Surface-Emitting Laser Arrays Bring Light to the Top

Laser diodes are an integral part of everyday life, incorporated into commonplace items as diverse in function as laser pointers, fiber-optic communications systems, and DVD players. Manufacturers make most laser diodes by layering specially doped semiconductor materials on a wafer. By slicing tiny chips from these wafers to attain two perfectly smooth, parallel edges, they create very thin (tens of microns) waveguides. These waveguides define a resonating cavity that causes stimulated light to combine in a way that embodies a "laser" and propagates its lasing action. Although this process represents a highly successful and wellengineered means for producing semiconductor lasers, the lasers do not produce an optimum beam. Beam emission occurs from the small rectangular opening at the end of the chip, a configuration that results in an elliptically distorted beam as well as the loss of output efficiency. In addition, the output aperture's relatively small size can lead to destruction of the cleaved and polished end facet during the laser's high-power operation. Laser diodes produced using this process are also susceptible to substantial fluctuations in output wavelength and beam quality as a function of temperature. Furthermore, since the chip emits beam output from an edge instead of its top or bottom surface, manufacturers experience difficulty both in packaging various diode configurations and in combining the output beams of multiple laser diodes.

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