Tools of the Trade

Photonics provides scientists with sophisticated tools such as ultrafast, tunable lasers, high-sensitivity detectors, and various other types of analysis instrumentation.

There was a time when science meant beakers and microscopes, electricity and balances. These days, researchers have added more sophisticated tools to their labs. Whether it’s particle image velocimetry, laser-assisted mass-absorption spectroscopy, or optically tracked polymerase chain reaction for DNA studies, photonic technologies are increasingly becoming the tools for scientific investigation.

The strongest trend in the last decade has been the development of sophisticated turnkey ultrafast and tunable scientific laser systems. In the early 1990s, tunable ultrafast systems were large and finicky, requiring precisely controlled environmental conditions and elaborate power and cooling apparatus. In the time since, laser manufacturers have produced optical parametric amplifiers, optical parametric oscillators (OPOs), and tunable ultrafast laser systems that scarcely require the owners to crack the box. «You used to have to have some touch capability and be a laser jock to run a tunable laser,» says Charles Miyaki, vice president of business development at Aculight (Bothell, WA). «Now you just have to point and click.»

Bruce Craig, vice president and general manager of industrial and scientific lasers at Spectra-Physics (Mountain View, CA) agrees. «Since the introduction of diode-pumped high-power green lasers in the mid 1990s, there has been limited technical revolution in the products. Mainly there have been engineering breakthroughs—[designing for] better performance, lower noise, better stability, more reliability, better utilities, compactness, and then ultimately taking all those things and putting them into a single box.» And as the technology has become simpler to use, it has attracted greater interest from less sophisticated users.

The first multiphoton microscopy experiment, for example, took place in 1991 with a colliding pulse, mode-locked dye laser system. «It was difficult to imagine how that would ever become a commercial application,» Craig says, «and it wouldn’t without the advent of titanium-doped sapphire (Ti: sapphire) lasers, the solid-state laser, and, ultimately, commercial systems. We’ve come a long way—there’s no doubt about it.»

Though not as spectacular—or cyclical—as the telecom and semiconductor markets, the scientific laser market remains solid. «It’s a steady market that’s pretty predictable from year to year,» says Craig. «The other thing that’s vital is that it keeps us in close contact with pioneers, people who are pushing the envelope on next-generation technology and people who are pushing the envelope on applications.»

Extending the reach of applications no longer requires extensive experience with lasers. Miyaki recalls an experiment in 1986 that required multiple wavelengths in the near infrared. «We used a krypton ion laser pumping a CW ring dye laser, then pulse amplified it in a YAG-pumped pulsed dye laser, and then amplified it further in a pulsed Ti: sapphire laser. This was an experiment with six beamlines that took nine 4 ft. * 8 ft. benches,» says Miyaki. «Now you can buy each beamline in one box.»

(by Kristin Lewotsky, OEmagazine, June 2001)

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