Laser Radiation, Effects of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Laser Radiation, Effects of


The high power of laser radiation, coupled with its high directivity, makes possible the production of light fluxes of extremely high intensity by focusing. The highest radiation power (see Table 1) has been produced using solid-state neodymium-doped glass lasers (wavelength λ = 1.06 microns [μ]) and gas lasers (λ = 10.6 μ). The specific features of laser radiation have led to the discovery of a number of new physical phenomena, the range of which is expanding rapidly as the power of lasers is increased.

Table 1. Characteristics of certain types of lasers
 Pulse duration (sec)Pulse energy (J)Power (W)Maximum radiation flux density (W/cm2)
co2......Continuous103up to 107
Nd + glass ..10−3104107up to 107-1011
co2......6 × 10−83 × 1025 × 10191013
Nd + glass . .10−93 × 1023 × 10111016
Nd + glass . .(0.3) × 10−1110–201012-10131015-1016

Developed vaporization of metals. When laser radiation (for example, pulses of a neodymium laser lasting several microseconds) with a radiation flux density of 106-108 watts per sq cm (W/cm2) acts on metals, the metal in the zone of irradiation disintegrates, and a characteristic crater appears on the surface of the target. The bright luminosity of a plasma flare, which is a moving vapor heated and ionized by the laser radiation, is observed near the target. The reaction pressure of the vapor ejected from the surface of the metal imparts a recoil impulse Q to the target (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Motion of vapor near the surface of a metal and transfer of momentum to a target from incident laser radiation: (Q) momentum vector of vaporized substance, (—Q) momentum imparted to solid target

Vaporization takes place from the surface of a thin layer of liquid metal heated to a temperature of several thousand degrees. The temperature of the layer is determined by the equality of the absorbed energy and the losses to the cooling associated with vaporization. The role of thermal conduction in cooling the layer in the process is insignificant. In contrast to ordinary vaporization, this process is called developed vaporization.

The pressure in the layer is determined by the recoil force of the vapor and, when a gas-dynamic flow of vapor forms from the target, is one-half of the saturated vapor pressure at the surface temperature. Thus, the liquid layer is superheated, and its state is metastable. This makes it possible to study the conditions of maximum superheating of metals, under which rapid volumetric boiling-up of the liquid takes place. Upon heating to a temperature close to the critical temperature, an abrupt drop in electrical conductivity may take place in the liquid layer of the metal, and it may acquire the properties of a dielectric. In the process an abrupt drop in the light reflection coefficient is observed.

Irradiation of solid targets. As in the previous case, plasma is formed in the vapor flux from the vaporizing target upon irradiation of virtually all solid targets with millisecond pulses of laser radiation having a radiation flux density of the order of 107—109W/cm2. The plasma temperature is 104-105 °K. This method may be used to produce a large quantity of dense, chemically pure low-temperature plasma to fill magnetic traps and for various industrial purposes. The vaporization of solid targets by laser radiation is used extensively in engineering.

When nanosecond laser pulses with a radiation flux density of 1012-1014 W/cm2 are focused on a solid target, the absorbing layer of the substance is heated so intensely that it immediately becomes plasma. In this case it is no longer possible to speak of vaporization of the target or of a phase interface. The energy of the laser radiation is used to heat the plasma and advance the disintegration and ionization front into the target. The plasma temperature is so high that multiply charged ions, in particular Ca16+, are formed in it. Until recently, the formation of ions of such high multiplicity of ionization was observed only in the radiation of the solar corona. The formation of ions with a nearly stripped electron shell is also interesting from the standpoint of the possibility of conducting nuclear reactions using heavy nuclei in accelerators of multiply charged ions.

Laser spark (optical breakdown of a gas). When a laser beam with a radiation flux density of the order of 1011 W/cm2 is focused in the air at atmospheric pressure, a bright burst of light is observed at the focal point of the lens, and a loud sound is heard. This phenomenon is called the laser spark. The duration of the burst exceeds the duration of the laser pulse (30 nanoseconds) by a factor of 10 or more. The formation of the laser spark may be represented as consisting of two stages: (1) the formation at the focal point of the lens of primary (seed) plasma, which ensures strong absorption of the laser radiation, and (2) the spread of the plasma along the beam in the area of the focal point. The mechanism of formation of seed plasma is analogous to the high-frequency breakdown of gases; hence the term “optical breakdown of a gas.” For picosecond pulses of laser radiation (I ~ 1013—1014 W/cm2) the formation of seed plasma is also due to multiphoton ionization. The heating of the seed plasma by laser radiation and its spread along the beam (against the beam) are caused by several processes, one of which is the propagation of a strong shock wave from the seed plasma. The shock wave heats and ionizes the gas beyond the shock front, leading in turn to the absorption of the laser radiation—that is, to maintenance of the shock wave itself and of the plasma along the beam (light detonation). In other directions the shock wave attenuates quickly.

