MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Do Lasers Work Underwater?

Date: Wed May 26 17:54:14 1999
Posted By: Steve Guch, Post-doc/Fellow, Physics (Electro-Optics/Lasers), Litton Systems, Inc., Laser Systems Division
Area of science: Physics
ID: 927338482.Ph

Lasers sure do work underwater... unless the interior of the lasers is 
exposed to the water, which might cause the electronics to short circuit 
and/or the optics to get misaligned or contaminated.  But if you were 
going to use a laser to do some underwater work, you might have to make 
some corrections for the beam propagation in the aqueous environment.

Lasers have been used for underwater applications for quite some time.  

Probably the most widespread current use of lasers underwater is for 
transmission of telecommunications signals via fiber optics.  The lasers 
used in such cases are generally semiconductor diode lasers operating at 
800, 1300, or 1500 nanometer wavelengths -- all in the near-infrared 
portion of the spectrum.  In this case, though, neither the lasers nor the 
fibers actually touch the water -- they're encased in waterproof cables 
and boxes that keep the very-corrosive seawater from degrading the optical 
elements.  As a result, while these lasers operate under water, they're 
really not depending on or using anything associated with the water... so 
they're kind of "fake" underwater lasers.

Another kind of laser system provides underwater sensing using a kind of 
laser radar:  blue-green lasers located in airplanes are sometimes aimed 
so that they go straight down into water that the planes are flying over.  
Using very sensitive detectors in the airplane, the system detects the 
small amount of light reflected both from the surface of the water and the 
bottom of the harbor.  This allows measurement of the water depth to 
accuracies of a foot or so.  The big advantage of such systems is that 
they can collect data very quickly, because the airplane moves very 
quickly and the lasers can be pulsed at a high rate.  One example of this 
is the use by Australian government planes of such a system to map their 
very large coastal areas -- it's much quicker and cheaper to use a laser 
radar to do this than it is to use conventional acoustic (sound wave) 
sonars to make such measurements from ships.

Still another kind of laser system which is used underwater uses blue-
green lasers to communicate from airplanes to submarines.  As early as 
1983, experiments were done which demonstrated that this could be done 
sucessfully -- but the systems were terribly expensive and you had to 
pretty much know where a submarine was to be able to talk to it.  So it's 
unlikely that these systems will actually be deployed.

Beyond this, there haven't really been too much uses of lasers 
underwater.  Bob Ballard -- the man who mounted the expeditions that found 
the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean -- expressed some interest in 
trying to use blue-green lasers to assist in taking pictures of the 
Titanic, but found out that development of an appropriate system would be 
very expensive and not too much better than just using high power 
spotlights... which he ultimately used.

The reasons that there aren't too many applications of lasers in an 
underwater environment is associated with the way light is transmitted 
underwater through 2 separate problems:

     1.  Most light is absorbed by water -- Water absorbs ultraviolet, 
yellow and red and infrared radiation very strongly, so that beams in 
these spectral regions cannot be transmitted very far -- meaning that 
systems using such lasers are pretty useless.  On the other hand, water 
(seawater, that is) transmits blue-green light pretty well -- losing 
"only" about 5% of its original intensity for every meter it transmits 
through water.

     2.  There are often little specks of dust, tiny animals 
(phytoplankton), and tiny plants (photoplankton) in water, and these 
reflectd a little bit of the light, too, reducing intensity as it passes 
through water.  This adds to the problems noted above in Item 1.

The effect of these two effects is that lasers used underwater have to be 
much more powerful than those used in air, where absorption is generally 
much lower than in water.  The lasers used in the surveying equipment that 
you are familiar with are probably near-infrared lasers emitting a few 
milliwatts of output power, modulated to allow easy range measurements.  
Lasers used for underwater optical work generally must emit output powers 
in the multi-megawatt (that's millions of watts!) range...  and because of 
the large output power, they're only used in special configurations in 
which the outputs are very short pulses -- of a few billionths of a second 
duration -- of blue-green light.  Lasers to be used for underwater 
applications are, as a result, very expensive and difficult to build.

The bottom line is that lasers do work underwater, and have been used to 
do surveying of a sort.  But the lasers are much different in color and 
power than the type with which you are familiar -- and much more 
expensive.  They haven't been used too much, because of the cost and 
difficulty of building them -- particularly since other cheaper 
alternatives exist.  As a result, it's unlikely that they'll be used 
extensively, except in very special circumstances.

Thanks for the great question!

Steve Guch

Current Queue | Current Queue for Physics | Physics archives

Try the links in the MadSci Library for more information on Physics.

MadSci Home | Information | Search | Random Knowledge Generator | MadSci Archives | Mad Library | MAD Labs | MAD FAQs | Ask a ? | Join Us! | Help Support MadSci

MadSci Network,
© 1995-1999. All rights reserved.