Tutorial: High Speed Fiber Modulator Basics

Fiber modulator : this tutorial provides an overview of the technical approaches most commonly used to change the amplitude (modulation) of laser light in the nanosecond or sub-nanosecond time domain in fiber-coupled laser systems.

 More specifically, this tutorial gives a summary of the pros and cons of the four primary technical approaches to laser fiber modulation. Three of these are based on external modulation  : AOM (Acousto-Optic Modulators), EOM (Electro-Optic Modulators), SOA (Semiconductor Optical Amplifiers) and the fourth is by directly driving the laser diode.

Fiber modulators comparison
Figure 1 : the pros and cons of the four primary technical approaches to laser fiber modulation

Acousto-optics modulator : AOM

Acousto-optic fiber modulator devices are available at various wavelengths from 380 nm to 2500 nm. The major advantage of acousto-optic fiber coupled device modulation is the relatively high optical power these modulators can handle. They are specified to work with power levels which can reach several watts (more than 10 W in some cases). However, with acousto-optic modulators (AOM’s), a primary con is the trade off between the switching speed and the insertion loss. The more the optical beam is focused within the AOM’s embedded crystal, the faster it switches, but the more difficult it can reach the output fiber without suffering losses. For more information on this technology, you can read an in-depth overview of acousto-optic theory can : Acousto-optic Theory – Application Notes

Fiber modulator AOM
Figure 2 : Fiber-coupled acousto-optic modulator from Brimrose (left) and Gooch & Housego (right) – (Courtesy of Brimrose/ Gooch & Housego - websites)

3 highly reputable manufacturers of fiber-coupled acousto-optic modulators are :

When considering the price of an AOM set-up, the user should consider the total cost of the three key elements:

  • The AOM component itself
  • The RF driver
  • The fast switching driving electronics generating 0-1 V or 0-5 V depending on the RF driver
  • Here are a few examples of the key specifications for AOM models available around 1064 nm and 1550 nm :

Wavelength (nm)

Max input power (W)

Rise time (ns)

Insertion Loss (dB)

1060

5

25

2.5

1060

0.5

6

3.5

1550

5

3

3.0

1550

1

6

3.0

The RF driver is typically supplied by the AOM component supplier. An example of multi-function, simple to use fast switching synchronization electronics module is shown in figure 3. This module combines an impressive number of functions including pulse-picking and an AWG (Arbitrary Waveform Generator). This pulse delay generator is manufactured by Aerodiode :  

Fiber modulator synchronization tool
Figure 3 : Example of fast switching synchronization electronics from Aerodiode - ideal for AOM pulse picking synchronization.

Electro-optics modulator : EOM

The major advantage of an electro-optic modulator (EOM) is their bandwidth, which extends into the 10’s of GHz range. Keep in mind that the user must find the driving electronics to support this bandwidth.

Fiber modulator EOM
Figure 4 : Example of intensity electro-optics modulators by ixBlue (ex-Photline) (left) and EOspace (right) – (Courtesy of iXBlue/EOspace - websites)

4 highly reputable manufacturers of EOM fiber modulators are:

 

Several difficulties which are associated with electro-optic modulator (EOM) can be solved by increasing the complexity of the overall setup. If you decide to utilize an EOM based modulation setup, there are several parameters which need to be considered and correctly managed: 

  • Insertion loss :

Insertion loss levels vary from one model to another. In general, improving one key performance attribute of an EOM (ie extinction ratio) can have a negative consequence on the insertion losses. Typical insertion losses are in the range of 4-5 dB.

  • Maximum input/output power :

Typical maximum input power is in the range of 50 mW (17 dBm). This maximum power is generally an average power. One can thus overcome this limit / problem by applying a pulsed signal at the input fiber instead of a CW signal. The modulated input signal can be generated by an AOM (refer to AOM overview above) or by directly modulating the laser diode. This, however, produces some other difficulties associated with the stability of the V-bias of the EOM (see below).

Figure 5 : Example of a pulsed configuration to overcome the average input power limitation of EOMs
  • Stability of V-bias :

This is one of the most difficult technical issues to manage when using an EOM. EOM’s generally drift because of thermal inhomogeneity etc. This causes the transfer function (see Figure 6) to move in the horizontal direction and the modulation signal is applied to a changing operating point. This can affect the quality of the modulation.

Fiber modulator EOM V-bias
Figure 6 : Transfer function of an intensity modulator

In order to operate the intensity modulator and obtain the desired modulation, the user must apply two separate voltages to the modulator: (1) A modulation voltage V(t) and (2) a DC voltage (also called V-bias). The bias voltage selects the desired operating point and compensates for the drift in order to keep more stable operating conditions.

