In optics, a Gaussian beam is a beam of electromagnetic radiation whose transverse electric field and intensity (irradiance) distributions are described by Gaussian functions. Many lasers emit beams with a Gaussian profile, in which case the laser is said to be operating on the fundamental transverse mode, or "TEM00 mode" of the laser's optical resonator. When refracted by a lens, a Gaussian beam is transformed into another Gaussian beam (characterized by a different set of parameters), which explains why it is a convenient, widespread model in laser optics.

The mathematical function that describes the Gaussian beam is a solution to the paraxial form of the Helmholtz equation. The solution, in the form of a Gaussian function, represents the complex amplitude of the electric field, which propagates along with the corresponding magnetic field as an electromagnetic wave in the beam.

Mathematical form

For a Gaussian beam, the complex electric field amplitude is given by


is the radial distance from the center axis of the beam,
is the axial distance from the beam's narrowest point (the "waist"),
is the imaginary unit (for which ),
is the wave number (in radians per meter),
is the radius at which the field amplitude and intensity drop to 1/e and 1/e2 of their axial values, respectively, and
is the waist size (described in more detail below).

The functions , , and are parameters of the beam, which we define below.

The corresponding time-averaged intensity (or irradiance) distribution is

where is the intensity at the center of the beam at its waist. The constant is the characteristic impedance of the medium in which the beam is propagating. For free space, .

Beam parameters

The geometry and behavior of a Gaussian beam are governed by a set of beam parameters, which are defined in the following sections.

Beam width or "spot size"

For a Gaussian beam propagating in free space, the spot size w(z) will be at a minimum value w0 at one place along the beam axis, known as the beam waist. For a beam of wavelength λ at a distance z along the beam from the beam waist, the variation of the spot size is given by

where the origin of the z-axis is defined, without loss of generality, to coincide with the beam waist, and where

is called the Rayleigh range.

Rayleigh range and confocal parameter

At a distance from the waist equal to the Rayleigh range zR, the width w of the beam is

The distance between these two points is called the confocal parameter or depth of focus of the beam:

Radius of curvature

R(z) is the radius of curvature of the wavefronts comprising the beam. Its value as a function of position is

Beam divergence

The parameter approaches a straight line for . The angle between this straight line and the central axis of the beam is called the divergence of the beam. It is given by

The total angular spread of the beam far from the waist is then given by

Because of this property, a Gaussian laser beam that is focused to a small spot spreads out rapidly as it propagates away from that spot. To keep a laser beam very well collimated, it must have a large diameter.

Since the gaussian beam model uses the paraxial approximation, it fails when wavefronts are tilted by more than about 30° from the direction of propagation[1]. From the above expression for divergence, this means the Gaussian beam model is valid only for beams with waists larger than about 2λ/π.

Laser beam quality is quantified by the beam parameter product (BPP). For a Gaussian beam, the BPP is the product of the beam's divergence and waist size . The BPP of a real beam is obtained by measuring the beam's minimum diameter and far-field divergence, and taking their product. The ratio of the BPP of the real beam to that of an ideal Gaussian beam at the same wavelength is known as ("M squared"). The M² for a Gaussian beam is one. All real laser beams have M² values greater than one, although very high quality beams can have values very close to one.

Gouy phase

The longitudinal phase delay or Gouy phase of the beam is

Complex beam parameter

The complex beam parameter is

It is often convenient to calculate this quantity in terms of its reciprocal:

The complex beam parameter plays a key role in the analysis of gaussian beam propagation, and especially in the analysis of optical resonator cavities using ray transfer matrices.

In terms of the complex beam parameter , a gaussian field with one transverse dimension is proportional to


In two dimensions one can write the potentially elliptical or astigmatic beam as the product


which for the common case of circular symmetry where and yields[2]


Power and intensity

Power through an aperture

The power P passing through a circle of radius r in the transverse plane at position z is


is the total power transmitted by the beam.

For a circle of radius , the fraction of power transmitted through the circle is

Similarly, about 95 percent of the beam's power will flow through a circle of radius .

Peak and average intensity

The peak intensity at an axial distance from the beam waist is calculated using L'Hôpital's rule as the limit of the enclosed power within a circle of radius , divided by the area of the circle :

The peak intensity is thus exactly twice the average intensity, obtained by dividing the total power by the area within the radius .

Hermite-Gaussian modes

In one transverse dimension higher order Hermite-gaussian modes exist. These are natural extensions of the fundamental lowest-order Gaussian solution. In terms of the previously defined complex parameter these modes have intensity distributions proportional to

where the function is the Hermite polynomial of order (physicists' form, i.e. ), and the asterisk indicates complex conjugation. For the case the equation yields a Gaussian transverse distribution.

For two dimensional rectangular coordinates one constructs a function from a product of two one dimensional functions as given above. Mathematically this property is due to the separation of variables applied to the paraxial Helmholtz equation for Cartesian coordinates.[3]

Hermite-Gaussian modes are typically designated "TEMm,n", where m and n are the polynomial indices in the x and y directions. A Gaussian beam is thus TEM0,0.

Laguerre-Gaussian modes

If we consider the problem in cylindrical coordinates we can write higher order modes using Laguerre- instead of Hermite-polynomials. In this manner two dimensional Laguerre-Gaussian modes may be written as

where are the generalised Laguerre polynomials, the radial index , the azimuthal index is and represents the Kronecker delta, if but 1 otherwise.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Siegman (1986) p. 630.
  2. ^ See Siegman (1986) p. 639. Eq. 29
  3. ^ Siegman (1986), p645, eq. 54
  4. ^ Siegman (1986), p647, eq. 64