Glossary of Laser Terms

ABSORB: To transform radiant energy into a different form, usually with a resultant rise in temperature.

ABSORBANCE: The ability  of a medium to absorb radiation  depending on temperature and wavelength. Expressed as the negative common logarithm of the transmittance.

ABSORPTION COEFFICIENT: The amount of radiant energy absorbed per unit or path-length.

AMPLIFICATION: The  growth   of the radiation field  in the  laser  resonator cavity. As the light wave bounces back and forth between the cavity mirrors, it is Amp stimulated emission on each pass through the active medium.

AMPLITUDE: The maximum value oft he electromagnetic wave, measured from the mean to the extreme; put simply, the height of the wave.(See drawing under “polarization.”)


ANODE: An electrical  element  in laser excitation which attracts electrons from a cathode. An anode can be cooled directly by water or by radiation.

AR COATINGS: Anti-reflection coatings, used on the backs of laser output mirrors to suppress unwanted multiple reflections which reduce power.

AUTOCOLLIMATOR: A single instrument combining the functions of a telescope and a collimator to detect small angular displacements of a mirror by means of its own collimated light.

AXIAL-FLOWLASER: The simplest  and most efficient of the gas lasers. An axial flow of gas is maintained through the tube to replace those gas molecules depleted by the electrical discharge used to excite the gas molecules to the lasing state (See “GASDISCHARGELASER.”)

AXIS, OPTICAL AXIS: The optical center- line for a lens system; the line passing through the centers of curvature of the optical surfaces of a lens.

BEAMBENDER: Hardware  assembly  or optical device, such as a mirror, capable of changing  laser direction;  used to re-point  the  beam  and  in “folded,” compact delivery systems.

BEAMDIAMETER: The diameter  of that portion of thebeamwhichcontains86% of the output power.

BEAM  EXPANDER: Optical  splitting   a laser  beam  into two or  more  beams, allowing work on morethan onesideof a part atthe sametime–butatsomewhat lowerpowerthanwithamultiple-output beamsystem.

BREWSTER WINDOWS: The transmissive end (or both ends) of the laser tube, made of transparent optical material and set at Brewster’s angle in gas lasers to achieve zero reflective loss of vertically polarized light. Non-standard on industrial lasers, but a must if polarization is desired.

BRIGHTNESS: The visual sensation of the luminous  power  of a  light beam,  as opposed to scientifically measured power of the beam.

CALORIMETER: An instrument which measures the heat generated by absorption of the laser beam.

CATHODE: The element providing the electrons for the electrical discharge used to excite the lasing medium.

CO2 LASER: A laser largely usedin industry in which the  primary  lasing medium is carbon dioxide.

COAXIAL GAS: Most laser welding is done with a shield of inert gas flowing over the work surface to prevent plasma oxidation and absorption, to blow away debris, and to control heat reaction.The gas jet has the same axis as the beam so the two can be aimed together.

COHERENT LIGHT, COHERENT RADIATION: Radiation composed  of wavetrains vibrating in phase with each other. Simply expressed: parallel rays of light.

COLLIMATED LIGHT: Divergent light rays rendered parallel by means of a lens or other device, allowing a sharp image of the object to be focused at the focal plane of the lens.

COLLIMATION: The process by which divergent rays (white, or natural, light) are converted into parallel rays(coherent light).

CONVERGENCE: The bending of light rays toward each other, as by a positive (convex) lens.

CW: Continuous Wavefront; the continuous- emission mode of a laser, as opposed to pulsed operation.

DEPTH OF FIELD: The working range of the beam, a function of wavelength, diameter of the unfocused beam, and focal length of the lens. To achieve a small diameter spot size, and thus a high power density, a short depth of field must be accepted.

DIVERGENCE: The  angle at which the laser beam spreads in the far field;the bendingof rays away from each other, as by a concave lens or convex mirror.

DUTY CYCLE: The length of time the laser beam is actually cutting, drilling, welding, or heat-treating, as compared to the entire work cycle time.