Since the lifetime of the plasma formed by laser radiation greatly exceeds the duration of the laser pulse, at great distances from the focal point the laser spark may be considered as a point explosion (the nearly instantaneous release of energy at a point). This explains, in particular, the high intensity of the sound. The laser spark has been studied for a number of gases at different pressures, under different conditions of focusing, and for various wavelengths of laser radiation, with pulses lasting 10~6-10−11 sec.

A laser spark may also be observed at much lower intensities if an absorbing seed plasma is generated in advance at the focal point of the lens. For example, in air at atmospheric pressure a laser spark is developed from electric-discharge seed plasma at a laser radiation intensity of approximately 107W/cm2; the laser radiation “captures” the electric-discharge plasma, and during the laser pulse the luminosity spreads over the caustic surface of the lens. When the laser radiation is of relatively low intensity, the spread of the plasma is due to thermal conduction, as a result of which the rate of spread of the plasma is subsonic. This process is analogous to slow combustion, hence the expression “laser spark in the slow combustion mode.”

Steady-state maintenance of a laser spark has been accomplished in various gases by means of a continuous CO2 laser with a power of several hundred watts. The seed plasma was developed by a pulse CO2 laser.

Thermonuclear fusion. Controlled thermonuclear fusion may be produced using laser radiation. For this purpose it is necessary to form an extremely dense and hot plasma with a temperature of approximately 108 °K (in the case of fusion of deuterium nuclei). For the energy liberation resulting from the thermonuclear reaction to exceed the energy added to the plasma during heating, the condition ≧ 1014 cm−3 sec must be fulfilled, where η is the density of the plasma and τ is its lifetime. For short laser pulses this condition is satisfied at very high plasma densities. Here the pressure in the plasma is so great that it is virtually impossible to contain it magnetically. The plasma that appears near the focal point disperses at a speed of the order of 108 cm/sec. Therefore, τ is the time in which the dense plasmoid is unable to change its volume significantly (the inertial confinement time of the plasma). For thermonuclear fusion to occur, the length of the laser pulse tl obviously must not exceed τ. The minimum energy of the laser pulse for a plasma density of η = 5 × 1022 cm−3 (the density of liquid hydrogen), a confinement time of τ = 2 × 10−9 sec, and a plasmoid with linear dimensions of 0.4 cm should be 6 × 105 joules (J). Effective absorption of light by the plasma under conditions of inertial confinement and satisfaction of the condition n τ ~ 10−14 occure only for certain wavelengths λ:

where Laser Radiation, Effects of is the critical wavelength for a plasma with density n. When η = 5 × 1022 cm−3, λ lies in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, for which powerful lasers do not yet exist. At the same time, when λ = 1 μ (a neodymium laser), even for n = 1021 cm–3, corresponding to λcr, a value of = 109 J for the minimum energy, which is difficult to realize, is obtained. The difficulty of feeding the energy of laser radiation in the visible and infrared bands into dense plasma is fundamental. Various ideas exist for surmounting this difficulty; one such idea that is of interest is the production of a superdense hot plasma as a result of adiabatic compression of a spherical deuterium target by the reaction pressure of plasma ejected from the surface of the target under the action of laser radiation.

High-temperature heating of plasma by laser radiation was accomplished in the first time by optical breakdown of the air. In 1966–67, X-radiation from the plasma of a laser spark with a temperature of the order of (1–3) × 106 °K was recorded for a laser radiation flux density of the order of 1012-1013W/cm2. In 1971 a plasma with a temperature of 107 °K (measured on the basis of X-radiation) was produced by irradiating a solid spherical hydrogen-containing target with laser radiation having a flux density of up to 1016 W/cm2. A yield of 106 neutrons per pulse was observed in the process. These results, as well as the existing possibilities for increasing the energy and output of lasers, create the prospect of producing a controlled thermonuclear reaction using laser radiation.

