Single-mode instability in standing-wave lasers: The quantum cascade laser as a self-pumped parametric oscillator
We report the observation of a clear single-mode instability threshold in continuous-wave Fabry-Perot quantum cascade lasers (QCLs). The instability is characterized by the appearance of sidebands separated by tens of free spectral ranges (FSR) from the first lasing mode, at a pump current not much higher than the lasing threshold. As the current is increased, higher-order sidebands appear that preserve the initial spacing, and the spectra are suggestive of harmonically phase-locked waveforms. We present a theory of the instability that applies to all homogeneously broadened standing-wave lasers. The low instability threshold and the large sideband spacing can be explained by the combination of an unclamped, incoherent Lorentzian gain due to the population grating, and a coherent parametric gain caused by temporal population pulsations that changes the spectral gain line shape. The parametric term suppresses the gain of sidebands whose separation is much smaller than the reciprocal gain recovery time, while enhancing the gain of more distant sidebands. The large gain recovery frequency of the QCL compared to the FSR is essential to observe this parametric effect, which is responsible for the multiple-FSR sideband separation. We predict that by tuning the strength of the incoherent gain contribution, for example by engineering the modal overlap factors and the carrier diffusion, both amplitude-modulated (AM) or frequency-modulated emission can be achieved from QCLs. We provide initial evidence of an AM waveform emitted by a QCL with highly asymmetric facet reflectivities, thereby opening a promising route to ultrashort pulse generation in the mid-infrared. Together, the experiments and theory clarify a deep connection between parametric oscillation in optically pumped microresonators and the single-mode instability of lasers, tying together literature from the last 60 years.