ELECTROMAGNETIC WAVE: A disturbance which propagates outward  from an electric charge which oscillates or is accelerated. Includes radio waves; X-rays, gamma rays; and infrared,ultra- violet, and visible light.

EMISSIVITY, EMITTANCE: Rate at which emission takes place; the ratio of the radiant energy emitted by a source or surface to that emitted by a black body at the same temperature.

ENHANCED PULSING: Electronic modulation of a laser beams to produce high peak power at the initial stage of the pulse. This allows rapid vaporization of the material without heating the sur- rounding area. Such pulses are many times the peak power of the CW mode.

EXPOSURE:  A measure of the total radiant energy incident on a surface per unit area; radiant exposure.

FAR-FIELD IMAGING: An imaging technique with solid-state lasers that has several limitations: non-uniform energy distribution, very short working distances, and poor control of hole geometry.

FLASHLAMP: Source of powerful light; often in the form of a helical coil and used to excite photon emission in a solid-state laser.

FLUORESCENCE: The glow induced in a material when bombarded by light. Brewster windows of fused silica fluoresce in UV light, increasing absorption of laser radiation and degrading laser mode and output.

FLUX: The radiant, or luminous, power of a light beam; the time rate of the flow of radiant energy across a given surface.

FOCUS: Noun: The point where rays of light meet which have been converged by a lens, giving  rise to an image of the source. Verb: To adjust focal length for the clearest image.

FOCAL POINT: The focal point of the beam relative to the work surface. Has a critical effect, such as the depth and shape of drilled holes. When the focal point is at the surface, holes are of uniform diameter. When the focus is below the surface, conical holes are drilled.

FOLDED RESONATOR: Construction   in which the interior optical path is bent by mirrors mounted on corner blocks bolted into pre-aligned  position, permitting compact packaging of a long laser cavity.

FREQUENCY: The number of light waves passing a fixed point unit of time, or the number of complete vibrations  in that period of time.

GAS DISCHARGED LASER: An assisting coaxial gas, such as oxygen, argon, or nitrogen, which may be used to achieve very high power levels for cutting certain metals.

GAS TRANSPORT: A laser design which generates very high beam power within a fairly small resonator structure. Long electrodes parallel the axis and gas is circulated across the resonator cavity.

GAUSSIAN: The normal “curve,” or distribution, an example of which is the symmetrical bell shape of the holes created by the uncorrected, unfocused laser beam in its optimum  mode. A Gaussian laser beam has most of its energy in the center.

HAZ: Heat-Affected  Zone, or the area where laser beam and metal(or other) surface are in contact.

HELIUM-NEONLASER: (“HeNe”),  Laser in which the active medium is a mixture of helium and neon, which is in the visible range. Used widely in industry for alignment, recording, printing, and measuring, it is also valuable as a pointer or aligner of invisible CO2 laser light.

HEAT SINK: A substance  or device used to dissipate or absorb unwanted heat, as from a manufacturing  process(or, with lasers, from reflected rays).

HERTZ: The approved international term, abbreviated Hz, which replaces CPS for cycles per second.

INCIDENT LIGHT: A ray of light that falls on the surface of a lens–or any other object. The “angle of incidence” is the angle made by the ray with a perpendicular to the surface.

ION LASER: A type of laser employing a very high discharge current,  passing down a small bore to ionize a noble gas such as argon or krypton. The ionization process creates a population inversion for lasing to occur. A research laser useful for some industrial applications.

INTENSITY: The magnitude of radiant energy (light) per unit, such as time or reflecting surface.

JOULE: One watt per second; a measurement frequently given for laser output in pulsed operation.

KEYHOLING: In welding, the  deep-penetration holes, which fill quickly with molten metal, that can be made in a few millisecondsby laser.

LASER: An acronym:  Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.  A laser is a cavity that has mirrors at the ends and is filled with lasable material such as crystal, glass, liquid, gas, or dye. These materials must have atoms, ions, or molecules capable of being excited to a meta stable state by light, electric discharge, or other stimulus. The transition from this meta stable state back to the normal ground state is accompanied by the emission of photons which  form a coherent beam.