Fiber modulator complete EOM setup
Figure 7 : A typical setup for driving an EOM requires 5 types of electronics :1- laser diode driver, 2-global synchronization, 3-fast modulation, 4-RF Amplifier, 5-Vbias electronics

Many suppliers offer the laser diode driver described in the block diagram above. Finding a pulser which generates stable, clean pulses in the nanosecond time domain is important. Here is an example of a well specified pulsed laser diode driver.

The product shown in Figure 3 can be efficiently used as a the second “synchronization” electronics source which is referred to in Figure 7.

Another Aerodiode product worth mentioning combines the three first electronics functions of Figure 7 above with very good technical performance is this high speed laser diode driver (see picture below). This pulse driver is able to simultaneously drive and control a butterfly laser diode seeder in pulse or CW, generate several synchronization signals and drive the EOM with a programmable pulse shape with a temporal resolution down to 500 picoseconds.

Fiber modulator Shaper
Figure 8 : Shaper board for EOM driving, combining a laser diode driver, a multiple output synchronization electronics and a 5V programmable shape output to drive an EOM with 2GHz bandwidth and 48dB dynamic range

The fifth block shown in Figure 7 is very important when high stability is required (which is most often the case). ). Here are three products which are available from highly reputable manufacturers:

A major difficulty associated with the setup shown in Figure 7  occurs when a user needs to operate with a pulse regime at very low duty cycle. The low level of power might not be enough for the V-bias electronics to be able to keep control of the bias level. The difference between the electronics product generations plays an important role here.

Some examples of a few key technical parameters of EOM models available around 1064 nm and 1550 nm are shown in the table below : 

Wavelength (nm)Bandwidth (GHz)Extinction ratio (dB)Insertion Loss (dB)
106410184.5
1064 (double)10504.0
980-115012303.5
1530 – 1625123.5/2.7
1525 – 160514204.0

Semiconductor Optical Modulator : SOM (SOA-based modulation)

Semiconductor optical amplifiers (SOA) are a well-established alternative to CW EDFA’s (Erbium Doped Fiber Amplifiers) and are used to amplify a pulsed signal. A Semiconductor Optical Modulator (SOM) utilizes SOA technology in a different way than traditional SOA amplifiers have been used (Figure 9). Semiconductor optical modulation utilizes a SOA as a fiber modulator with potentially negative insertion loss (ie Gain). In this case, a CW laser diode signal is applied to the SOA and it is the level of current driving the SOA which is switched ON/OFF at GHz speed. This modulated signal can also be customized and shaped to accommodate many emerging applications.

Fiber modulator SOA principle
Figure 9 : SOA, when driven with a specific electronics, behaves like a fiber modulator with no insertion loss (SOM : Semiconductor Optical Modulator)

There is a number of advantages to use SOA compared with other solutions :

  • The dynamic range of an SOM is generally higher than that of an EOM or an AOM. An AOM or EOM are often limited to < 30 dB, and often less since there is a strong polarization dependency.
  • An SOM has no polarization rotation dependencies, whereas both an EOM and an AOM typically are susceptible to polarization dependencies.
  • The spectrum of an SOM remains the same along the entire pulse, whereas when directly pulsing a laser diode, the user must consider the undesirable spectral effects which can occur from coupling of the frequency/phase spectrum and intensity profile.
  • The SOM is the only commercially available solution which also functions as an optical isolator for the input laser source.

 

One needs, however, to pay attention at three important characteristics :

  • The high extinction ratio is polarization dependent and it is often necessary to add a polarizer (or isolator for its polarizing properties) at the output to reach the very high extinction ratio levels.
  • SOA technologies can be very different from one supplier to another. A key parameter is the reflection level of the output part which can stimulate some laser operation in some cases. An isolator is often required between the input laser diode and the SOA. 
  • Depending on the configuration and input laser diode power, one may want to take advantage of the ability of the SOA to amplify the input signal. This is potentially interesting but this also can generate a small ASE signal. An ASE filter might be pertinent in some integration configuration. 

 

Several highly reputable suppliers of  SOA’s:

  • Innolume for SOA ranging from 950 to 1300nm
  • Thorlabs at discrete wavelengths like 1050 or 1550nm
Fiber modulator SOA exemples
Figure 10 : Example of SOAs with high extinction ratio (Courtesy of Innolume / Thorlabs - web sites)

 When using an SOM, extinction ratios as high as 70 dB are possible. The maximum input power is generally not much higher than the saturation output of typically 50 mW (17 dBm).

