The Arctic from Wicked Lasers is a spectacular affirmation of the forward march of technology. But should a 750-milliwatt, handheld blue laser even be legal for sale?
The article you’re about to read is a story of furious power unleashed. It’s a story about technology that must be seen to be believed, but causes serious concern among federal agencies. It’s a story of a 9-inch, 13.3oz, handheld laser that can shine a brilliant, blue beam many miles into the night’s sky, and, at shorter distance under the right conditions, burn flesh, cause permanent blindness, and set organic matter on fire.
While it’s legal to own the Arctic laser and even point its beam into the sky, it is illegal in many jurisdictions to aim its beam at aircraft. The Arctic is a dangerous laser that should only be operated by responsible adults. Be a good citizen. Don’t be a dumbass.
This is not the story of a “laser pointer” or a “toy” of any sort. The new Arctic from Wicked Lasers is actually a fascinating, thrilling piece of technology. But its potential for danger is real. Don’t underestimate just how quickly or badly things could go wrong when operating the Arctic.
No, friends, the new Arctic laser is definitely not a toy.
Laser Tech Unleashed at Pennies a Pop
Until just recently, blue lasers in the 750mW to 1W range weren’t anything one would describe as “personal technology.” For example, a blue-green argon laser would cost thousands of dollars, and take the form of a heavy metal contraption that sat on a tabletop. The Arctic doesn’t just challenge these conventions. It taunts and ridicules them.
The key hardware ingredient that makes the Arctic possible—and affordable at just $299—is a battery-powered laser diode that projects blue light of the 445nm wavelength. Diodes of this wavelength are now ridiculously cheap, in large part due to efficiencies of scale, as they’re being manufactured en masse for Casio home theater projectors. Consider that Casio’s XJ-A130 projector retails for $800 and includes 24 diodes. Now do your own guesstimates on how much a single blue diode might cost to manufacture.
Steve Liu, CEO of Hong Kong-based Wicked Lasers, told us his company is buying parts directly from a diode manufacturer. Others, however, are purchasing Casio projectors for diode harvesting. At press time, we were amused by an eBay auction hawking 30 defanged Casio projectors from a seller in Phoenix. Stated the ad, “Laser arrays removed. All [projectors] are in otherwise perfect condition and brand new. Got to clean out my workshop!” Other eBay auctions were selling the diodes themselves for $60 apiece.
Laser diodes are fascinating bits of technology, and to explain their unique properties, we should first explain how lasers differ from much more mundane light sources, and how laser beams are born.
Congrats, It's a Bouncing Baby-Blue Beam!
Let’s start with common light bulbs. In simple (and abridged) terms, when electricity is pumped into a bulb’s filament, the electrons of the atoms in the filament emit photons—waves of light. The photons discharge in a wide range of wavelengths, and spread in every direction. The light is full-spectrum (multi-colored) and incoherent (highly scattered).
Laser beams also throw off photons of light. In fact, the word laser stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. But where traditional light sources emit photons of various wavelengths and scatter photons willy-nilly, lasers emit photons of just a single wavelength and in a single, highly organized, focused direction.
How is all this goodness achieved? First, you need a “gain medium”—a substance whose electrons can be stimulated to throw off photons of a consistent, unique wavelength. Gain mediums include gases (e.g., helium, neon, argon) as well as solid crystals that have been “doped” with rare-earth or transition metal ions.
Second, you need an “optical cavity,” a highly reflective chamber in which the gain medium is contained. In an old-fashioned laser, this could be nothing more than two mirrors arranged to bounce light back and forth through the gain medium. Oh, and one mirror would be partially transparent—we’ll soon explain why.
Third, you need a power source to fuel the “stimulated emission” of the gain medium’s photons. This source can be electricity, or even light itself.
When the gain medium is excited, some of its atoms release photons, setting off a chain reaction of sorts. The photons stimulate the electrons of neighboring atoms, which in turn generate even more photons. As the photons propagate, they move at the same wavelength and in the same direction. They also increase in number as they bounce back and forth between the mirrors, and through the gain medium. The organized, focused photons pass through an aperture in the optical cavity (in our example, it’s the semi-transparent surface of one of the mirrors), and, boy howdy, you’ve got yourself a laser!
