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    HeNe Laser Power Supplies

    Sub-Table of Contents

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    Requirements, Types, Choices, Build or Buy, Safety

    Basic HeNe Laser Power Supply Considerations

    Modern small to medium size HeNe tubes require an operating voltage between about 900 and 2,500 VDC at 3 to 6 mA and a 5 to 12 kV starting voltage (but almost no current). Precise values depend on the size and construction of the tube. This assumes something in the .5 to 10 mW range. Larger tubes will required greater voltage and current (e.g., 5,000 VDC at 8 mA, 15 kV to start) but are powered in basically the same way as their smaller siblings. However, a 250 mW monster as well as some very old tubes will likely have significantly different or additional power requirements.

    A few HeNe lasers - usually larger or research types - have used a radio frequency (RF) generator - essentially a radio transmitter to excite the discharge. This was the case with the original HeNe laser but is quite rare today given the design of internal mirror HeNe tubes and the relative simplicity of the required DC power supply as described later in this chapter.

    Unlike laser diodes, the HeNe drive is not nearly as critical to performance and tube life. :-) Therefore, even if you do not have a datasheet for your tube, you can probably guess fairly closely as to its requirements and then optimize performance based on optical output alone.

    Then again, see Oops! HeNe Laser Tube Meltdown. This is what happens if your tube and power supply aren't matched. Just kidding. I actually suspect that someone got just a bit carried away with a glass working torch to create this sculpture but it got your attention, huh? :) (This mantlepiece sculpture was created by Wayne Crowther (

    So Many Choices

    There are any number of ways of constructing these supplies - over a dozen sample circuits are provided in the chapter: Complete HeNe Laser Power Supply Schematics. However, you don't need to build your own:

    SAFETY when Dealing with HeNe Laser Power Supplies

    Whether you have constructed your own power supply, are testing an old one, or just checking out a newly acquired HeNe tube, SAFETY must come first:

    See the section: Laser Safety with respect to the optical hazards associated with lasers. While not in the metal cutting class, careless use of higher power HeNe lasers, especially, can result in permanent damage to vision. Many are only Class II or Class IIIa but some are well into the Class IIIb range.

    HeNe laser power supplies utilize high voltage at low current. The few mA needed to operate the HeNe tube or even a 10 kV starting pulse tube can certainly give you an unpleasant shock but will not likely be enough to do lasting damage. However, there may be much more current actually available and there is always the possibility of collateral damage:

    Read, understand, AND FOLLOW, the guidelines provided in the document: Safety Guidelines for High Voltage and/or Line Powered Equipment.

    Adding a Bleeder Resistor to a HeNe Laser Power Supply

    This is probably overkill (no pun...) for a laser you are using as a laser. :) But if you are wiring up a system which is to be used for testing where it may be necessary to go inside quite frequently, it may be possible to add a high voltage bleeder resistor directly across the output. It will be need to be both a high resistance (200M or more) and rated for the peak starting voltage (10 kV or more). A series string of 10, 20M, 1/2 W resistors in an insulated (plastic or glass) tube would be a suitable substitute. The higher the resistance, the longer it will take to discharge the power supply and HeNe tube capacitance. However, the minimum resistance that can be used will depend on the amount of starting current available. For 'brick' power supplies, 200M should be acceptable. However, for voltage multiplier based starters, a much higher resistance may be needed so as not to load down the output excessively. Confirm that the amount of time needed to start the largest tube to be used on the supply doesn't change significantly with and without the bleeder before installing it permanently.

  • Back to HeNe Laser Power Supplies Sub-Table of Contents.

    Construction Alternatives, Organization

    Constructing Your Own Power Supply

    If you still want to build your own, there are basically two approaches for the operating voltage (AC line operated or high frequency inverter) and three approaches for the starting voltage (diode/capacitor multiplier, pulse trigger circuit, or high compliance design).

