Femtosecond laser ablation of dielectric materials in the optical breakdown regime: Expansion of a transparent shell
Phase transition pathways of matter upon ablation with ultrashort laser pulses have been considered to be understood long-since for metals and semiconductors. We provide evidence that also certain dielectrics follow the same pathway, even at high pulse energies triggering optical breakdown. Employing femtosecond microscopy, we observe a characteristic ring pattern within the ablating region that dynamically changes for increasing time delays between pump and probe pulse. These transient Newton rings are related to optical interference of the probe beam reflected at the front surface of the ablating layer with the reflection at the interface of the non-ablating substrate. Analysis of the ring structure shows that the ablation mechanism is initiated by a rarefaction wave leading within a few tens of picoseconds to the formation of a transparent thin shell of reduced density and refractive index, featuring optically sharp interfaces. The shell expands and eventually detaches from the solid material at delays of the order of 100 ps.