OK, everything we just shared was a gross simplification. The important thing to remember is that all laser light will be monochromatic (the light will shine in a single wavelength), coherent (the light waves will move in lockstep, all without colliding into each other) and collimated (the beam will be tightly focused in a single direction).
It’s this last quality, collimation, that’s particularly relevant to diode-based lasers like the Arctic.
Photons to Diode For?
Laser diodes are made with semiconductors that are fabricated using the same basic photolithography process that’s employed to create computer chips. To generate a laser beam, a diode performs the same atomic physics we’ve described above, but it happens in an insanely tight physical area.
During the diode’s fabrication process, a small amount of doping material is layered between two sections of its structure (silicon isn’t an ideal fabrication medium for these chips, so a compound like gallium arsenide is used instead). The doping material creates opposing electrical properties on the top and bottom of the chip, providing, in essence, a gain medium within the junction of the two sections. It’s in this junction that our frisky photons are generated. When voltage is applied to the wafer-thin sandwich, photons begin traveling through an infinitesimally small channel, bouncing between infinitesimally small mirrors at either side of the cavity (as repairfaq.org states, these mirrors “may just be the cleaved surfaces of the semiconductor crystal or may be optically ground, polished, and coated”).
The fact that an assembly so small can generate the spectacular beams you see on these pages is pretty damn impressive. But microscopic mirrors aren’t the end of the story, and diode-based lasers do have their drawbacks.
First, the light beam produced by a laser diode requires considerable collimation after it leaves the aperture of the chip. This is achieved by integrating a focusing lens directly into the diode’s exterior packaging. Even so, diode-based lasers rarely achieve the perfectly focused, circular beam shape that hardcore laser enthusiasts covet, at least not without the help of additional optics. When running at full strength, the Arctic’s beam could be described as an elliptical stripe, which isn’t ideal for burning things (a common project of laseristas), but it does make the beam look thicker in the night sky.
Second, like any other kind of semiconductor, the Arctic’s diode can be overdriven. Push more electricity into it, and the Arctic will produce a higher-powered beam. But the diode does have a threshold. For this reason, the Arctic will fail if pumped with too much battery power. Wicked Lasers has spec’d the Arctic to run at no less than 800mW and no more than a single watt.
Do We Dare to Even Turn It On?
We first heard about the Arctic in early June. Wicked Lasers had just released news of its creation, and the Internets were going wild with reports of the imminent arrival of the world’s most dangerous laser. Gizmodo’s write-up was typical: “It can permanently blind you and set your skin—or anything else, really—on fire almost instantly… What it is, really, is a weapon.”
Phone discussions with Wickeds’ CEO also freaked us out a bit. Liu frequently reiterated that when using the Arctic inside a closed environment, we should always wear safety goggles tuned for the 455nm wavelength (goggles are included with every order). This is because looking at even the reflected dot created by the Arctic’s beam could cause eye damage, if not permanent blindness. For the photograph you see at the beginning of this article, we opted not to wear the goggles—but only because no reflected dot can be created when pointing a laser into the void of the night’s sky, and looking at the beam itself does not pose a danger.
Indeed, because the laser’s photons are so tightly focused in a single direction, viewing the beam “sideways” is safe. However, looking directly into the beam or its reflection would be cataclysmic. For this reason, one should take extra care about where the beam is pointed, even when wearing the safety goggles. First, because the beam is a ray of light, it will reflect particularly well off light-colored or shiny surfaces, retaining most of its collimated strength as it bounces around. This makes for unpredictable ricochets, just like those of a bullet. So, not only must the operator be wearing goggles, everyone in the room must wear goggles. Second, a significant portion of the beam’s light will be absorbed by dark surfaces—and if a dark surface is anything that can catch on fire, it might do so quickly.
Basically, said Liu, treat the Arctic as if it were a gun. Don’t use it in an uncontrolled situation. Don’t point it at anything that wouldn’t be considered a safe target. And under no circumstances point it at any living thing.
