4           Absorption and emission of light by atoms

So far, nothing has been written about how an amplifying medium amplifies light. This will be dealt with here and in the next section. We must begin with an account of how light can interact with individual atoms within an amplifying medium ("atoms" will be used to include molecules and ions). Atoms consist of a positively charged core (nucleus) which is surrounded by negatively charged electrons. According to the quantum mechanical description of an atom, the energy of an atomic electron can have only certain values and these are represented by energy levels. The electrons can be thought of as orbiting the nucleus, those with the largest energy orbiting at greater distances from the nuclear core. There are many energy levels that an electron within an atom can occupy, but here we will consider only two. Also, we will consider only the electrons in the outer orbits of the atom as these can most easily be raised to higher unfilled energy states.

Absorption and Spontaneous Emission

The processes of the absorption and spontaneous emission of light are illustrated below:

A photon of light is absorbed by an atom in which one of the outer electrons is initially in a low energy state denoted by 0. The energy of the atom is raised to the upper energy level, 1, and remains in this excited state for a period of time that is typically less than 10-6 second. It then spontaneously returns to the lower state, 0, with the emission of a photon of light. Absorption is referred to as a resonant process because the energy of the absorbed photon must be equal to the difference in energy between the levels 0 and 1. This means that only photons of a particular frequency (or wavelength) will be absorbed. Similarly, the photon emitted will have energy equal to the difference in energy between the two energy levels. These common processes of absorption and spontaneous emission cannot give rise to the amplification of light. The best that can be achieved is that for every photon absorbed, another is emitted.

Stimulated Emission

Stimulated emission is a very uncommon process in nature but it is central to the operation of lasers.

Above it was stated that an atom in a high energy, or excited, state can return to the lower state spontaneously. However, if a photon of light interacts with the excited atom, it can stimulate a return to the lower state. One photon interacting with an excited atom results in two photons being emitted. Furthermore, the two emitted photons are said to be in phase, i.e. thinking of them as waves, the crest of the wave associated with one photon occurs at the same time as on the wave associated with the other. This feature ensures that there is a fixed phase relationship between light radiated from different atoms in the amplifying medium and results in the laser beam produced having the property of coherence. Stimulated emission is the process that can give rise to the amplification of light. As with absorption, it is a resonant process; the energy of the incoming photon of light must match the difference in energy between the two energy levels. Furthermore, if we consider a photon of light interacting with a single atom, stimulated emission is just as likely as absorption; which process occurs depends upon whether the atom is initially in the lower or the upper energy level. However, under most conditions, stimulated emission does not occur to a significant extent. The reason is that, under most conditions, that is, under conditions of thermal equilibrium, there will be far more atoms in the lower energy level, 0, than in the upper level, 1, so that absorption will be much more common than stimulated emission. If stimulated emission is to predominate, we must have more atoms in the higher energy state than in the lower one. This unusual condition is referred to as a population inversion and it is necessary to create a population inversion for laser action to occur.

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