    Here are six options for providing the operating voltage. These examples assume an output of at least 1,800 VDC:

    1. Use a 1,300 VRMS power transformer. Then, all that is needed is a rectifier and filter capacitor.

    2. Use a 700 VRMS power transformer with a 2 diode 2 capacitor voltage doubler.

    3. Use a lower voltage power transformer and a multi-stage voltage multiplier. Up to 6 stages should be reasonably easy to construct.

    4. Build a low voltage input inverter using a flyback transformer from a small B/W or color TV computer monitor, or video terminal but running at lower voltage than normal. These usually have a built in HV rectifier but you will need a HV filter capacitor and ballast resistor. While rated at only a mA or so for the CRT HV, more current should be available at reduced voltage. With proper design, it is possible for there to be enough voltage compliance to be self starting. See the section: Sam's Inverter Driven HeNe Laser Power Supplies.

    5. Build a HV inverter based on any of a number of simple DC-DC converter topologies. See the document: Various Schematics and Diagrams for ideas.

      You will probably need to modify these mostly by increasing the number of turns on the output windings of the inverter transformer - which in itself may be a challenge to maintain low capacitance and high voltage insulation.

      See the section: Simple Inverter Type Power Supply for HeNe Laser for one modified for driving a HeNe laser tube.

    6. Build a HV inverter of the type discussed above using a PWM controller integrated circuit - Linear Technology, Maxim, Motorola, National Semiconductor, Unitrode, and others have suitable DC-DC controller chips.

    I would recommend (1) or (2) if portability is not a big issue and you can locate a suitable transformer. These are virtually foolproof (well, at least as long as you don't fry yourself from the high voltage). For small tubes, the design described in the section: Edmund Scientific HeNe Laser Power Supply is about as simple as possible.

    See the sections starting with: AC Line Operated Versus Inverter Based Power Supplies for more discussion of features, basic operation, and design issues.

    Basic HeNe Laser Power Supply Organization

    A typical configuration is shown below. As noted, the starting circuit may be omitted in a high compliance design. The regulator is desirable but the location shown (low-side series) is just one option. Without a regulator, tube current will need to be set by controlling the power input and/or selecting the ballast resistor.
                +----------+     +------------------+ HV+   Ballast Resistance
         o------|          |-----| Starting Circuit |--------------/\/\----+
       Input,   |  Main    |     +------------------+               Rb     |
       AC line  |  Power   |                                               |
       or DC    |  Supply  |     +-----------+   Tube- +-----------+ Tube+ |
         o------|          |-----| Regulator |----+----|-[        -|-------+
                +----------+ HV- +-----------+   _|_   +-----------+
                                                  -      HeNe tube
    See the Typical HeNe Laser Tube Structure and Connections for the basic hookup diagram.

    The ballast resistor (Rb) may sound really boring but it is essential to provide stability and limit the current to the value specified for your particular tube. The most common value is 75K but slightly smaller and much larger values may be used to match a particular HeNe tube to a power supply.

    A higher voltage supply and larger ballast resistance will be more stable if there is no built-in regulation. This results from the fact that the voltage drop across the tube is relatively independent of tube current so it subtracts out from the supply voltage. What is left is across the ballast resistor and changes by a proportionally greater amount when the line voltage varies. The smaller the ballast resistor, the more this will affect tube current.

    You really do want the current to be close to that recommended for your tube both to maximize the life of the tube and because maximum optical power output is produced at the optimal current. Note that the HeNe tube specs will include the recommended current. In some cases, this may not coincide with maximum output power due to manufacturing tolerances, age/use, or other factors. It may be acceptable to run such a tube on the current (probably higher than spec'd) which maximizes output power but this would have to be determined on a case-by-case basis and except for some very wide bore (multimode) tubes, should never be higher than about 6.5 mA.