All of the advisories compelled us to solicit expert training. Because what would be the alternative—turn on the Arctic, suffer a mishap, and turn into a bunch of tragic superheroes, blind and emotionally tortured but able to shoot laser beams from our fingertips? We made a few phone calls, and soon received an invitation to one of the laser labs at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Ken Barat, the full-time Laser Safety Officer at LBNL, would help us run some tests, and review the Arctic’s construction. A few weeks later, two Arctics arrived from Hong Kong, and we were ready for supervised testing.
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One Million Watts of Eye Damage
The specific lab we visited was in Building 71, a windowless catacomb bearing the air of Cold War-era research. Among other experiments, we used the Arctic to burn through Kentek laser alignment paper (it took a matter of seconds), and also aimed the beam at a spare pair of safety goggles. The goggles became seriously etched (and, for safety purposes, effectively destroyed) after about 30 seconds. Both experiments were conducted with the aid of an external focusing lens, but given the “spread” of the Arctic’s beam, further beam refinement would have created even more burning power.
In later experiments—in our own lab, with our own laser power meter—we tested one of our Arctics at 751mW and the other at 726mW. Liu says the lens on the laser’s endcap will reduce power by about 100mW, meaning actual power output was closer to 851mW and 826mW, respectively. We also tried to burn a hole straight through our goggles (see photo, above).
Barat, our safety expert, pointed out that even Class 3B lasers, which output as little as 5mW, can cause serious eye damage. Because the Arctic exceeds 500mW, it must be categorized as Class 4, the highest (and most dangerous) level in the laser safety ratings scale.
“Your potential for eye damage is quite elaborate,” says Barat. “One of the things people don’t realize is that with visible lasers, when the light comes in your eye, it’s focused to a spot of about 10 to 20 microns, which is an upward gain from the front of your lens to the back of your eye of 100,000. So you’re getting a lot of energy is a very small spot.
“One milliwatt coming in is 100 watts per square centimeter at the back of your eye. One full watt coming in would be close to one million watts per square centimeter at the back of your eye—way past the threshold for damage.”
Ken Barat, LBNL's Laser Safety Officer, explains just why the Arctic is dangerous.
The danger Barat speaks of applies to all powerful laser beams, but blue laser light poses unique risks to the human retina. Direct exposure to laser wavelengths between 400nm and 500nm can cause oxidative damage to the photoreceptor cells in one’s eye, rendering it impossible for one to see the color green. So even if the Arctic doesn’t permanently blind you, it can still cause odd color perception issues. Bizarre, yes. Scary, most definitely.
Barat was particularly concerned about the harm an Arctic owner might inflict on other people, specifically aircraft pilots and their passengers: “The real question is, What would you do with this laser? People use laser pointers to entertain their animals. Backyard astronomers use lasers to sight their telescopes. But I look at this thing and think, outside of mischief, what am I going to do with a laser of this nature?”
Flash a Plane, Go to Jail
Ian Gregor, a communications manager with the Federal Aviation Administration, is well aware of laser mischief. He says reported incidents of people flashing aircraft with lasers is on the rise, increasing from about 300 in 2005 to some 1,500 in 2009.
Kelly Neubecker, an FAA Air Traffic Control Specialist, told us that this year, through August 20, the FAA has received 1,528 reports of “laser events.” She added that when a laser hits the glass of a cockpit, it creates a disorienting flash throughout the cockpit’s interior, distracting pilots and impairing their vision, often at the most critical stages of a flight: takeoff and landing.
It’s a terrifying prospect, indeed. But, fortunately, as Gregor told us, “No aircraft has crashed as a result of a laser incident, and we’re not aware of any civil pilot suffering permanent eye damage as a result of a laser strike.”
It is not illegal to point a laser beam into the sky. It is, however, illegal to point a laser at aircraft in many cities and states. In California, one can face penalties of up to three years in prison and a $2,000 fine. What’s more, legislation sponsored by congressman Daniel Lungren (R-CA) would make it a federal crime to aim a laser beam at an aircraft. The bill (HR5810) was passed by the House of Representatives on July 27, and would impose penalties of up to five years in prison.
Even proposed legislation would seem to allow backyard laser use, assuming no aircraft are involved.
Gregor says it’s easy to find out whether a location is underneath aviation flight paths. Amateur astronomers, who use lasers for their research, find this information useful. Beyond that, Gregor says common sense should be a laser owner’s guide. “See if there’s an aircraft up there. They have lights. They blink. But, really, the only reason to shine a laser into the sky is for astronomy. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who do this are not astronomers, but rather a combination of knuckleheads and kids.”
