Lasers can be made because of the way light interacts with electrons. Electrons exist in certain energy levels or states that are characteristic of certain atoms or molecules. Energy levels can be thought of as rings or orbits around the nucleus. The electrons in the outer ring are at a higher energy level than those in the inner ring. Electrons can be hit by a higher energy level by an injection of energy – for example by a flash of light. When an electron drops from the outside to the inner level, the “excess” energy is released as light. The wavelength or color of the light emitted is precisely related to the amount of energy released. Depending on the particular binding agent used, a specific wavelength of light is absorbed (to energize or excite the electron) and a specific wavelength is emitted (when the electron returns to its initial state).
For ruby lasers, ruby crystals are formed into cylinders. A fully reflecting mirror is placed on one end and a partially reflecting mirror on the other. The high-intensity light rotates around the ruby cylinder to provide a flash of white light that triggers the laser action. The green and blue wavelengths in the flash excite the electrons in the chromium atoms to higher energy levels. Upon returning to their normal state, the electrons emit a characteristic ruby red glow. The mirror reflects some of this light back and forth inside the ruby crystal, stimulating other excited chromium atoms to produce more red light, until light pulses are formed to high power and drain the energy stored in the crystal.
How Lasers Work
1. High-voltage electricity causes the quartz flash tube to emit intense light, exciting some of the atoms in the ruby crystal to higher energy levels.
2. At certain energy levels, some atoms emit light particles called photons. Initially photons are emitted in all directions. Photons from one atom stimulate the emission of photons from another atom and the light intensity is rapidly amplified.
3. Mirrors at each end reflect photons back and forth, continuing the emission process and amplifying this stimulus.
4. The photons leave a partially silver mirror at one end. This is a laser beam.
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