The stabilization of lasers to absolute frequency references is a fundamental requirement in several areas of atomic, molecular and optical physics. A range of techniques are available to produce a suitable reference onto which one can ‘lock’ the laser, many of which depend on the specific internal structure of the reference or are sensitive to laser intensity noise. We present a novel method using the frequency modulation of an acousto-optic modulator’s carrier (drive) signal to generate two spatially separated beams, with a frequency difference of only a few MHz. These beams are used to probe a narrow absorption feature and the difference in their detected signals leads to a dispersion-like feature suitable for wavelength stabilization of a diode laser. This simple and versatile method only requires a narrow absorption line and is therefore suitable for both atomic and cavity based stabilization schemes. To demonstrate the suitability of this method we lock an external cavity diode laser near the 85Rb 5S1/2 → 5P3/2, F = 3 → F′ = 4 using sub-Doppler pump probe spectroscopy and also demonstrate excellent agreement between the measured signal and a theoretical model.
Published by The Optical Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. Further distribution of this work must maintain attribution to the author(s) and the published article's title, journal citation, and DOI.
Frequency stabilization of a laser to a known reference is a common requirement in a number of applications, such as atomic laser cooling, absorptive sensing and precision spectroscopy. The most stable frequency references are atomic transitions and numerous techniques exist to obtain a suitable ‘error signal’ which can be electronically fed back to the laser to correct for frequency drift. Effective methods include frequency modulation spectroscopy (FMS) , dichroic atomic vapour laser lock (DAVLL) , polarization spectroscopy (PS)  and modulation transfer spectroscopy (MTS) . All of these can be used with sub-Doppler pump-probe methods to obtain very effective stabilization signals. In many cases one would prefer to avoid modulated sidebands on the laser spectrum and so there is interest in modulation-free spectroscopy, or techniques in which the modulation is confined to the spectroscopy system. The available techniques can be separated into two distinct methods: phase-detection spectroscopy (as used in FMS and MTS) which detects variation in the phase relationship between modulation sidebands on different sides of an absorption feature, and frequency differential spectroscopy (found in DAVLL and PS), where two absorption spectra separated (spatially, temporally, or both) with a frequency shift are subtracted to generate the error signal.
While both DAVLL and PS are very effective, they produce the differential frequency shift using the internal structure of the atoms under investigation. This may not always be practical to access in a species where the electronic structure is not suitable or where one wishes to stabilize to a non-atomic reference. DAVLL achieves the shift via the Zeeman effect, and polarization spectroscopy through optical pumping; both measure the offset spectra via orthogonal polarization states and balanced detection provides common-mode rejection - greatly reducing the effect of laser intensity noise on the spectra. We present an alternative spectroscopic method that uses the balanced detection between two spatially- and frequency-separated laser beams to provide a dispersion-shaped signal across an absorption feature. These beams are produced via the carrier modulation of an acousto-optic modulator’s (AOM) drive frequency. We demonstrate an example application of the method using sub-Doppler pump-probe spectroscopy of rubidium (Rb) vapour as a wavelength reference, but this versatile technique can be applied to any spectroscopic feature of appropriate width.
2. Carrier frequency modulation of an acousto-optic modulator
In laser cooling experiments, it is common to use AOMs to switch trapping and optical-pumping beams on and off within short timescales and to provide a tunable frequency offset. An AOM introduces an angular deviation of the optical path and is capable of providing several deflected beams which are frequency shifted from the zeroth-order by harmonics of the AOM’s carrier frequency. Several schemes [5,6] have been proposed to use AOMs to produce dispersion-shaped spectroscopic features, all using the differential method between the various diffracted orders or involving multiple AOMs. It is understood that to obtain a well-resolved locking signal, the frequency difference between absorption spectra should on the order of the width of the feature of interest. Additionally, the smaller the frequency difference, the steeper the error signal gradient and therefore the better-resolved the reference.
Commercial AOMs can be found with operating frequencies of several tens to hundreds of MHz, and for many applications this combination of parameters leads to a large capture range and good stability. The most demanding stabilization, however, requires locking to a very narrow absorption feature with a linewidth of a few MHz or below and so the frequency offset between diffracted orders in the AOM system (equal to n × f0 where n is the order index and f0 is the AOM carrier frequency) is far too large. Typically, AOMs are operated with a single drive frequency but if this carrier is modulated it provides sidebands on the diffracted beam with a bandwidth of a few tens of MHz. This method can be an economic alternative to electro-optical modulation (EOM) to produce frequency sidebands and has been used as to replace EOMs in modulation transfer spectroscopy . This ‘carrier modulation’ is a simple method to generate spatially- and frequency-separated spectroscopic probe beams, which may be detected in a balanced manner and subtracted electronically to obtain the necessary error signal. For our application, we see the common mode rejection and simplicity of the optical and electronic set-up as attractive properties of this apparatus.
