Ultrafast Fiber Lasers Are a New Animal

The design simplicity of fiber lasers allows for more robust machines
21 February 2020
By Sophia Chen

IPG Photonics at SPIE Photonics West

IPG Photonics at SPIE Photonics West. Credit: Adam Resnick/SPIE.

Fiber lasers, first commercialized in the 1980s, gave scientists a compact, robust instrument with applications in manufacturing, medical, telecom, and more. Now, companies are moving to develop fiber lasers that emit pulses of light in the ultrafast realm. At SPIE Photonics West 2020, Toby Strite, applications and marketing director of California-based IPG Photonics, discussed the company's pulsed fiber lasers and discussed their plans for the future.

IPG already offers its first ultrafast fiber laser, Strite said, which is a pulsed laser that delivers pulses under 3 picoseconds. Surgeons, who need to label their tools for a variety of safety and regulatory reasons, can use these lasers for this purpose, for example. The powerful laser pulses leave black marks resistant to washing. The short pulses are also useful for machining, in cleanly cutting various materials such as thin plastics. IPG has also extended this design to offer commercially fiber lasers that emit pulses hundreds of femtoseconds long.

Unlike a solid-state laser, which might amplify light with crystal, a fiber laser uses optical fiber doped with rare earth elements as a gain medium. This fiber can be coiled up, which allows for a compact laser design. In addition, fiber lasers essentially require only two essential components: diode pumps and the optical fiber, said Strite. The simplicity of the design allows for more robust machines.

They are also moving toward designing modular fiber lasers with parts that are easily detached, said Strite. These models might include modular elements that shift the laser wavelength or boost its energy, for example.

These ultrafast fiber lasers, whose prototypes are kept at IPG's lab in Santa Clara, California, could have medical and machining applications. But it's not clear what its use cases are yet. "It's a new animal," says Strite. "We have to learn how to harness it." Over the years, scientists will have to figure out which applications will make these ultrafast lasers shine.

Sophia Chen contributes to Wired, Science, and Physics Girl. She is a freelance science writer based in Tucson, Arizona.

Related SPIE content:

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All-fiber sources for visible femtosecond pulses using resonant dispersive waves

Hollow-core photonic crystal fibers for high-power, ultrafast lasers

Toward cheaper fiber laser pulses

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