Chemistry of resonance-excited molecules. A selective effect on the chemical bonds of molecules, making possible selective intervention in the chemical reactions of synthesis and dissociation and in the processes of catalysis, is possible under the action of monochromatic laser radiation. Many chemical reactions reduce to the scission of some chemical bonds in molecules and the formation of others. Interatomic bonds are responsible for the vibrational spectrum of a molecule. The frequencies of the spectral lines depend on the binding energy and mass of the atoms. A certain bond may be “built up” under the action of monochromatic laser radiation of the resonance frequency. Such a bond may easily be broken and replaced by another. Therefore, vibrationally excited molecules prove to be chemically more active (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Diagram of the reaction between tetrafluorohydrazine (N2F4) and nitric oxide (NO) upon heating (top) and upon resonance excitation of the N — F bond by laser radiation (bottom). The wavy lines represent chemical bonds.

Molecules with differing isotopic compositions may be separated by means of laser radiation. This possibility is associated with the dependence of the vibrational frequency of the atoms comprising a molecule on the mass of the atoms. The monochromaticity and high power of laser radiation make possible selective pumping of molecules of a specific isotopic composition to the predissociation level and the production of chemical compounds of monoisotopic composition or the isotope itself in the dissociation products. Since the number of dissociated molecules of a given isotopic composition is equal to the number of quanta absorbed, the effectiveness of this method may be high in comparison with other methods of isotope separation.

The effects mentioned above do not exhaust the physical phenomena caused by the action of laser radiation on matter. Transparent dielectrics are destroyed under the action of laser radiation. When certain ferromagnetic films are irradiated, local changes in their magnetic state are observed. This effect may be used in developing high-speed switching devices and computer memory units. When laser radiation is focused within a liquid, the light-hydraulic effect, which makes possible production of high pulse pressures in a liquid, occurs. Finally, for radiation flux densities of approximately 1018-1019 W/cm2, the acceleration of electrons to relativistic energies is possible. A number of new effects, such as the production of electron-positron pairs, are associated with this.


