Semiconductor lasers are key components in a host of widely used technological products, including compact disk players and laser printers, and they will play critical roles in optical communication schemes. The basis of laser operation depends on the creation of nonequilibrium populations of electrons and holes, and coupling of electrons and holes to an optical field, which will stimulate radiative emission. Calculations carried out in the early 1970s by C. Henry (Dingle and Henry 1976) predicted the advantages of using quantum wells as the active layer in such lasers: the carrier confinement and nature of the electronic density of states should result in more efficient devices operating at lower threshold currents than lasers with "bulk" active layers. In addition, the use of a quantum well, with discrete transition energy levels dependent on the quantum well dimensions (thickness), provides a means of "tuning" the resulting wavelength of the material. The critical feature size-in this case, the thickness of the quantum well-depends on the desired spacing between energy levels. For energy levels of greater than a few tens of millielectron volts (meV, to be compared with room temperature thermal energy of 25 meV), the critical dimension is approximately a few hundred angstroms. Although the first quantum well laser, demonstrated in 1975, was many times less efficient than a conventional laser (van der Ziel et al. 1975), the situation was reversed by 1981 through the use of new materials growth capabilities (molecular beam epitaxy), and optimization of the heterostructure laser design (Tsang 1982).

Even greater benefits have been predicted for lasers with quantum dot active layers. Arakawa and Sakaki (1982) predicted in the early 1980s that quantum dot lasers should exhibit performance that is less temperature-dependent than existing semiconductor lasers, and that will in particular not degrade at elevated temperatures. Other benefits of quantum dot active layers include further reduction in threshold currents and an increase in differential gain-that is, more efficient laser operation (Asada et al. 1986). Figures 5.16 and 5.17 illustrate some of the key concepts in the laser operation. Stimulated recombination of electron-hole pairs takes place in the GaAs quantum well region, where the confinement of carriers and of the optical mode enhance the interaction between carriers and radiation (Fig. 5.16). In particular, note the change in the electronic density of states, as a function of the "dimensionality" of the active layer, shown in Figure 5.17. The population inversion (creation of electrons and holes) necessary for lasing occurs more efficiently as the active layer material is scaled down from bulk (3-dimensional) to quantum dots (0-dimensional). However, the advantages in operation depend not only on the absolute size of the nanostructures in the active region, but also on the uniformity of size. A broad distribution of sizes "smears" the density of states, producing behavior similar to that of bulk material.

Thus, the challenge in realizing quantum dot lasers with operation superior to that shown by quantum well lasers is that of forming high quality, uniform quantum dots in the active layer. Initially, the most widely followed approach to forming quantum dots was through electron beam lithography of suitably small featured patterns (~300 Å) and subsequent dry-etch transfer of dots into the substrate material. The problem that plagued these quantum dot arrays was their exceedingly low optical efficiency: high surface-to-volume ratios of these nanostructures and associated high surface recombination rates, together with damage introduced during the fabrication itself, precluded the successful formation of a quantum dot laser.


Figure 5.16
Schematic of a semiconductor laser.

Figure 5.17
Density of electronic states as a function of structure size.

With the demonstration of the high optical efficiency self-assembled formation of quantum dots (see Chapter 2), formed without need of external processing and having the natural overgrowth of cladding material (which addressed issues of surface recombination), there ensued a marked increase in quantum dot laser research. The first demonstration of a quantum dot laser with high threshold density was reported by Ledentsov and colleagues in 1994. Bimberg et al. (1996) achieved improved operation by increasing the density of the quantum dot structures, stacking successive, strain-aligned rows of quantum dots and therefore achieving vertical as well as lateral coupling of the quantum dots. In addition to utilizing their quantum size effects in edge-emitting lasers, self-assembled quantum dots have also been incorporated within vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers. Table 5.4 gives a partial summary of the work and achievements in quantum dot lasers.

As with the demonstration of the advantages of the quantum well laser that preceded it, the full promise of the quantum dot laser must await advances in the understanding of the materials growth and optimization of the laser structure. Although the self-assembled dots have provided an enormous stimulus to work in this field, there remain a number of critical issues involving their growth and formation: greater uniformity of size, controllable achievement of higher quantum dot density, and closer dot-to-dot interaction range will further improve laser performance. Better understanding of carrier confinement dynamics and capture times, and better evaluation of loss mechanisms, will further improve device characteristics. It should be noted that the spatial localization of carriers brought about by the quantum dot confinement may play a role in the "anomalous" optical efficiency of the GaN-based materials, which is exceptional in light of the high concentration of threading dislocations (~ 108 - 1010 cm-2) that currently plague this material system. The localization imposed by the perhaps natural nanostructure of the GaN materials may make the dislocation largely irrelevant to the purely optical (but not to the electrical) behavior of the material.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian