Revival of femtosecond laser plasma filaments in
air by a nanosecond laser
Bing Zhou1, Selcuk Akturk1, Bernard Prade1, Yves-Bernard André1, Aurélien Houard1,
Yi Liu1, Michel Franco1, Ciro D’Amico1, Estelle Salmon2, Zuo-Qiang Hao2, Noelle
Lascoux2, and André Mysyrowicz1*
1Teramobile project, Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquée, École Nationale Supérieure des Techniques Avancées -
École Polytechnique, CNRS UMR 7639, F-91761, Palaiseau Cedex, France
2Teramobile project, LASIM, Université de Lyon 1 CNRS UMR 5579, F-69622, Villeurbanne Cedex, France
Abstract: Short lived plasma channels generated through filamentation of
femtosecond laser pulses in air can be revived after several milliseconds by
a delayed nanosecond pulse. Electrons initially ionized from oxygen
molecules and subsequently captured by neutral oxygen molecules provide
the long-lived reservoir of low affinity allowing this process. A Bessel-like
nanosecond-duration laser beam can easily detach these weakly bound
electrons and multiply them in an avalanche process. We have
experimentally demonstrated such revivals over a channel length of 50 cm
by focusing the nanosecond laser with an axicon.
OCIS codes: (190.7110) Ultrafast nonlinear optics; (350.5400) Plasmas
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Much attention has been given in the last few years to the propagation of ultrashort
laser pulses in air. With short pulses (pulse duration < 10-12 s), high peak intensities
are achieved with a modest energy per pulse. As a consequence, a dielectric medium
such as air is readily driven into a highly nonlinear regime. This can lead to
spectacular effects. For instance, several groups have reported the occurrence of
femtosecond (fs) filamentation (for recent reviews see [1-3]). In this process, an
intense ultrashort laser pulse self-organizes into a contracted beam, 10-100 µm in
diameter, fed by a surrounding laser energy reservoir. The contracted beam, often
called filament, carries a peak intensity of I ~ 5x1013 W/cm² sufficient to ionize air
molecules in a multiphoton process. It maintains this high intensity over distances
which can reach several hundreds of meters in air because of the dynamic balance
between self focusing (due to the optical Kerr effect) and beam defocusing (due to
multiphoton ionization of air molecules) [1-3].
The plasma channel formed in the wake of the propagating pulse has
captivated the interest of many researchers especially because of its unusual
characteristics and potential applications . It is at the same time weakly ionized but
highly collisional cold plasma since only a ratio of 10-3 of the air molecules are
typically ionized at atmospheric pressure. Its special geometry, in the form of a
channel with a very high aspect ratio (>104) is responsible for new effects. For
instance, the plasma generates an intense terahertz (THz) radiation in the form of an
ultrashort burst emitted in a narrow forward directed cone [5, 6]. Several meters long
straight discharges could be triggered and guided in air by such fs filaments . It
was shown that such discharges could carry a current of several hundreds amperes
with very little power dissipation . This raises the prospect to use filaments in
order to capture high currents, to preventively discharge electrodes and clouds or
even to act as a lightning rod for the safeguard of sensitive sites [9, 10]. It was also
shown recently that plasma channels in air can guide microwaves [11, 12].
However, the short plasma lifetime remains a major obstacle to many
applications, because it prevents a fast discharge to build up over a long distance. The
hal-00457966, version 1 - 12 Mar 2010
origin of the short plasma lifetime is well understood. For a filament laser intensity of
5×1013 W/cm², the initial free electron densities obtained in air reaches 1016-1017 cm-3,
mostly from multiphoton ionization of oxygen molecules of lower ionization
potential (12 eV against 16 eV for N2). At such densities electron recombination is
dominated by the capture by parent ions (see Eq. (1) below). This process leads to a
decrease of the electron density by two orders of magnitude within a few
nanoseconds (ns) [13, 14]. Below 1014 cm-3, capture by neutral oxygen molecules
becomes the main recombination process. It gives rise to an exponential decay with a
time constant ~ 150 ns .
2. Experimental methods
In this paper, we present what we believe is a significant progress in resolving the
problem of obtaining a long-lived plasma channel. We demonstrate experimentally
that it is possible to reestablish a conducting air column even milliseconds (ms) after
the passage of the fs pulse and to prolong its lifetime with the help of a second laser.
The principle is to exploit the on-site storage of weakly bound electrons onto oxygen
molecules following the formation of the original plasma channel . The attached
electrons provide a reservoir with a memory of the special geometry of the filament
over a time corresponding to the ion-ion recombination and diffusion of the negative
oxygen molecules out of the initial filament core. This corresponds to times of the
order of several ms. By using a Bessel-like ns duration laser beam to detach these
electrons we show that it is possible to restore a plasma over a distance much longer
than could be achieved with a conventional focusing system. In the present case, the
restored plasma length is 50 cm, but it could be considerably extended with more
powerful lasers. More importantly, the focused Bessel like beam has on-axis intensity
sufficient not only to liberate the bound electrons, but also to multiply them through
inverse bremstrahlung and avalanche processes. We further show that by using a two-
color scheme with sufficient pulse energies, the electron density in the revived
plasma channel can even exceed the initial electron density from the fs laser. The
restored plasma channel lifetime lasts beyond one microsecond.
