Limiting devices protect sensitive optical elements from laser-induced damage (LID). Passive devices use focusing optics to concentrate the light through a nonlinear optical (NLO) element (or elements) to reduce the limiting threshold. Unfortunately, these NLO elements may themselves undergo LID for high inputs, restricting the useful dynamic range (DR). Recently, efforts at optimizing this DR have focused on distributing the NLO material along the propagation path z of a focused beam, resulting in different portions of the device (in z) exhibiting NLO response at different inputs. For example, nonlinear absorbers closer to the lens, i.e., upstream, protect device elements downstream near the focal plane. This results in an undesirable increase in the threshold, although the lowest threshold is always obtained with the final element at focus. Thus there is a compromise between DR and threshold. This compromise is determined by the material. We concentrate on reverse saturable absorber (RSA) materials (molecules exhibiting larger excited-state than ground-state absorption). We look at both tandem devices and devices in which the concentration of the NLO material is allowed to spatially vary in z. These latter devices require solid-state hosts. The damage threshold of currently available solid-state hosts is too low to allow known RSA materials to reach their maximum absorption, which occurs when all molecules are in their excited state. This is demonstrated by approximate analytical methods as well as by a full numerical solution of the nonlinear wave propagation equation over extremely large distances in z (up to 103 Z 0, where Z 0 is the Rayleigh range of the focused beam). The numerical calculations, based on a one-dimensional fast Fourier transform, indicate that proper inclusion of diffraction reduces the effectiveness of reverse saturable absorption for limiting, sometimes by more than a factor of 10. Liquid-based devices have higher damage thresholds (damage occurs to the cuvette wall) and, thus, larger nonlinear absorption. However, RSA material in liquid hosts may suffer from larger thermal lensing.
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