The angle of divergence between the 0th and 1st diffracted order from an AOM driven with a carrier frequency f0 is given by :9]). While these diverging beams may be picked off and directed onto individual balanced detectors, a segmented photodiode may be more convenient when monitoring beams with small separations. For a typical quadrant photodiode with segments separated by a 200 µm gap, the optical path length from AOM to detector must be at least 230 mm in order for more than half of each beam spot to fall on the correct segment. This length scale is generally acceptable for most experiments. The distinction between the carrier (drive) frequency and the sidebands produced by modulation of the Vtune signal is presented in Fig. 1.
The signal strength for small separations is equal to the difference in overlap of the beam widths, δx, on the detector. Assuming a Gaussian beam shape the signal as a function of frequency shift Δ is proportional to:
The laser source used is a 780 nm external cavity diode laser (ECDL) based on established designs [10, 11] which we use for laser cooling of atomic rubidium and, therefore, must be locked precisely to a given electronic transition (specifically 85Rb D2(5S1/2 → 5P3/2)) to better than 1 MHz. Figure 1 shows the layout of the spectroscopy system. An acousto-optic modulator (Gooch & Housego FS310-2F-SU4), with a center carrier frequency f0 = 310 MHz, is aligned in the Bragg regime such that only a single diffraction order is produced. Note that the choice of AOM carrier frequency is arbitrary here, and that similar results were also produced using an AOM operating at 80 MHz; the only practical difference being the corresponding AOM modulation bandwidths.
One may produce the necessary RF fields either by modulating the carrier or by using two distinct carrier frequencies (at f0 ± Δ). Both methods produce similar results and all of the following data was obtained using the former method by simply modulating the tuning port of a voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) to produce the RF sidebands. We apply a square-wave RF signal to the VCO (Mini-Circuits ZX95-330-S+) tuning port using a bias tee (Mini-Circuits ZX86-12G+). The VCO output is then amplified to 27 dBm (Mini-Circuits TVA-11-422) and fed to the AOM. By modulating the tuning pin of the VCO, Δ is defined by the modulation amplitude, not the frequency fmod, with a dependence of ~ 9 MHz/V (dependent on VCO model). The modulation frequency fmod need only lie within the bandwidth of the VCO tuning port and results in a modulation ‘noise’ in the detected signal which must be filtered out. The use of two distinct drive frequencies avoids this noise but requires a dedicated waveform generator to maintain the frequency difference between the components. The resulting pair of beams are then collimated and passed through a sub-Doppler pump-probe apparatus as shown in Fig. 2 and also directed onto a line-scan charge-coupled device CCD (Thorlabs LC1-USB) for characterization. For simplicity we use the retro-reflected pump-probe configuration with the probe beam picked off by polarization optics.
The two beams are detected using a quadrature photodiode (QPD, Centronic QD7-5T), with two quadrants on each side summed together individually, before subtraction of the pairs to generated the differential signal. We focus the beams onto the detector using a cylindrical lens, oriented to increase optical capture on the sensing region without the reduction of spot separation associated with lateral focusing. The QPD sections are individually biased and the output of two horizontal sections are subtracted using an instrumentation operational amplifier with 20 dB gain, before passing through a 100 kHz low-pass filter: this is mandatory in order to eliminate systematic noise introduced by the VCO tuning pin modulation frequency. As the modulation frequency has little effect on the spectra one can choose a combination of filter and modulation frequency to suit the stabilization circuit bandwidth.
An example of sub-Doppler spectra detected by each half of the QPD are shown in Fig. 3, recorded by zeroing the input of each into the instrumental amplifier in turn. The horizontal axis has been scaled using the known frequencies of each absorption peak fitted using a 4th order polynomial to mitigate non-linearity of the piezoelectric scan. We also plot the direct subtraction of the absorption spectra without using the instrumentation amplifier, where the subtracted signal is very similar to an FMS or PS spectrum. The signal to noise ratio of the subtracted data is much higher because any intensity noise in the laser is common-mode to both beams and thus subtracted with the high bandwidth (2 MHz) instrumentation op-amp. We find that the subtracted signal is remarkably insensitive to variations in the laser power, other than changing the overall signal strength around zero.