    Setting the tube current can be accomplished by adjusting either the input voltage to the power supply (if there is no current regulator) or the regulator (if there is) and/or by selecting the value of the ballast resistance. Excessive current is bad for the tube and will actually result in decreased optical output (and more optical noise though you'd probably never notice that by eye). If the current is too high by a factor of 2 or 3, there will be no output at all. It is not possible to pulse a HeNe laser for higher power (though pulse drive is possible for modulation - see the section: Pulse Type Drive and Modulation of HeNe Tubes). Without any regulation, the value of the ballast resistor is more critical and power line fluctuations will significantly affect tube current though such variations may not matter for many applications.

    Note that since the tube itself provides a relatively constant voltage drop around its nominal current, a small change in line voltage will affect the tube current to a much greater degree than would be expected by the percent of the actual voltage change. The incremental change in tube current will be closer to: delta(I) = delta(V)/Rb where Rb is the ballast resistor. This will be on the order of 10 to 20 times more sensitive to input voltage changes than with a straight resistive load. Thus, a regulator is often desirable.

    The large (can) electrode of the HeNe tube is the cathode (-) end. It may run if connected backwards but the small anode (supposed to be positive but now incorrectly connected as negative) will get very hot since much of the power dissipation is at the negative electrode due to positive ion bombardment. The resulting sputtering may damage the mirror at that end and tube life will likely be shortened.

    I've autopsied an HeNe laser tube which had been ruined in a few minutes by being driven from a Tesla coil based on an automotive ignition coil and relay interrupter without rectification. The result was sputtering of the HR mirror which was clearly visible once the mirror was removed. Except under very special conditions, any HeNe laser power supply must produce a DC output that is relatively well filtered at an operating current reasonably close to the spec'd value for the tube. Anything else will result in reduced tube life and less than optimal output power. Two exceptions are high speed pulsed drive where the plasma never really gets extinguished between pulses (for laser beam modulation) and RF excitation. For the purposes of making the laser lase, DC is what is needed. :)

    CAUTION: While most modern HeNe tubes use the mirror mounts for the high voltage connections, there are exceptions and older tubes may have unusual arrangements where the anode is just a wire fused into the glass and/or the cathode has a terminal separate from the mirror mount at that end of the tube. Miswiring can result in tube damage. See the section: Identifying Connections to Unmarked HeNe Tube or Laser Head if in doubt.

    Design considerations and a variety of sample circuits are provided in the chapters: HeNe Laser Power Supply Design and Complete HeNe Laser Power Supply Schematics.

    For detailed plans, see the books listed in the section: References on Laser Principles, Technology, Construction, and Applications.

    However, if you have trouble changing a light bulb, never fear - packaged solutions are readily available at attractive prices. You don't need to build your own HeNe laser power supply unless you have some special requirements, a really strange HeNe tube, or just for the shear joy of creation!

    RF or Microwave Power Supply for HeNe Laser?

    Excitation of a laser using radio frequency or microwave power is possible and has been used commercially for several types of lasers including HeNe and CO2. (with patents granted on many others including ion lasers). However, you aren't likely to get much just by sticking a HeNe laser tube in the family microwave oven other than glass shards all over the place. :( Nor can you insert your HeNe tube into the antenna coil connected to the 2 kW final amp of your Ham radio transmitter.

    The main problem is that you have to get the discharge intensity high enough inside the bore - that 1 mm or so diameter capillary tube where the action takes place. In a typical internal mirror HeNe tube, 98 percent or more of the cross sectional area is outside the bore. Since this is also gas filled, it will happily glow at equal or greater intensity than the bore, sucking up power and getting very hot in the process - while contributing nothing to the output. So, the light show may be spectacular (until the thing explodes), but a laser beam is unlikely. However, this is a way of testing to see if a tube has lost its gas fill, but stopping short of the 'explode' part. :) See the section: How Can I Tell if My Tube is Good?.

    This is also not a viable means of exciting a HeNe tube that no longer lases due to gas fill or most other problems. A conventional DC power supply will tell you that the tube is dead with a lot less hassle!

