More Mirrors (and A Little Audio) Mean More Laser Power

Lasers are pretty much magic — it’s all done with mirrors. Not every laser, of course, but in the 1980s, the most common lasers in commercial applications were probably the helium-neon laser, which used a couple of mirrors on the end of a chamber filled with gas and a high-voltage discharge to produce a wonderful red-orange beam.

The trouble is, most of the optical power gets left in the tube, with only about 1% breaking free. Luckily, there are ways around this, as [Les Wright] demonstrates with this external passive cavity laser. The guts of the demo below come from [Les]’ earlier teardown of an 80s-era laser particle counter, a well-made instrument powered by a He-Ne laser that was still in fine fettle if a bit anemic in terms of optical power.

[Les] dives into the physics of the problem as well as the original patents from the particle counter manufacturer, which describe a “stabilized external passive cavity.” That’s a pretty fancy name for something remarkably simple: a third mirror mounted to a loudspeaker and placed in the output path of the He-Ne laser. When the speaker is driven by an audio frequency signal, the mirror moves in and out along the axis of the beam, creating a Doppler shift in the beam reflected back into the He-Ne laser and preventing it from interfering with the lasing in the active cavity. This forms a passive cavity that greatly increases the energy density of the beam compared to the bare He-Ne’s output.

The effect of the passive cavity is plain to see in the video. With the oscillator on, the beam in the passive cavity visibly brightens, and can be easily undone with just the slightest change to the optical path. We’d never have guessed something so simple could make such a difference, but there it is.

Continue reading “More Mirrors (and A Little Audio) Mean More Laser Power”