We have explored varying both the dither frequency, amplitude, and waveform shape. We find very little variation between sine and square waves, except at high frequencies where sinusoidal modulation causes less distortion in the final signal due to the tuning pin bandwidth filtering the higher modes of the square wave. Modulating with a sinusoidal signal produced beam profiles with an inferior resolution, as shown in Fig. 4. With modulation frequencies up to 5 MHz we see negligible variation in the spectra for both modulation waveforms. There is a slightly greater deflection in the square wave modulation due to the higher amplitude of its first Fourier component compared to that of the sine wave. This is more apparent at higher modulation amplitudes at which higher Fourier components experience greater filtering by the AOM bandwidth.
Figure 5(a) shows the variation with sideband separation (proportional to modulation amplitude), from 2.5 MHz to 20 MHz together with a prediction, shown in Fig. 5(b), using a theoretical model with no free parameters . The optimum lineshape, where the error signal is most linear across resonance is found around 8–12 MHz sideband separation for the 85Rb transitions group, which is close to the saturated linewidth. The 87Rb group exhibits a much lesser dependence of linearity on modulation frequency, but the error signal produced still has the largest gradient when in the 8–12 MHz range. This is the saturated linewidth of the sub-Doppler absorption features used (which is slightly broader than the natural linewidth), as expected from the theoretical model. At lower separations the smaller differences between spectra significantly weaken the derived signal, and at higher frequencies the separations are greater than the sub-Doppler linewidths so the different absorption and cross-over peaks begin to overlap.
To test the suitability of this technique for laser stabilization, the AOM-derived error signal was supplied to a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller which in turn fed back to the laser diode current and the piezo-mounted external grating. A parallel DAVLL setup using the same laser was used to characterize the long-term drift of the laser locked using this technique . The DAVLL signal, which in our case is only sensitive to the Doppler-broadened spectral features, was frequency shifted by a further AOM such that the zero-crossing in its own error signal was found very close to the center of the reference transition (a crossover resonance in the vicinity of 85Rb 5S1/2 → 5P3/2, F = 3 → F′ = 4). This provided a diagnostic signal proportional to any drift, even if the system was far off-resonance. An overview of the spectra during a single laser sweep is shown in Fig. 6(a), which includes a saturated absorption spectrum alongside the modulated AOM and DAVLL error signals.
The drift of the ECDL system was measured over 25 minutes in both free-running and locked modes of operation, as shown in Fig. 6(b). The maximum drift in DAVLL signal indicates the free-running laser naturally drifts on the order of 13 ± 3 MHz during the 25 min recorded period (≃ 50 MHz per hour) which is comparable to the stability of similar lasers tested in the literature . Once the laser is locked there is no significant drift with a r.m.s. frequency variation of 0.66 MHz, which is approximately equal to the laser linewidth . The lock remains remarkably secure, even within a noisy laboratory environment and with vibration of the optical breadboard.
4.1. Application to frequency modulation spectroscopy
Although we have focused on differential methods to obtain the error signal, the use of a modulated tuning voltage of the VCO offers an interesting version of frequency modulation spectroscopy. In generating the two 1st-order beams we modulate the VCO with a waveform whose amplitude defines their frequency separation, and the frequency of the modulation is essentially a noise source which is filtered out. However, if a single detector is used and we demodulate at the same frequency with which the VCO tuning port is driven, then we find that it is possible to produce a FMS error signal whose sideband frequency is decoupled from the demodulation frequency. Figure 7 shows a selection of spectra with a constant modulation frequency but a variable sideband separation (via the tuning port modulation amplitude). The signal strength of FMS spectra typically reduces at higher modulation frequency with narrow absorption features , however one requires the modulation frequency to be above the noise bandwidth of the laser (typically below 1 or 2 MHz for a external cavity diode laser). Therefore it may be of interest to exploit this element of the technique if a specific sideband separation, independent of the demodulation frequency, is required.
We find the modulation frequency of the VCO tuning port to have little effect on the spectra in the range 200kHz to 5MHz: an operating range determined by the overlap in the bandwidths of the bias tee and the VCO tuning. The use of square or sinusoidal modulation waveshapes also has little effect on the spectra other than changing the sideband separation, however the use of square waves allows one to alter the duty cycle of the modulation and thus produce small frequency offsets from the absorption reference.
