Optical pumping of laser materials is an effective way to create a population inversion necessary for laser operation. However, a fraction of the pump energy is always transfered as heat into the laser material, which is mainly caused by the quantum defect. For Yb3+-doped materials, the small energy difference between the pump level and the laser level and the pumping with narrowband high-power laser diodes result in a quantum defect of approx. 9%, which is significantly lower compared to other dopants e.g. Ti3+ (33%) or Nd3+ (24%). Due to the low heat introduction, high optical-to-optical efficiency and high repetition rate laser systems based on diode-pumping are well-suited for a number of applications. Here, however, laser beam quality is of crucial importance. Phase distortions and beam profile modulations can lead to optical damages as well as a significant reduction of the focal spot intensity.
Pump-induced phase aberrations are the main cause for phase distortions of the amplified laser beam. The heat transferred to the material causes a change of the refractive index (dn/dT), thermal expansion and stress within the laser material, eventually leading to spatial phase aberrations (also called ‘thermal lens’). However, the spatially dependent distribution of the population inversion itself also leads to spatial phase aberrations. Since electron excitation directly leads to a change in the charge distribution of the laser active ions, the dynamic response of the material to external fields changes. These electronic phase aberrations (also called ‘population lens’) are described by a change in the polarizability of the material. Due to the low quantum defect of Yb3+-doped materials, this effect becomes more important.
We show the first comprehensive spatio-temporal characterization of the pump-induced phase aberration including both effects. A high-resolution interference measurement was carried out with time steps of 50µs for times during the pump period and the cooling period between subsequent pump pulses. We found that both phase effects significantly contribute to the overall phase distortions. Since the temporal characteristic of the electronic phase depends on the fluorescence lifetime and the thermal phase on the thermal diffusivity, both phase effects could be distinguished by their different lifetimes. The measurements were carried out for Yb:YAG, Yb:CaF2 and Yb:glass, and are in excellent agreement to our detailed, COMSOL-based, spatio-temporal phase simulations. Since Yb:CaF2 and Yb:glass provide a negative dn/dT, the electronic phase change becomes even more important and, in case of Yb:CaF2, almost completely compensates the thermal phase imprint of a pump pulse during the time frame of laser pulse amplification.