There have been several attempts to increase the filament plasma lifetime by
using a second laser [15-20]. However, in all of these previous works, the plasma
lifetime is increased at early times while free electrons are still present and the
longitudinal extent of the effect is limited to the Rayleigh length of the focused laser
Fig. 1. Experimental setup. The fs laser generates the plasma channel and the
delayed ns laser revives it. The plasma channel is detected using electrodes with high
voltage and/or a PMT.
The experimental setup is shown in Fig. 1. The initial plasma channel was
generated through the filamentation of fs laser pulses. We have used a Ti:Sapphire
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chirped pulse amplifier chain, which can provide up to 15 millijoules (mJ) pulse
energy at a pulse duration of 50 fs (at 800 nm center wavelength) and the teramobile
laser  which can provide up to 250 mJ pulse energy at a pulse duration of 150 fs.
To revive the plasma channels, we used a Nd:YAG laser at 1064 nm and/or its second
harmonic at 532 nm, which can provide up to 250 mJ pulse energy at both
wavelengths with a pulse duration of around 10 ns. The different laser systems were
synchronized at 10 Hz repetition rate, with controllable delay between their pulses.
The Nd:YAG laser was focused with an axicon (0.5 degree base angle, 5 cm
diameter), which generated a Bessel-like transverse profile with a long focal region
[22, 23]. The longitudinal focal range of the Bessel-like beam was about 50 cm with a
central peak of 100 µm, which provides good longitudinal and transverse overlap
with the filament. The fs laser beam was focused with a 75 cm focal length lens and
aligned such that the filament overlapped with the axicon line focus. In order to
detect the presence of plasma, we passed both beams between two square metal plates
with ~ 5 kV voltage and 5 mm separation. To avoid the laser beams directly hitting
the metal and generating photocurrent, the plates were covered with an insulator. In
the presence of an external electric field, the charges in the plasma redistribute,
screen out the external field , modify the potential and generate a current through
the grounded arm. The corresponding potential drop across the resistor was measured
using an oscilloscope. We also used a photomultiplier tube (PMT) with a narrow
interference filter centered at 338 nm (10 nm bandwidth) to detect the emission from
low plasma densities, while the latter gives a faster temporal response.
3. Results and discussion
+ ions fluorescence . The former method proved more sensitive in detecting
Figure 2(a) shows measurements of the revival of plasma channel generated by 90 mJ
of the teramobile laser and reestablished by the Nd:YAG laser (at 532 nm) at 1 ms
delay. The electrical method described above was used with a 1 M load resistance
in order to enhance detection sensitivity. Due to the circuit response the decays
exhibited by the signals were slower than the actual plasma lifetime. The true plasma
lifetime, obtained with a 50 load resistance, is shown in the inset of Fig. 2(a). The
first peak around t=0 in Fig. 2(a) is caused by the filament plasma of the fs pulse.
When the Nd:YAG beam focal axis was carefully aligned with the filament, we
observed a second peak at the arrival time of this laser. The second peak disappeared
when the detection system was enclosed in a box purged with nitrogen or when a
strong air current was flowing between the detecting electrodes. The on axis intensity
of the Nd:YAG laser around the focal region of the axicon was slightly above 1010
W/cm2, which is well below what is required to photoionize air. As a result, we
attribute the appearance of the second peak to the detachment of the electrons from
this ns laser revived plasma at delays up to several ms in quiet atmosphere.
- ions and subsequent multiplication through an avalanche process. We observed
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Fig. 2. (a) Signal detected using the electrical method, showing plasma channel
initially created by the fs laser and then revived by the ns laser (532 nm) after 1ms.
(b) Magnitude of the signal from the revived plasma at various distances from the
beginning of the initial plasma filament. (c) Magnitude of the signal from the revived
plasma as a function of the Nd:YAG laser pulse energy. In (b) and (c) each point
corresponds to the average of 100 measurements. The mean fluctuation around the
average is 5%.
Figure 2(b) shows the measured magnitude of the second peak induced by the
revived plasma, as a function of distance of the detection system from the beginning
of the filament. It is seen that the plasma channel is revived over about half meter
propagation distance. Note that a longer distance would be obtained with different
axicon and higher ns laser energy. We also measured the magnitude of the signal as a
function of the Nd:YAG laser energy (Fig. 2(c)). The sharp rise of the signal with
laser energy above ~ 190 mJ reveals that an avalanche process is involved.
