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Laser diode

A laser diode is a laser where the active medium is a semiconductor p-n junction similar to that found in a light emitting diode. Laser diodes are sometimes referred to (somewhat redundantly) as injection laser diodes or by the acronyms LD or ILD.

Table of contents
1 Principle of operation
2 Types of laser diode

Principle of operation

When a diode is forward biased, holes from the p-region are injected into the n-region, and electrons from the n-region are injected into the p-region. If electrons and holes are present in the same region, they may radiatively recombine—that is, the electron "falls into" the hole and emits a photon with the energy of the bandgap. This is called spontaneous emission, and is the main source of light in a light emitting diode.

Under suitable conditions, the electron and the hole may coexist in the same area for quite some time (on the order of microseconds) before they recombine. If a photon of exactly the right frequency happens along within this time period, recombination may be stimulated by the photon. This causes another photon of the same frequency to be emitted, with exactly the same direction, polarization and phase as the first photon.

In a laser diode, the semiconductor crystal is fashioned into a shape somewhat like a piece of A4 paper—very thin in one direction and rectangular in the other two. The top of the crystal is n-doped, and the bottom is p-doped, resulting in a large, flat p-n junction. The two ends of the crystal are cleaved so as to form perfectly smooth, parallel edges; two reflective parallel edges are called a Fabry-Perot cavity. Photons emitted in precisely the right direction will be reflected several times from each end face before they are emitted. Each time they pass through the cavity, the light is amplified by stimulated emission. Hence, if there is more amplification than loss, the diode begins to "lase".

Types of laser diode

The type of laser diode just described is called a homojunction laser diode, for reasons which should soon become clear. Unfortunately, they are extremely inefficient. They require so much power that they can only be operated in short "pulses;" otherwise the semiconductor would melt. Although historically important and easy to explain, such devices are not practical.

Double heterostructure lasers

In these devices, a layer of low bandgap material is sandwiched between two high bandgap layers. One commonly-used pair of materials is GaAs with AlGaAs. Each of the junctions between different bandgap materials is called a heterostructure, hence the name "double heterostructure laser" or DH laser. The kind of laser diode described in the first part of the article is referred to as a "homojunction" laser, for contrast with these more popular devices.

The advantage of a DH laser is that the region where free electrons and holes exist simultaneously—the "active" region—is confined to the thin middle layer. This means that many more of the electron-hole pairs can contribute to amplification—not so many are left out in the poorly amplifying periphery. In addition, light is reflected from the heterojunction; hence, the light is confined to the region where the amplification takes place.

Quantum well lasers

If the middle layer is made thin enough, it starts acting like a quantum well. This means that in the vertical direction, electron energy is quantised. The difference between quantum well energy levels can be used for the laser action instead of the bandgap. This is very useful since the wavelength of light emitted can be tuned simply by altering the thickness of the layer.

The problem with these devices is that the thin layer is simply too small to effectively confine the light. To compensate, another two layers are added on, outside the first three. These layers have a lower refractive index than the centre layers, and hence confine the light effectively. Such a design is called a separate confinement heterostructure (SCH) laser diode.

Almost all commercial laser diodes since the 1990s have been SCH quantum well diodes.


Laser diodes discussed to this point have the disadvantage of emitting light through the thin crystal edge. This gives them a rectangular beam output, and spreads out the beam due to diffraction (i.e., "divergence"). Vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs) instead emit light from the "top" of the crystal. The reason this technique is only a recent development is that it is very difficult to give the top and bottom of the crystal a sufficiently high reflectivity. This has been overcome by the successful construction of Bragg gratings for mirrors on the top and bottom surfaces. VCSELs are just starting to become commercially available.

See also Laser diode rate equations