A laser can be classified as operating in either continuous or pulsed mode, depending on whether the power output is essentially continuous over time or whether its output takes the form of pulses of light on one or another time scale. Of course even a laser whose output is normally continuous can be intentionally turned on and off at some rate in order to create pulses of light. When the modulation rate is on time scales much slower than the cavity lifetime and the time period over which energy can be stored in the lasing medium or pumping mechanism, then it is still classified as a "modulated" or "pulsed" continuous wave laser. Most laser diodes used in communication systems fall in that category.
Continuous wave operation
Some applications of lasers depend on a beam whose output power is constant over time. Such a laser is known as continuous wave (CW). Many types of lasers can be made to operate in continuous wave mode to satisfy such an application. Many of these lasers actually lase in several longitudinal modes at the same time, and beats between the slightly different optical frequencies of those oscillations will in fact produce amplitude variations on time scales shorter than the round-trip time (the reciprocal of the frequency spacing between modes), typically a few nanoseconds or less. In most cases these lasers are still termed "continuous wave" as their output power is steady when averaged over any longer time periods, with the very high frequency power variations having little or no impact in the intended application. (However the term is not applied to mode locked lasers, where the intention is to create very short pulses at the rate of the round-trip time).
For continuous wave operation it is required for the population inversion of the gain medium to be continually replenished by a steady pump source. In some lasing media this is impossible. In some other lasers it would require pumping the laser at a very high continuous power level which would be impractical or destroy the laser by producing excessive heat. Such lasers cannot be run in CW mode.
Pulsed operation of lasers refers to any laser not classified as continuous wave, so that the optical power appears in pulses of some duration at some repetition rate. This encompasses a wide range of technologies addressing a number of different motivations. Some lasers are pulsed simply because they cannot be run in continuous mode.
In other cases the application requires the production of pulses having as large an energy as possible. Since the pulse energy is equal to the average power divided by the repetition rate, this goal can sometimes be satisfied by lowering the rate of pulses so that more energy can be built up in between pulses. In laser ablation for example, a small volume of material at the surface of a work piece can be evaporated if it is heated in a very short time, whereas supplying the energy gradually would allow for the heat to be absorbed into the bulk of the piece, never attaining a sufficiently high temperature at a particular point.
Other applications rely on the peak pulse power (rather than the energy in the pulse), especially in order to obtain nonlinear optical effects. For a given pulse energy, this requires creating pulses of the shortest possible duration utilizing techniques such as Q-switching.
The optical bandwidth of a pulse cannot be narrower than the reciprocal of the pulse width. In the case of extremely short pulses, that implies lasing over a considerable bandwidth, quite contrary to the very narrow bandwidths typical of CW lasers. The lasing medium in some dye lasers and vibronic solid-state lasers produces optical gain over a wide bandwidth, making a laser possible which can thus generate pulses of light as short as a few femtoseconds (10−15 s).
In a Q-switched laser, the population inversion is allowed to build up by introducing loss inside the resonator which exceeds the gain of the medium; this can also be described as a reduction of the quality factor or 'Q' of the cavity. Then, after the pump energy stored in the laser medium has approached the maximum possible level, the introduced loss mechanism (often an electro- or acousto-optical element) is rapidly removed (or that occurs by itself in a passive device), allowing lasing to begin which rapidly obtains the stored energy in the gain medium. This results in a short pulse incorporating that energy, and thus a high peak power.
A mode-locked laser is capable of emitting extremely short pulses on the order of tens of picoseconds down to less than 10 femtoseconds. These pulses will repeat at the round trip time, that is, the time that it takes light to complete one round trip between the mirrors comprising the resonator. Due to the Fourier limit (also known as energy-time uncertainty), a pulse of such short temporal length has a spectrum spread over a considerable bandwidth. Thus such a gain medium must have a gain bandwidth sufficiently broad to amplify those frequencies. An example of a suitable material is titanium-doped, artificially grown sapphire (Ti:sapphire) which has a very wide gain bandwidth and can thus produce pulses of only a few femtoseconds duration.
Such mode-locked lasers are a most versatile tool for researching processes occurring on extremely short time scales (known as femtosecond physics, femtosecond chemistry and ultrafast science), for maximizing the effect of nonlinearity in optical materials (e.g. in second-harmonic generation, parametric down-conversion, optical parametric oscillators and the like) due to the large peak power, and in ablation applications. Again, because of the extremely short pulse duration, such a laser will produce pulses which achieve an extremely high peak power.
Another method of achieving pulsed laser operation is to pump the laser material with a source that is itself pulsed, either through electronic charging in the case of flash lamps, or another laser which is already pulsed. Pulsed pumping was historically used with dye lasers where the inverted population lifetime of a dye molecule was so short that a high energy, fast pump was needed. The way to overcome this problem was to charge up large capacitors which are then switched to discharge through flashlamps, producing an intense flash. Pulsed pumping is also required for three-level lasers in which the lower energy level rapidly becomes highly populated preventing further lasing until those atoms relax to the ground state. These lasers, such as the excimer laser and the copper vapor laser, can never be operated in CW mode.