    For an external mirror tube where the bore is accessible and separate from the gas reservoir, direct coupling is possible by using a suitable matching network from an RF generator. This can be made to work since the energy can be forced to couple only to the gas inside the capillary. One reason to try a scheme of this sort would be to power such a laser where one of the ballast resistors has failed open and they are located inside the sealed tube (as with some Spectra-Physics models).

    The earliest HeNe lasers were RF excited in this manner but they had wide bores and mediocre output power. If you are interested in trying your hand at duplicating one of these, then sure, go for it! However, those lasers also had problems with rapid helium diffusion apparently accelerated by the RF fields applied to the glass so a sealed tube may be out of the question.

    For a description of a commercial RF HeNe laser power supply (probably), see the secton: Spectra-Physics Model 200 Exciter (SP-200).

    WARNING: The use of high power RF or microwave excitation creates an number of additional safety hazards beyond just simple electrocution. Attempting to drive a HeNe (or other laser) in this manner isn't something you should think about experimenting with unless you have experience with this type of equipment and are thoroughly aware of the associated risks and precautions involved.

    Neon Tube Power Supply for HeNe Laser?

    Hey, with 'neon' in the name; how different can can a neon tube be compared to a helium-neon laser?

    Small discharge tubes are found in high-tech phones and other electronic sculpture. A typical unit would be perhaps 2 feet long and 1/4" to 1/2" in diameter. Modern power supplies for these tubes use an inverter to produce high frequency high voltage AC (not DC as required by a HeNe laser tube). Older ones will just use a mini version of a high voltage neon sign transformer. Since large inside diameter (compared to HeNe lasers) neon tubes don't require a special starting voltage, this will be lacking in any such power supply.

    While it may be possible to adapt portions of one of these to powering a HeNe laser, this probably isn't worth the effort. A rectifier, filter, starting voltage source, and ballast resistors would need to be added. With luck, the ballast resistance alone could be adjusted to set the tube current. Otherwise, additional circuitry possibly including regulation would be needed. However, the high frequency inverter (or high voltage transformer) might be salvageable. :)

    Similar comments apply to power supplies for fluorescent (e.g., that defunct camping lantern or obsolete laptop computer) and other high voltage discharge lamps.

    Note that the power supplies for regular neon signs consisting of 10s of feet of glass tubing are, in addition to the reasons cited above, even more inappropriate for almost any size HeNe laser - they are gross overkill in both the voltage and current departments unless run at reduced input voltage on a Variac. These are discussed in more detail below.

  • Back to HeNe Laser Power Supplies Sub-Table of Contents.

    Using Commercially Available Power Supplies

    Powering Your HeNe Tube the Easy Way

    Most commercial HeNe laser power supplies designed for incorporation into OEM (Original Equipment Manufactured) equipment (as opposed to lab type adjustable supplies) are affectionately called 'bricks' because they are solid black rectangular blocks (dimensions vary) potted in Epoxy (or some equally impenetrable resin) with wires sticking out. They are generally high frequency inverter types operating either on 115 or 230 VAC, or low voltage DC (typically 9 to 12 VDC).

    Melles Griot HeNe Laser Head and Laser Drive Power Supply Brick (photo courtesy of CTR Surplus) shows a small Melles Griot laser head with a compatible Laser Drive power supply. This brick is likely similar to the Melles Griot model 05-LPM-379 with an output voltage compliance range of 1,150 VDC to 1,700 VDC. It has a trim pot to set the current between about 4 and 6.5 mA providing compatibility with almost any 1 to 2 mW HeNe laser head or (with an external 75 K ohm ballast resistor) HeNe tube.