One weakness of the technique proposed here is its sensitivity to fluctuations in the pointing direction of the beam emerging from the AOM caused by pressure fluctuations in the laboratory, since the ratio of optical intensities falling on each detector segment may vary, thus producing a change in the DC offset. Beyond shielding the apparatus, the presence of the focusing lens in front of the detector (at a distance less than its focal length) serves to mitigate this by reducing the beam spot size on the detector in comparison to the sensor area.
Since the VCO in our apparatus is not stabilized to the AOM’s center frequency, any slow drift results in a variation of power in each beam and thus a drift in the error signal’s DC offset. Therefore, for long term stabilization a precision voltage reference is necessary, or a second QPD can be used to monitor the power in each beam, feeding back to stabilize the VCO (in much the same manner as the spectroscopic signal is used to stabilize the laser).
The apparatus can be made more compact if one discards the beam-splitting cube and allows the retro-reflected probe beam to pass back through the AOM after which its undeflected component may be focused on the QPD.
A new method for wavelength stabilization of a laser diode has been demonstrated that depends on the carrier modulation of the AOM drive frequency to provide spatially and spectrally separated sidebands. These are used to jointly probe an absorption feature and the difference in the detected signals produced an error signal suitable for locking. A simple RF electronic system was also presented to produce the correct RF drive signal via the modulation of a VCO tuning port. An advantage of this method is its insensitivity to laser intensity noise, background electrical or magnetic fields, and optical polarization. Therefore it is suitable for both atomic and cavity wavelength references, especially where narrow absorption features are required for the highest precision. The technique was used to lock an external cavity diode laser to a sub-Doppler absorption line in rubidium and the measured stability, at one part in 109, is suitable for cold atoms experiments.
This work was supported by funding from RAEng, EPSRC, and the UK Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology under grant EP/M013294/1.
We would like to thank Paul Martin, Sanja Barkovic for their help in building up the apparatus, Tim Freegarde for useful discussions and for the loan of certain pieces of equipment, and James Bateman for insight into RF modulation features. We would also like to thank Jack Thomas and Edward Rainford for their efforts in the preliminary studies of the technique.
References and links
2. K. L. Corwin, Z.-T. Lu, C. F. Hand, R. J. Epstein, and C. E. Wieman, “Frequency-stabilized diode laser with the zeeman shift in an atomic vapor,” Appl. Opt. 37, 3295–3298 (1998). [CrossRef]
3. C. Wieman and T. W. Hänsch, “Doppler-free laser polarization spectroscopy,” Phys. Rev. Lett. 36, 1170–1173 (1976). [CrossRef]
4. D. J. McCarron, S. A. King, and S. L. Cornish, “Modulation transfer spectroscopy in atomic rubidium,” Meas. Sci. Technol. 19, 105601 (2008). [CrossRef]
6. E. van Ooijen, G. Katgert, and P. van der Straten, “Laser frequency stabilization using doppler-free bichromatic spectroscopy,” Appl. Phys. B 79, 57–59 (2004). [CrossRef]
8. E. A. Donley, T. P. Heavner, F. Levi, M. O. Tataw, and S. R. Jefferts, “Double-pass acousto-optic modulator system,” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 76, 063112 (2005). [CrossRef]
9. Y. Ohmachi, N. Uchida, and N. Niizeki, “Acoustic wave propagation in teo2 single crystal,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 51, 164–168 (1972). [CrossRef]
10. A. S. Arnold, J. S. Wilson, and M. G. Boshier, “A simple extended-cavity diode laser,” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 69, 1236–1239 (1998). [CrossRef]
11. C. J. Hawthorn, K. P. Weber, and R. E. Scholten, “Littrow configuration tunable external cavity diode laser with fixed direction output beam,” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 72, 4477–4479 (2001). [CrossRef]
12. M. Himsworth and T. Freegarde, “Rubidium pump-probe spectroscopy: Comparison between ab initio theory and experiment,” Phys. Rev. A 81, 023423 (2010). [CrossRef]
13. M. Aldous, “Enabling technologies for integrated atom chips,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Southampton (2016).
14. K. Matsubara, S. Uetake, H. Ito, Y. Li, K. Hayasaka, and M. Hosokawa, “Precise frequency-drift measurement of extended-cavity diode laser stabilized with scanning transfer cavity,” Jpn. J. Appl. Phys. 44, 229 (2005). [CrossRef]
15. M. Himsworth, “Coherent manipulation of ultracold rubidium,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Southmpton (2009).