LASER ACCESSORIES:  The hardware and options  available  for lasers, such  as secondary gases, Brewster windows, Q-switches, and electronic shutters.

LASER HARDENING: Laser-beam traversal of metal to harden quenching  process producing the maximum hardness for most metals.

LASER OSCILLATION: The build up of the coherent wave between laser cavity end mirrors.  In CW mode, the wave bounding back and forth between mirrors transmits a fraction of its energy on each trip; in pulsed, operation, emission happens instantaneously.

LASER ROD: A solid-state,  rod-shaped lasing medium in which ion excitation is caused by a source of intense light, such as a flashlamp. Various materials are used for the rod, the earliest of which was synthetic ruby crystal.

LEADING EDG ESPIKE: The initial pulse in a series of pulsed laser emissions, often useful in starting a reaction at the target surface. The trailing edge of the laser power is used to maintain there action after the initial burst of energy.

LIGHT: The range of electromagnetic radiation frequencies detected by the eye, or the wavelength range from about 400 to 750 nanometers. It is sometimes extended to include photovoltaic effects and radiation beyond visible limits.

LUMINANCE: Commonly called illumination; the luminous or visible flux per unit area on a receiving surface at any given point.

MENISCUS LENS: The lens used primarily in CO2 lasers. It has one side convex, the other concave.

MODE:  A particular functioning arrangement, setup, or condition for laser operation, such  as continuous emission, pulses, or grouped pulses. “Mode”  also described the cross-sectional shape of the beam. (See “TEM.”)

MODULATION: The ability to super impose an external signal on the output beam of the laser as a control.

NANOMETER: A unit of length in the Inter-national System of Units (SI) equal to one billionth of a meter (109 meter). Once called a millimicron, it is used to represent wavelength. Abbreviated “nm.”

Nd: GLASS LASER: A solid-state laser of Neodymium: glass offering  high power or short pulses, or both, for specific industrial applications.

Nd: YAG LASER: A solid-state laser of Neodymium: Yttrium-Aluminum Garnet, similar to the Nd: glass laser. Both are pumped by flashlamps.

NEMA: National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association, a group which defines and recommends safety standards for electrical equipment.

OPTICAL DENSITY: Protection factor provided by a filter (such as used in eyewear, viewing windows, etc.)at a specific wavelength. Each unit of OD represents a 10x increase in protection.

OPTICAL FIBER: Filament of quartz or other optical material capable of trans- mitting light along its conformation and emitting it at the end.

OPTICAL PUMPING: Exciting the lasing medium by the application of light rather than electrical discharge from anode and cathode.

OUTPUT COUPLER: The resonator mirror which transmits light: the one at the opposite end is totally reflective.

OUTPUT POWER: The energy per second emitted from the laser in the form of coherent light, usually measured in watts for continuous-wave operation and joules for pulsed operation.

OXYGEN ASSIST: In certain cutting operations, coaxial oxygen initiates an exothermic reaction  to enhance the cutting rate for thick metals; in other words, oxygen actually does the cutting, with the reaction being maintained by the laser beam.

PHOTON: In quantum theory, the elemental unit of light,  having both wave and particle behavior. It has motion, but no mass or charge.

PLASMA: In laser welding, a metal vapor that forms above the spot where the beam reacts with the metal surface. Also used to describe the laser tube (plasma tube, discharge tube)which contains the completely ionized gas in certain lasers.

POLARIZATION: Restriction of the vibrations of the electromagnetic field to a single plane, rather than the innumerable planes rotating about the vector axis. This prevents optical losses at interfaces between the lasing medium and optical elements. Various forms of polarization include random, linear (plane), vertical, horizontal, elliptical, and circular. Of two polarization components,  S and P, the P component has zero losses at Brewster’s angle. (See “BREWSTER WINDOWS.”)


