In the natural sciences, coherence or coherent radiation refers to electromagnetic waves that have a fixed phase relationship in terms of their spatial and temporal propagation. In everyday life, this theoretical definition applies to the light beam generated by a laser source.
Before a detailed explanation of coherence, we must take a look at the laser beam. “Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” (laser) is a collective term from physics. The term laser denotes both the physical effect, such as the light beam and the corresponding device (laser machine, laser source).
- Are electromagnetic waves
- Often have a very narrow frequency range (narrow-band emitter)
- Consist of a sharply focused light beam
- Have a long coherence length. This is dependant on the type of laser
Lasers are found in a range of applications in everyday life. From laser pointers frequently used in presentations to tools for reading optical storage media such as Blu-rays or CDs, the laser beam has become indispensable in modern life.
The term coherence, derived from Latin, roughly means “connected". The term refers to specific properties of electromagnetic waves in physics. These waves have a fixed phase relationship between two wave trains. If this phase relationship remains constant, it is possible to generate a stable interference pattern.
With coherent light, a further distinction is made between temporal and spatial characteristics. Both characteristics can be well illustrated with a small thought pattern.
If you were to stand next to an electromagnetic wave consisting of several wave trains and let it pass by, the phase relationships of two wave trains would remain unchanged in the propagation direction of the wave.
If there were a frame of reference for light and you were to place yourself in it (and connect the frame of reference with the electromagnetic wave) and look perpendicular to the wave, you would discover that the phase shifts between two waves do not change.
The light emitted from an ordinary light source such as a ceiling light is composed of many individual wave trains. The emitted wave trains for all natural light sources are not coherent. The reason for this lies in the actual light sources: The atoms. If a single wave train is emitted in a light emission process, this takes around 0.0000000001 seconds. From this, the theoretical length of this wave train can be calculated: 3 meters. Now we return to the atomic level and look at an atom that emits a wave train. We stand next to the path that the light travels and look at the first wave train passing us. At some point - this period of time is not defined - the atom emits the next wave train. This wave train also has “mountains” and “valleys”, which are in a well-established but completely arbitrary phase relationship with the first wave train. The same applies to all other emitted wave trains. For this reason, there is no fixed phase relationship between the individual wave trains emitted by an atom - it changes from wave train to wave train. In addition: ordinary light sources emit light with different wavelengths. For wave trains with different wavelengths, the phase difference changes naturally. Ordinary light does not radiate in a parallel, but in different directions.
Laser light is electromagnetic waves that are coherent both temporally and spatially. A fixed phase relationship can be seen in both the propagation and perpendicular direction. In laser light, individual wave trains are very long, at the same time, the adjacent wave trains oscillate in a common mode.
Properties of the laser light
The light beams emitted from a laser machine are extremely focused. These run together in a straight line and show virtually no scattering. In contrast, there are conventional light sources that emit light waves scattered in all directions. With a laser beam, all light waves are the same colour, a condition that is also called monochromatism. During the movement of the light waves in a laser beam they oscillate in perfect synchronisation.
Laser beams can be dangerous for humans depending on the light emitted. As a result of this laser machines fall into different laser safety classes, whereby the classification is carried out by the respective manufacturer according to DIN EN 60825-1.
The radiation from class 1 lasers is completely harmless. Any laser from class 2 onwards poses the risk of serious damage to eyes and retina if the laser beam is aimed directly at the eye and the duration of effect exceeds 0.25 seconds. Class 3B lasers are extremely dangerous to the eye and can even damage the skin. Finally, class 4 refers to machines whose lasers damage the eye extremely quickly and are also dangerous to the skin. In this type of class even scattered radiation is dangerous and can cause fires or explosions.