Quantum and Nuclear


Lesson for 16-19

It is likely that all pupils will have experienced laser technology in their homes or at school but may well not familiar with the range of uses of lasers, their operation and safety.

Lasers form rather more of a 'tool' and so demonstration experiments are relatively few. However some ideas and an explanation of the workings and other details of a laser are given.

    Up next

    Preparation for lasers topic

    Quantum and Nuclear | Light, Sound and Waves

    Episode 503: Preparation for lasers topic

    Teaching Guidance for 16-19

    As regards post-16 examinations, the formal requirements laid down are modest, or non-existent, so that the level of treatment here is not detailed.

    Main aims of this topic


    Students will:

    • outline the principles of operation of a laser
    • state some uses of high and low energy lasers

    Prior knowledge

    Students should know about the wave nature of light, including interference. They should also know how light is emitted by electron transitions within atoms.

    Up next

    How lasers work

    Quantum and Nuclear | Light, Sound and Waves

    Episode 504: How lasers work

    Lesson for 16-19

    This episode considers uses of lasers, and the underlying theory of how they work.

    Lesson Summary

    • Demonstration: Seeing a laser beam (10 minutes)
    • Discussion: Uses of lasers (15 minutes)
    • Discussion: Safety with lasers (10 minutes)
    • Discussion: How lasers work (20 minutes)
    • Worked examples: Power density (10 minutes)
    • Student calculations (10 minutes)


    Ensure that you are familiar with safety regulations and advice before embarking on any demonstrations (see

    episode 504-2 (Word, 26 KB)

    Demonstration: Seeing a laser beam

    A laser beam can be made visible by blowing smoke or making dust in its path. Its path through a tank of water can be shown by adding a little milk.

    Show laser light passing through a smoke filled box or across the lab and compare this with a projector beam or a focussed beam of light from a tungsten filament light bulb.

    Show the principle of optical fibre communication by directing a laser beam down a flexible plastic tube containing water to which a little milk has been added.

    Show a comparison between the interference pattern produced by a tungsten filament lamp (with a monochromatic filter) and that produced by a laser.

    Discussion: Uses of lasers

    Talk about where lasers are used – ask for suggestions from the class. As far as possible this should be an illustrated discussion with a CD player, a laser pointer, a set of bar codes, a bar code reader and the school’s laser with a hologram available for demonstration.

    Episode 504-1: Uses of lasers (Word, 25 KB)

    Show the list of uses. Invite students to consider the uses shown in the list. Can they say why lasers are good for these? The reasons might be:

    • a laser beam can be intense
    • a laser beam is almost monochromatic
    • a laser beam diverges very little
    • laser light is coherent

    Discussion: Safety with lasers

    Lasers must be used with care. Use the text as the basis of a discussion of the precautions which must be taken.

    Episode 504-2: Lasers and safety (Word, 26 KB)

    Discussion: How lasers work

    If students are familiar with energy level diagrams for atoms, and of the mechanisms of absorption and emission of photons, you can present the science behind laser action. Point out the difference between:

    (a) excitation – an input of energy raises an electron to a higher energy level

    (b) emission – the electron falls back to a lower energy level emitting radiation and

    (c) stimulated emission – the electron is stimulated to fall back to a lower energy level by the interaction of a photon of the same energy.

    Define population inversion: Usually the lower energy levels contain more electrons than the higher ones (a).

    In order for lasing action to take place there must be a population inversion. This means that more electrons exist in higher energy levels than is normal (b).

    For the lasing action to work the electrons must stay in the excited (metastable) state for a reasonable length of time. If they fell to lower levels too soon there would not be time for the stimulating photon to cause stimulated emission to take place.

    Laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. The diagrams in

    episode 503

    up to the higher energy level using photons. hey then drop down and accumulate in a relatively stable energy level, where they are stimulated to all drop back together to the ground state by a photon whose energy is exactly the energy difference to the ground state.

    Discuss coherent and non-coherent light. Coherent light is light in which the photons are all in step – in other words the change of phase within the beam occurs for all the photons at the same time. There are no abrupt phase changes within the beam. Light produced by lasers is both coherent and monochromatic (of one colour).

    Incoherent sources emit light with frequent and random changes of phase between the photons. (Tungsten filament lamps and ordinary fluorescent tubes emit incoherent light).

    Worked examples: Power density

    The laser beam also shows very little divergence and so the power density (power per unit area) diminishes only slowly with distance. It can be very high.

    For example consider a light bulb capable of emitting a 100 W of actual luminous radiation.

    At a distance of 2 m the power density is

    100 W4 π 22 = 2 W m-2.

    The beam from a helium-neon gas laser diverges very little. The beam is about 2 mm in diameter close to the laser spreading out to a diameter of about 1.6 km when shone from the Earth onto the Moon!

    At a distance of 2 m from a 1 mW laser the power density in the beam would be

    0.001 W4 π 0.0012 = 320 W m-2.

    This is why you must never look directly at a laser beam or its specular reflection.

    Student calculations

    Ask the class to calculate the power densities for a 100 W lamp and a 1 mW laser at the Moon.

    (Distance to Moon is 400 000 km; diameter of laser beam at Moon is 1.6 km)

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