POPULATION INVERSION: When more molecules (atoms, ions) in a laser are in a meta stable state than in the ground state (a situation needed for sustaining a high rate of stimulated emissions),  a “population inversion”issaidto exist. Without a population inversion, there can be no lasing action.

POWER DENSITY: The amount of radiant energy concentrated on a surface.

POWER METER: An accessory  used to monitor laser beam power at the rear reflector, tune the  beam for optimum power, or monitor power delivered to the workstation.

POWER RAMPING:  A controlled change in the power level of a laser beam, either linearly, as up a ramp, across, and down again–or in several discrete steps. Useful for smooth completion of circular welds and for preventing fractures from rapid cooling.

PULSE ENERGY: The power of a single, brief emission from a laser programmed for pulsed behavior rather than continuous wave (CW) operation. Pulse energy can be several times greater than CW emission.

Q-SWITCH: A device that has the effect of a shutter moving rapidly in and out of the beam to “spoil” the resonator’s normal Q, keeping it low and preventing lasing action until a  high level  of energy is stored. Result: A huge pulse of power when normal Q is restored.

RAMAN  EFFECT: Part of the energy in a photon is transferred  to (or from) the vibrational/ rotational energy of a molecule.

RAMPER: Power controls for accomplishing the ramping steps; maybe computer- controlled.

REFLECTANCE: The ratio of the reflected flux to the incident flux, or the ratio of reflected light to light falling on the object.

REFLECTION: The return of radiant energy (incident light) by  a  surface,  with no change in wavelength.

REFRACTION: The change  of direction of propagation of any wave, such as an electromagnetic wave, when it passes from one medium to another in which the wave velocity is different. Simply put, the bending of incident rays as they pass from one medium to another, such as air to water.

RESOLUTION: Resolving  power,  or the quantitative measure of the ability of an optical instrument to produce separable images of different points on an object; the capability of making distinguishable the individual parts of an object, closely adjacent images, or sources of light.

RESONATOR: The mirrors (or reflectors) making up the laser cavity containingthe laser rod or tube. The mirrors reflect light back and forth to build up amplification under an external stimulus. Emission is through one of them, called a coupler, which is partially transmissive.

ROTATING LENS: Beam delivery in a circular movement for cutting large-diameter holes.

STIMULATED EMISSION: When an atom, ion, or molecule capable of lasing  is excited to a higher energy level by an electric charge or other means, it will spontaneously emit a photon as it decays to the normal ground state. If that photon passes near another atom of the same frequency  which is also at some meta stable energy level, the second atom will be stimulated to emit a photon. Both photons will be of the same wavelength, phase, and spatial coherence. Light amplified  in this manner is intense, coherent, and monochromatic. In short, laser light.

TEM: Abbreviation  for “Transverse Electromagnetic Mode, ”the cross-sectional  shape  of the working  laser beam. An infinite number of shapes can be produced, but only a relatively small number are needed for industrial applications. In general, the higher the TEM, the coarser the focusing.

  • TEM00– A Gaussian curve  model that is the best collimated and produces the smallest spot of high power density for drilling, welding and cutting.
  • TEM01– Divided into two equal beams for special applications.

THRESHOLD: During excitation of the laser medium, this is the point where lasing begins.

TRANSFORMATION HARDENING: A process well-suited  to lasers which involves hardening metal by heating it to the critical temperature for transformation, quenching it, and solidifying it with uniform distribution of its carbon content.

TREPANNING THE BEAM: Relative motion of the beam with respect to the part, usually in a circular fashion (see “ROTATING LENS”).

VISIBLE LIGHT TRANSMISSION/ TRANSMITTANCE: The amount of visible light that passes through a filter. As a rule, as optical density increases, visible light transmission decreases.

WAVE: An undulation or vibration,  a form of movement by which all radiant energy of the electromagnetic spectrum is thought to travel.

WAVELENGTH: The fundamental property of light the length of the light wave, which determines its color. Common units of measurement are the  micron,  the nanometer, and the angstrom.

WINDOW: A piece of glass with plane parallel sides which admits light into or through an optical system and excludes dirt and moisture.