The principal interactions involved in the revival process have different
frequency dependences. The photo detachment rate of O2
increasing photon energy [16, 26], whereas the avalanche process is more efficient at
lower frequencies . This brings up the opportunity of using together both the
fundamental and the second harmonic frequencies of the YAG laser. In this case, the
second harmonic can detach the electrons and the fundamental can accelerate and
multiply them. We performed such experiments using two separate YAG lasers
emitting at 532 and 1064 nm respectively. By focusing both beams with conventional
lenses and using the appropriate chronological order for the pulses, sufficient
combined laser intensity was available to induce a full evolution of the plasma
towards dielectric breakdown. The initial plasma filament in this case was generated
by the 15 mJ fs laser focused by a 75 cm focal length lens. The fundamental beam
made 10 degrees angle with the other two laser beams. The fundamental and second
harmonic of the ns laser (focused with 40 cm and 75 cm focal length lenses,
respectively) arrived after 53 microseconds (µs) delay, the second harmonic pulse
was followed after 10 ns by the fundamental pulse. The characteristic spark due to
optical breakdown was easily observed (see Fig. 3(b)). We verified that no
breakdown occurred when the fs laser was blocked. Figure 3(a) compares the revived
plasma optical signal observed through the UV interference filter to that of the initial
filament plasma. We note that the revived plasma lasts at least 1 µs, and that the
corresponding optical signal exceeds that of the filament more than 200 ns. The
probability to obtain a fully developed breakdown was measured as a function of the
relative delay between the two ns pulses, for a fixed delay of 53 µs with respect to the
fs laser pulse. In consistence with the expectations mentioned above, we observed a
- ions increases with
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maximum probability of 100% when the 532 nm pulse arrived first and the 1064 nm
pulse comes after a delay of 10 ns (see Fig. 3(c)).
Fig. 3. Three beam configuration when both YAG laser pulses are delayed by 53 µs
from the fs laser pulse: (a) Signals detected by the PMT with a 338 nm filter in the
presence of breakdown. The laser pulse at 1064 nm arrives 10 ns after the pulse at
532 nm. The optical signal recorded under the same conditions with the fs laser
alone is shown in the inset (the magnitudes can be compared). (b) Photograph of the
breakdown spark in a three laser beams configuration. The beam paths are shown
with dotted lines. (c) Revival plasma triggered breakdown probability as a function
of delay between the 1064 nm and 532 nm. A positive delay corresponds to the 532
nm pulse arriving first. Each point is an average over 1000 shots.
4. Simulation and Results
In order to compare our experimental results with theoretical models we have also
numerically estimated the electron density evolution under conditions similar to the
experiments. The chain of events leading to the revival can be cast into the following
coupled nonlinear rate equations:
n n n nIn
where n denotes density and the subscripts e, n and p denotes electrons, negative ions
and positive ions, respectively.
recombination, ion-ion recombination and attachment to neutral molecules. The
attachment coefficient is a function of the amplitude of the laser electric field, and
is found from the addition of the two-body and three-body interactions . is the
impact ionization rate, which depends on the pulse intensity, ionization potential of
the neutral molecules and laser wavelength; it is calculated according to Drude model
. I2 is the intensity of the ns pulse, is the cross section for absorption of a
photon and consequent detachment of the electron (calculated from the experimental
results of Burch et al. ), is the ns laser frequency and h is Planck’s constant.
and are the rates for electron-ion
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Fig. 4. Evolution of free electron and O2
excitation. (b) During and after the delayed ns pulse (at 532 nm) excitation. The end
of the time axis in (a) coincides with the beginning of time axis in (b). The fs pulse
arrives at t = 0 and creates the initial plasma channel of density 1017cm-3. The ns
pulse is a Gaussian with 10 ns (FWHM) duration, has its peak 50 ns after the
beginning of time axis of (b) (at 50.05 µs) and it has a peak intensity of 1011 W/cm2.
At t=0, ne and np are taken to be 1017 cm-3 and nn to be zero consistent with
measurements performed in filaments . We numerically solved Eq. (1) in the
absence of the last terms to obtain the densities at the arrival time of the ns laser, and
reinserted these values as initial conditions for the same rate equations, last term
included, which describe the change in the densities during and after this long pulse
excitation. The results of the calculations Fig. 4 agreed well with the experimental
observation. The above model is insufficient, however, to describe the full evolution
towards dielectric breakdown for higher intensities used during experiments shown in
Fig. 3. since it does not take into account the increase of absorption cross section with
- ion densities: (a) After the fs laser
In conclusion, we have demonstrated experimentally and verified theoretically that a
fs laser generated plasma channel can be reconstructed in air long after the passage of
the fs laser pulse. The attachment of free electrons to oxygen molecules, which is
usually perceived undesirable, can be turned to advantage as it provides storage of
low affinity electrons. With a delayed ns laser, these electrons can be detached and
multiplied through impact ionization. We have observed revivals at delays as large as
several ms. With sufficient ns laser intensity, the avalanche process could be pushed
up to dielectric breakdown. The plasma lifetime in this case reaches µs. These results
may prove important for applications of long distance filamentation in air, where the
short lifetime of the plasma poses strong limitations.
We thank C.L. Arnold and M. Pellet for stimulating discussions. This work has been
partially funded by DGA. Teramobile is a joint project funded by CNRS, DFG and
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