Aerodiode offers an open-frame Pulsed SOA driver and control module which is compatible with the pin configurations and the package size of most commercially available SOA’s. See this link : SOA pulsed driver

Fiboer modulator Aerodiode SOA
Figure 11 : Aerodiode SOA driver able to modulate light down to 1ns with very high extinction ratio of more than 50 dB.

Aerodiode offers several complete SOM fiber optic modulator turn-key solutions. These SOM are offered with a broad selection of SOA’s from 775 nm to 1625 nm. Current and temperature control circuits and safety limits are pre-set and optimized to ensure the highest level of performance in pulsed mode. See this link : fiber optic modulator.

Fiber modulator SOM-std
Figure 12 : Turn-key SOM with several interesting functionalities and USB control. Square shape version : The pulse width can be adjusted internally or triggered externally with a LVTTL signal. The peak power is adjusted internally with up to 60 dB resolution or externally with a pure analog 0-5 V signal.
Fiber modulator SOM-shape
Figure 13 : Turn-key SOM with several interesting functionalities and USB control : user-design pulse shape version with internal AWG. The shape of the output pulse can be configured from 0.5 ps up to 8 µsec with 2 GHz bandwidth and 48 dB dynamic range.

Direct laser diode modulation

The last (but not least) solution for modulating the light coming from a fiber-coupled laser diode is to apply a direct modulation using a pulse control electronics current driver. An example of a 3 nanosecond pulse width is shown below. One can see the gain switch peak at the beginning of the pulse. This is a relaxation of the carrier within the laser diode. Gain switch peaks can be useful if one wants to isolate this gain switch peak pulse and get ~ 100 picosecond pulses. But the gain switch peak is typically an undesired property. 

Fiber modulator : direct laser diode
Figure 14 : 3 ns stable pulse width from the direct pulsing of a DFB Butterfly laser diode with Aerodiode CCS driver. A gain switch peak is observed at the beginning of the pulse.

There are fewer than 10 companies around the world who specialize in manufacturing commercially available laser diode pulse drivers.  However, the pulse shape at a short pulse width and the rise/fall time and Jitter levels can be very different from manufacturer to manufacturer.  Also, there are many key features and additional functions which vary from each manufacturer, and ease of use should also be considered.

The bandwidth limitations are a result of the speed of the electronics on the “driver side” and the inductance of the laser diode on the other side. Reaching a 5 nanosecond per amp rise/fall time is possible in an ON/OFF switching mode from many suppliers. However, combining modularity, ease of use and high performance levels is the most difficult part when developing a pulsed driver.

Aerodiode offers two ON/OFF laser diode switching driver models with switching speed from 3 ns/A to less than 0.5 ns/A.  Another high speed laser diode driver product for direct laser diode modulation is called a “Pulse-Shaper”. It is the same product shown Figure 8, but configured for direct laser diode current shaping. It includes an internal AWG and is able to shape the laser diode output with 48dB amplitude resolution and 500 picoseconds of timing resolution. See this link :  high speed laser diode driver.

Fiber modulator Shaper
Figure 15 : Aerodiode shaper module set in direct driver configuration
Fiber modulator pulse shaping
Figure 16 : Special optical pulse shape obtained from a DFB laser diode after its programmed within the module (right)

This pulse-shaper module allows the user to program a customized shape with a high bandwidth AWG and generates the desired custom optical pulse shape. As seen in the figure bellow, this module also has a special internal function which allows the user to mitigate the gain switch peak :

Fiber modulator gains switch suppression
Figure 17 : 3ns pulse shapes out of a DFB laser diode driven by Aerodiode shaper modules. The left curve has a gain switch peak which is suppressed on the pulse on the right by activating the internal “gain switch peak suppression” function.

Conclusion

The table below summarizes the pros and the cons of the various solutions. AOMs are interesting when looking for several Watts of output power. EOMs are the fastest solutions despite a high level of integration complexity and low extinction ratio. SOM (i.e. SOA used in a modulator configuration with a special electronics) has clearly major advantages when looking for a cost-effective GHz speed solution. Direct laser diode is the cheapest solution but be careful that the wavelength will shift all along the pulse and one needs to choose the good driving electronics to reach a minimum peak power when looking for less than 10ns pulse width.

Fiber modulators comparison
Figure 18 : The pros and cons of the four primary technical approaches to laser fiber modulation