinal mode that first achieves the threshold condition. The output spectrum does not always collapse into a single lasing wavelength but can consist of a narrow spectrum of longitudinal modes.
Figure 2: Gain Curve of a Fabry-Perot Laser
This is particularly true for InP-based Fabry-Perot lasers, which typically have an optical bandwidth of 5 to 10 nm. GaAs-based devices can operate in a single longitudinal mode, depending on wavelength and output power. they typically have an output bandwidth <2 nm.
A typical 850 nm laser diode with a length of around 300 µm and a group index around 4 will have a longitudinal mode spacing of 0.3 nm, which is similar to a 1 mm long 1550 nm laser diode. Changing the length or refractive index of the cavity, for example by heating or cooling the laser diode, will shift the whole comb of modes and consequently the output wavelength.
The linewidth of a semiconductor laser single longitudinal lasing mode (FWHM) is given by the modified Schawlow and Townes formula that incorporates the Henry linewidth enhancement factor αH:
Equation 4: Schawlow-Townes-Henry Laser Linewidth
where hv is the photon energy, vg is the group velocity, nsp is the population inversion factor, and Pout is the single-facet output power. this equation describes the spectral broadening of the laser linewidth due to phase and amplitude fluctuations caused by the unavoidable addition of spontaneous emission photons to the coherent lasing mode. These so-called quantum noise fluctuations define a lower limit on the laser linewidth, which may be masked by larger noise fluctuations caused by mechanical/acoustic vibration or thermal variation.
Extending the length of the cavity will decrease αm (see Eq. 2), which reduces the linewidth. This can be understood by viewing the quantum noise-limited linewidth (see Eq. 4) as being proportional to the ratio of the number of spontaneous emission photons in the lasing mode. Increasing the cavity length both reduces the number of spontaneous emission photons (by decreasing the "cold-cavity" spectral width of each longitudinal mode) and increases the total number of photons in the cavity for a fixed output power. this is why the cavity lenght term appears twice in the Schallow-Townes equation.
A single-frequency distributed feedback (DFB) diode laser with cavity of 0.3 mm will typically have an emission linewidth on the order of 1 to 10 MHz. Increasing the length of the cavity to 3 cm, for example, will narrow the emission linewidth by a factor of more than 100. It has been shown  that the linewidth of the emission from an extended cavity semiconductor lasers can be reduced to <1 kHz.
Single Wavelength Operation and Tuning
For many applications, it is desirable to have a single longitudinal mode (single frequency) laser, to be able to adjust the lasing wavelength, or both. To accomplish this, a wavelength-selective feedback element external to the semiconductor laser chip can be used to select the lasing wavelength. Proper operation of this external cavity laser (ECL) requires suppression of the intrinsic optical feedback from the semiconductor chip Fabry-Perot cavity so that it does not interfere with the external feedback. The gain chip's Fabry-Perot cavity effect can be reduced by applying an antireflection (AR) optical coating to one chip facet.
Figure 3: External Cavity Operation Based on a Gain Chip
At a minimum, the chip facet reflectance (R1) should be 20 dB less than the external feedback (Rext); that is, R1 < 10-2 x Rext.  Even with the AR coating, the residual reflection from the AR-coated Fabry-Perot gain chip facet often limits the stability, output power, and spectral quality of the ECL, especially if the laser is tunable. To further reduce the reflection at the chip facet, the combination of an angled waveguide and an AR coating can be used to effectively remove most of the feedback from the internal chip Fabry-Perot cavity.  This single-angled-facet (SAF) gain chip provides a superior structure for ECLs, in particular broadband tunable ECLs.
Figure 4: Single-Angled-Facet Gain Chip
External Cavity Laser Design
There are numerous approaches for implementing an external cavity semiconductor laser.  The first consideration for most approaches is the choice of a wavelength selective feedback element. One of the most common feedback elements is a diffraction grating, which can be used as the feedback element in both single-frequency and broadly tunable external cavity lasers.
When the collimated output of the gain chip is incident on a diffraction grating at angle theta with respect to the grating surface normal and perpendicular to the grating lines, the diffracted beams exit the grating at an angle θ' determined by the grating equation:
Equation 5: Grating Equation
Here, n is the order of diffraction, λ is the diffracted wavelength, and d is the grating constant (the distance between grooves). For n > 0, the diffraction grating will spatially separate a polychromatic incident beam by diffracting the beam at an angle θ', which is wavelength dependent. Once the spectral content of the gain chip is spatially separated, a variety of means can be employed to selectively reflect light with a specific wavelength back into the gain medium.
Littrow ECL Configuration
One of the simplest approaches is to use a Littrow configuration where the diffraction grating is oriented so that the first-order diffraction is retroreflected back into the gain chip [i.e., θ = θ' in Eq. (5) above]:
Equation 6: Grating Equation, Littrow Configuration
The laser output power can be taken from the zero-order reflection of the grating, which is often done because it minimizes the number of optical elements required to construct the ECL (a collimating lens and the diffraction grating).
Wavelength tuning is accomplished by rotating the diffraction grating, which varies the wavelength of light that is reflected back into the waveguide. When the diffraction grating (grating constant), collimation lens, and cavity length are chosen so that only one longitudinal mode is reflected back to the gain chip within the acceptance angle of the waveguide, the external cavity laser will produce a signle frequency laser spectrum. Note that the selection of collimation lens is important because it affects the amount of grating area that is illuminated as well as the focused spot size coupling back into the semiconductor gain chip. One of the disadvantages of this configuration is that the angle of the zero-order output beam changes as the wavelength is tuned. However, this problem can be avoided if the output of the ECL is emitted from the normal facet of the SAF gain chip. In this configuration, the reflectance of the SAF normal facet is typically reduced to R ~ 10% and a grating is chosen that efficiently diffracts light into the order being used to create the ECL to maximize the output power of the laser.
Figure 5: Littrow External Cavity Laser
Littman-Metcalf ECL Configuration
Another common ECL implementation is the Littman-Metcalf configuration, which uses an additional adjustable mirror to select the feedback wavelength.  The double-pass of the diffraction grating at an increased angle of incidence results in an external cavity that has better wavelength selectivity. As a result, the output beam of a Littman-Metcalf ECL typically as a narrower linewidth than a similar laser built using a Littrow configuration. In the Littman-Metcalf configuration, the output beam of he laser is typically the zero-order reflection from the diffraction grating, since the propagation direction remains fixed as the wavelength is tuned. In this case, the SAF normal facet is coated with a high-reflective (HR) coating, typically >90%, in order to minimize the losses in the ECL, which maximizes the output power.
Figure 6: Littman-Metcalf External Cavity Laser
For some applications it may still be desirable to use the normal facet of the SAF chip as the output coupler of the laser. For these applications, a low reflection coating on the normal facet of the SAF gain chip would be required in order to maximize the output power of the laser.
One drawback to the Littman-Metcalf design is that the internal losses are higher than in the Littrow configuration, and hence, the output power of the laser is typically lower. The increase in internal losses are mainly due to the loss of the zero-order beam reflected from the tuning mirror and the increased loss due to the decrease in the efficiency of the grating when used to reflect light at a large angle of incidence.
Innovative ECL Design
The innovative design of an SAF gain chip is ideal for use in external cavity lasers because it virtually eliminates the unwanted feedback from the intracavity facet of the gain chip. Thorlabs offers SAF chips with both low- and high-reflectivity coatings on the normal facet in order to support a wide variety of external cavity configurations. For information on custom coatings that optimize the performance of a particular external cavity laser configuration, please contact Tech Support.
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