Raizer, Iu. P. “Proboi i nagrevanie gazov pod deistviem lazernogo lucha.” Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 1965, vol. 87, issue 1, p. 29.
Kvantovaia elektronika: Malen’kaia entsiklopediia. Moscow, 1969.
Deistviia izlucheniia bol’shoi moshchnosti na metally. Edited by A. M. Bonch-Bruevich and M. A. El’iashevich. Moscow, 1970.
Basov, N. G., O. N. Krokhin, and P. G. Kriukov. “Lazery i upravliaemaia termoiadernaia reaktsiia.” Priroda, 1971, no. 1.
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Basov, N. G. [et al.] “Lazery ν khimii.” Priroda, 1973, no. 5.
Laser radiation in biology. The study of the biological action of laser radiation began almost simultaneously with the development of the first lasers. Some possible biological and medical aspects of its use were noted by C. Townes in 1962. The possible range of application of laser radiation was subsequently found to be broader.
The biological and medical effects of laser radiation are related not only to the high radiation flux density and to the possibility of focusing a beam on extremely small areas but also probably to other of its characteristics (monochromaticity, wavelength, coherence, and degree of polarization) and to the mode of radiation. Laser radiation dosimetry is one important question in the use of laser radiation in biology and medicine. The determination of the energy absorbed by a unit mass of a biological entity entails great difficulties. Different tissues absorb and reflect laser radiation in different ways. In addition, in different regions of the spectrum laser radiation has not an identical but often an antagonistic action on the biological entity. Therefore, it is impossible to introduce a quality factor in assessing the effect of laser radiation.
The nature of the effect of laser radiation is determined above all by its intensity, or the radiation flux density. In the case of pulse radiators the pulse duration and recurrence frequency are also important. Because of the selectivity of the absorption of laser radiation, the biological effect may not correspond to the energy characteristics of the laser radiation.
An arbitrary distinction is made between the thermal and nonthermal effects of laser radiation; the transition from nonthermal to thermal effects lies in the range of 0.5–1.0 W/cm2. For higher radiation flux densities, absorption of laser radiation by water molecules takes place, leading to evaporation of the molecules and to subsequent coagulation of protein molecules. The structural changes observed in the process are analogous to the results of ordinary thermal action. However, laser radiation ensures extreme localization of the injury, which is also fostered by the high water content of the biological entity and the absorption of the scattering energy in regions bordering on the irradiated area. In the case of pulse thermal effects the “explosive effect” is observed because of the very short exposure time and the fast evaporation of the water: an ejection plume consisting of particles of tissue and water vapor arises; it is accompanied by the appearance of a shock wave that affects the organism as a whole.
Laser radiation with a lower radiation flux density induces in a biological entity changes whose mechanism has not been fully elucidated. They include shifts in the activity of enzymes and in the structure of pigments, nucleic acids, and other biologically important substances. The nonthermal effects of laser radiation induce an intricate complex of secondary physiological changes in the organism, to which resonance phenomena that take place in the biological substrate at the molecular level may contribute. The nonthermal effects of laser radiation are accompanied by reactions on the part of the nervous, circulatory, and other systems. The selectivity of absorption of laser radiation and the possibility of focusing the beam on areas of the order of 1 μ2 has generated particular interest on the part of investigators of intracellular structures and processes who use laser radiation as a “scalpel” that makes possible selective destruction of the nucleus, mitochondria, and other organelles of a cell without killing it. Pigmented tissues have the most marked ability to absorb laser radiation in both thermal and nonthermal effects. The use of specific dyes in vivo also makes possible destruction of structures that are transparent to a particular type of laser radiation. Laser radiation in both the visible spectrum and the ultraviolet and infrared regions is used in the continuous and pulse modes in units designed for intracellular actions.
The photography of biological entities with laser radiation to produce a three-dimensional image of the cells and tissues became possible with the development of holographic laser units for microphotography. New possibilities have opened up for spectral ultramicroanalysis of certain sections of the cell, whose vital activity is temporarily maintained during analysis, in connection with the possibility of concentrating the energy of laser radiation on very small areas. For this purpose the vaporization of a substance from the surface of the entity being studied is induced by a short pulse of laser radiation and undergoes spectral analysis in gaseous form. Here the weight of the sample does not exceed a fraction of a microgram.
It has been established that a number of physiological changes take place in animals upon exposure to the radiation of low-power helium-neon lasers. In the process stimulation of hematopoiesis, regeneration of the connective tissue, shifts in arterial pressure, and changes in the conductivity of the nerve fiber are observed. The stimulating effect of laser radiation on a number of biochemical processes and on the growth and development of plants has been observed in both direct irradiation of plant tissues by helium-neon lasers and irradiation of seeds before planting.
Laser radiation in medicine. The medical use of laser radiation is due to both thermal and nonthermal effects. Laser radiation is used in surgery as a “light scalpel.” Its advantages are the sterility and bloodlessness of the operation, as well as the possibility of controlling the width of the incision. The bloodlessness of the operation results from the coagulation of protein molecules and the occlusion of the vessels along the path of the beam. This effect is observed even in operations on such organs as the liver, spleen, and kidney. In the opinion of many researchers, postoperative healing takes place more quickly after laser surgery than after the use of electrocoagulators. Some limitation of the surgeon’s motions in the operated area even when light guides of various design are used should be noted among the shortcomings of laser surgery. Carbon dioxide lasers with a wavelength of 10,590 angstroms (Å) and a power ranging from several watts to several dozen watts are most widely used as “light scalpels.”
In ophthalmology laser beams are used to repair detached retinas, to destroy intraocular tumors, and to shape the pupil. An ophthalmocoagulator has been designed on the basis of a ruby laser.
Pulse lasers or neodymium-doped glass lasers with a pulse power of up to 1,500 W are most often used in oncology to remove surface tumors (as deep as 3–4 cm). The destruction of the tumor takes place almost instantaneously and is accompanied by intense vaporization and ejection of the tissue from the irradiated region in the form of a plume. Air pumps are used to prevent the scattering of malignant cells as a result of the “explosive” effect. Operations involving laser radiation have a good cosmetic effect. The prospects for the use of the laser scalpel in neurosurgery pertain to operations on the exposed brain.
Laser radiation therapy is based primarily on nonthermal effects and is a type of light therapy using helium-neon lasers with a wavelength of 6328 A as sources of monochromatic radiation. The therapeutic effect on the organism is provided by laser radiation with an irradiation density of several milliwatts per square centimeter, which totally precludes the possibility of a thermal effect. The effect on the injured organ or part of the body is applied both locally and through the corresponding reflexogenic zones and points. Laser radiation is used to treat ulcers and wounds that require a long time to heal; the possibility of using it for the treatment of other diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma, and some gynecological diseases, is under study. The combination of a laser with fiber optics makes possible great broadening of the possibilities for its use in medicine. Laser radiation can reach cavities and organs through a flexible light conductor. This makes it possible to conduct a holographic study and, when necessary, to irradiate the injured section. The possibility of radioscopy and photography of the structure of teeth and of the condition of vessels and other tissues using laser radiation is being investigated.
Work with laser radiation requires strict observance of safety rules. Above all, protection of the eyes is necessary. For example, shadow safety devices are effective. The integuments, especially pigmented areas, must be protected from exposure to laser radiation. Shiny (reflective) surfaces are removed from the possible path of the beam in order to protect against injury by reflected laser radiation. Assumptions of the possible occurrence of ionizing radiation during the operation of high-intensity lasers have not been confirmed.



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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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