Is it possible to make a visible laser beam fade after 2 or 3 feet for safety reasons? — RB, Arvada, Colorado
Since light carries energy, a laser beam can’t simply disappear after a couple of feet — something would have to absorb it and its energy. Since the atmosphere is extremely transparent to visible light, it won’t do the trick.
Since eye safety requires limiting the amount of laser power that can enter a person’s eye, you can make a laser more eye-safe by enlarging its beam. Even a powerful laser can be eye-safe if only a small fraction of the laser light can enter a person’s iris and focus on their retina.
Although it’s natural to think of a laser beam as a narrow pencil of light that stays narrow forever, that’s not really the case. The diameter of a laser beam changes with distance from its source. The beams from typical lasers, including laser pointers, start relatively narrow and widen as gradually as the physics of light propagation will allow. But with the help lenses, you can change that widening process dramatically. For example, if you send a typical laser beam through a converging lens that has a focal length of 1 foot, the laser beam will converge to a very narrow “beam waist” 1 foot beyond the lens and will then spread relatively quickly with distance. It will return to its original diameter 1 foot beyond its waist and to 10 times its original diameter 10 feet beyond its waist. With its light spread out by a factor of 10 in both height and width, it will have only 1/100th the intensity (power per unit area) of the original beam. Because of its large size, only a fraction of the beam and its light power will now enter a person’s iris and focus on their retina.
Using this scheme, you can have a beam that is extremely intense for the first 2 feet, including a super-intense waist at the 1-foot mark. But beyond that point, the beam spreads quickly and soon becomes so wide that it is no longer a eye hazard.