The Electronic Oscillator

The semiconductor laser is a device that can be compared to an electronic oscillator. An oscillator can be thought of as a resonator (a circuit that resonates or produces a strong output at a specific frequency) with gain. Resonators naturally decay over time by some factor, so adding in gain (so long as the gain is greater than or equal to the loss) can allow the resonator to become an oscillator that does not decay or dampen.

The stimulation of the oscillations of an oscillator is caused by electronic noise. A block diagram can demonstrate an oscillator in an abstract, easier to understand way.

block

The oscillator is built using an amplifier (transistor that is biased into active/saturation region) or op amp with positive and negative feedback. Noise in the circuit begins the oscillation, and this output is fed back into the input and is filtered along the way. This becomes an oscillation at a single frequency.

Oscillators can be built from RC circuits, LC circuits or can be crystal oscillators. RC circuit oscillators tend to be lower frequency oscillators in the audio range. The LC oscillator is often compared to the laser in terms of functionality. The negative reactance of the capacitor and positive inductive reactance cancel at a specific frequency, leaving the circuit with only resistance and a strong current is achieved. LC oscillators are much more important for RF/microwave purposes. A crystal oscillator produces its frequency through mechanical vibrations and has a much higher Q factor than the other resonator types, which provides greater temperature and frequency stability.

Two very important oscillator types for RF/microwave/mmWave circuits are dielectric resonators and SAW (surface acoustic wave) resonators. Dielectric resonators are mainly used as mmWave oscillators to drive antennas. They are generally made of a “puck” of ceramic which oscillates at a certain frequency dependent on its dimensions. Waves are confined inside the material due to an abrupt change in the permittivity. When the waves inside interfere and produce a standing wave, this increase of amplitude creates the resonance effect. SAW resonators are often used in cell phones and have distinct advantages over the LC oscillator or other types due to cost and size.

In a semiconductor laser (laser diode), the source of oscillations is the noise generated by spontaneous emission. Spontaneous emission is the result of recombination of electron and hole pairs within the material which produces photons. This spontaneous emission is how lasers begin their operation, and this is continued by stimulated emission. Stimulated emission is electron hole recombination due to photon energy which also produces a photon. The light emitted by this type of emission is coherent, a characteristic of a laser.

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