November 1, 2010 Issue

Physics To Go 108 - Lasers visible & infrared

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Physics in Your World

Physics 2000: Lasers image
image credit: Marco Nero (lasers by Wicked Lasers); image source; larger image

Physics 2000: Lasers

Lasers don't come only in red: you can buy handheld lasers that produce light in various wavelengths in the visible spectrum. Remember, lasers can be dangerous--so get adult supervision for any laser experiment you try.

- To learn how lasers work, check out the University of Colorado site Physics 2000: Lasers with several helpful applets.
- For some information on the differences between lasers that produce different colors, see this Laser Colors Q & A from the University of Illinois.
- And to learn about a laser that produces infrared light, see the feature at right on quantum cascade lasers.

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Physics at Home

Laser Applications

Lasers are everywhere, from the supermarket to your CD player. Learn about even more applications at Laser Applications, and be sure to check out the links on this Laserfest webpage.


From Physics Research

Quantum Cascade Lasers image
image credit: Fatima Toor; image source; larger image

Quantum Cascade Lasers

The image above shows a quantum cascade laser captured by a camera that images infrared light. The laser light is the small dot in the middle of the round window. The laser itself--behind the window--is kept at a temperature of -193° C, just above the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

Quantum cascade lasers work like this:
- In a thin slice of a semiconductor, an electron can occupy discrete energy levels.
- When an electron moves from a higher level to a lower level, a photon is emitted.
- If many thin slices of semiconductor are stacked together, the electron can cascade from one to another, emitting a photon of the same frequency in each slice. These photons form the laser beam.
- To learn more, see Quantum Cascade Lasers.

Worth a Look

First Supernova Discovered with Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics

Lasers can help astronomers bring stars into focus. A laser, tuned to a sodium spectral line, shines backward through the telescope, and this laser light excites sodium atoms located in a thin layer of the atmosphere, producing in effect an artificial star. Astronomers can then see how the atmosphere distorts the laser star and then compensate to clarify their images. This relatively new technique means ground-based telescopes can be just as useful as those in Earth orbit. See First Supernova Discovered with Laser Guide Star Adaptive Optics and Rubber Mirrors and Artificial Stars for a fuller explanation.

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