The physical size of a laser depends on the materials used for light emission, on its power output, and on whether the light is emitted in pulses or as a steady beam. Lasers have been developed that are not much larger than a common flashlight. Various materials have been used as the active media in lasers. The first laser, built in 1960, used a ruby rod with polished ends; the chromium atoms embedded in the ruby's aluminum oxide crystal lattice were pumped to an excited state by a flash tube that, wrapped around the rod, saturated the rod with light of a frequency higher than that of the laser frequency (this method is called optical pumping). This first ruby laser produced intense pulses of red light. In many other optically pumped lasers, the basic element is a transparent, nonconducting crystal such as yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG). Another type of crystal laser uses a semiconductor diode as the element; pumping is done by passing a current through the crystal.
In some lasers, a gas or liquid is used as the emitting medium. In one kind of gas laser the inverted population is achieved through collisional pumping, the gas molecules gaining energy from collisions with other molecules or with electrons released through current discharge. Some gas lasers make use of molecular dissociation to create the inverted population. In a free-electron laser a beam of electrons is "wiggled" by a magnetic field; the oscillatory behavior of the electrons induces them to emit laser radiation. Another device under development is the X-ray laser, which presents special difficulties; most materials, for instance, are poor reflectors of X rays.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.