Legal to Own, But Not Cleared for Import
As soon as Wicked Lasers started taking orders for the Arctic, laser enthusiasts and curious technophiles began inundating the company’s website (www.wickedlasers.com), clamoring to buy the awe-inspiring technology. The lasers started shipping out in late July, but not fast enough for most people. As of late August, Wicked Lasers still had a lot of anxious customers waiting for orders. It’s important to note that the delays are due to typical supply-and-demand problems, and not because the Food and Drug Administration (the federal agency that regulates lasers) has put the Arctic on “import alert.”
“Shipments of lasers from Wicked Lasers are subject to being detained and subsequently refused admission into the United States unless the manufacturer corrects deficiencies, and files a report, and is able to show us that the product is properly certified,” says Dan Hewitt, a Health Promotion Officer with the FDA.
Wicked Lasers’ problem, says Hewitt, is that the Arctic exceeds the emission limits of a Class 3A laser product. That’s right, as far as the FDA is concerned, the Arctic is a Class 3A device intended for “surveying, leveling, and alignment.”
“It does not matter that Wicked Lasers has added some or even all the required engineering for Class 3B or 4 lasers,” Hewitt says. “Lasers of that type are limited to Class 3A, and that limits the power to 5mW. Their lasers, in our opinion, pose a significant public health risk, including blinding and skin burn. Certainly, if the federal government intercepts these lasers, they will be immediately detained, refused, and sent back.”
The operative word in Hewitt’s statement would seem to be “if.” A simple survey of online message boards indicate Arctics are indeed getting past customs.
Blue? Meh. Show Us the Green!
The Arctics we received are G1 models, the first iteration of the device. Unless customers make a specific request, they will receive G2s, which include extra safety features. All Arctic models come with two lenses—a “full strength” lens that allows power output in excess of 700mW, and a “training lens” whose optics reduce power by 80 percent. This lens would create a beam of about 150mW on the more powerful of our two specimens. Also, because Wicked Lasers built the Arctic to qualify as a Class 4 device, the laser includes an interlock key, which, when removed, prevents the laser from working at all.
You must be 18 to purchase the Arctic, and also verify acknowledgement that you’re buying a Class 4 laser device. It’s also worth noting that Wicked Lasers has sold other blue lasers in the past, but those units didn’t use “direct” blue diodes. The 473nm Spyder II BX used internal optics and circuitry to produce its wavelength—and output at just 30mW and cost a back-breaking $1,699.
The G2 models, however, also include a feature called SmartSwitch, a combination locking mechanism and power attenuator. To unlock a SmartSwitched laser, you must enter a button-based password. Do so and the laser will be ready for operation—but only at 10 percent power, meaning an Arctic with its safety lens screwed on would output at about 15mW at this stage. This power level still poses safety dangers, but nothing like those of a 750mW laser. All G2 models enter low-power mode as soon as SmartSwitch is unlocked, but the user can toggle on full-strength output with a button command.
So what’s this crazy Arctic thing good for? That’s the question all our non-tech-enthusiast friends kept coming back to. Well, as the old saying goes, if you have to ask why anyone would want a superpowerful laser, then you just don’t “get” lasers! That said, some people use high-powered lasers for burning experiments and photography projects. Those lost at sea or in the wilderness would also find them handy for sending out rescue beacons. But, when push comes to shove—or should we say when the photon hits the atom?—high-powered lasers are really just awesome to look at when shining into the night’s sky. Seriously, the beam is as brilliant in person as our photography suggests.
And herein lies our problem with the Arctic, all its serious safety hazards aside: You can barely even see the beam with the safety goggles on. Yet to operate a laser of this type safely and confidently, you’d be wise to wear the goggles. Blue laser light is certainly unique, but watt for watt, it’s nowhere near as spectacular as green laser light (thanks to the way our eyes perceive different wavelengths of light). Unless you’re a hardcore laser enthusiast, we recommend you get a relatively low-powered green laser—or wait until next year when high-powered green diodes will begin hitting the market.
Lase responsibly, people. These things most definitely aren’t toys.