Illustration shows how specific frequencies of light (sharp peaks) emerge from the electronic background noise (blue) in NIST's ultrafast electro-optic laser. (Credit: D. Carlson/NIST)

A new electro-optic laser imposes microwave electronic vibrations on a continuous-wave laser operating at optical frequencies, effectively carving pulses into the light. Probing biological samples with ultrafast pulses provides both imaging and chemical makeup information. Using this technology, such imaging could happen dramatically faster. So, hyperspectral imaging that currently takes a minute could happen in real time.

To make the electro-optic laser, researchers start with an infrared continuous-wave laser and create pulses with an oscillator stabilized by the cavity, which provides the equivalent of a memory to ensure that all the pulses are identical. The laser produces optical pulses at a microwave rate, and each pulse is directed through a microchip waveguide structure to generate many more colors in the frequency comb.

The electro-optic laser offers unprecedented speed combined with accuracy and stability that are comparable to that of a mode-locked laser. The laser was constructed using commercial telecommunications and microwave components, making the system very reliable.

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