    Power supply bricks are compact, highly efficient (well, in a relative sort of way as these things go!), and are generally very robust and reliable. They usually include protection for *momentary* open and short circuit faults, (as well as repeated arcs to ground, and low input voltage). Thus, they shouldn't self destruct as a result of most reasonable screwups in wiring. (Of course, if you accidentally attempt to power a 12 VDC unit from 230 VAC, you *will* let the smoke out!) However, I have heard of them failing if a laser head is not attached (or a hard-to-start tube fails to start) after a few minutes or hours. Continuously attempting to start without success is stressful for any HeNe laser power supply so don't push your luck!

    The simplest approach to powering HeNe tubes is often to purchase this type of power supply, either new or (more likely) surplus. With a little bit of searching, they are readily available at attractive prices. Manufacturers include Laser Drive, Power Technology, and Melles Griot. Aerotech used to make these as well but has since gotten out of the HeNe laser business (but you may still find their HeNe tubes and power supplies from surplus sources).

    Cost may be anywhere from $10 to $100 or more depending on power capability, whether it is new or surplus, and other factors. Typical surplus prices are $10 to $35 for a unit capable of powering a .5 to 2 mW HeNe tube and $25 to $100 for one suitable for a HeNe tube up to about 5 mW. Such power supplies (and HeNe tubes to go with them) may even be offered by private individuals on the Internet, possibly at even lower prices. Of course, the usage history, quality, and reliability (of both the equipment as well as the seller) from such sources may be unknown.

    The basic power supply specs will include the HeNe tube current and voltage compliance range. The total voltage across your tube and ballast resistor at the operating tube current must fall within this range. Since many of these bricks are set for a fixed current and may not have any user accessible adjustments (that is, without using a jack-hammer), the power supply and HeNe tube current specs must be fairly closely matched. Look for types with an adjustable current setting if possible. (Even if the specs or sticker on the unit show a fixed current, there may actually be an adjustment that is either obvious or protected by a removable plug since it is quite likely that the manufacturer fabricates and pots one type module that can be tweaked for a range of currents to reduce the need for separate inventory. However, without confirmation from the manufacturer, there is no way to know for sure whether adjusting it far from the specified current is acceptable and doesn't result in excessive stress on the supply's circuitry.) Some may be jumpered for 2 or more fixed current settings.

    In addition to power input and high voltage output connections, these supplies may also have one or more of the following: logic level enable (may need to be grounded or tied to a DC voltage), logic level output for indicator or something else, auxiliary DC power output(s), CDRH turn-on delay loop (cut to disable delay), HeNe tube cathode to ground return loop (cut to add current meter or beam-on indicator LED). In many cases, there will be a wiring diagram on the brick. If none is present, although there is no total standardization, some color coding conventions are usually followed. See the section: Common Color Coding of Power Supply Bricks.

    Power supplies may also be packaged along with a small HeNe tube, ballast resistor(s), and wiring as a complete laser optics assembly. These have become available at very attractive prices as products like UPC scanners and laser disc players have switched to over to the use of laser diodes. Since nearly everything but a wall plug is likely included in such a package, and hopefully the HeNe tube is matched to the power supply (with respect to current and voltage compliance), this approach should result in a working laser with minimal effort.

    There are also many HeNe laser power supplies available that are not potted but simply conformal (dip) coated or are just unprotected components on a printed wiring board. (The potting or coating is desired to prevent high voltage arcing or corona discharges.) These often spent their former life in hand-held barcode or supermarket checkout scanners. I like the naked ones because it is possible to reverse engineer them (I will pay shipping for any of these (dead or alive) you might have so I can add their schematics to the FAQ!). However, their quality and reliability is often a total unknown.

    At the other end of the scale, lab quality HeNe laser power supplies in fancy enclosures with or without front panel adjustable current controls are nice to own because they can be adapted to a variety of HeNe tubes. However, this definitely comes at a significant cost premium (unless you find a really good deal) and are thus not usually a realistic option. They are unnecessary in any case unless you expect to be playing with a variety of HeNe lasers and need this compatibility. In fact, less expensive name-brand bricks may be more robust!

    However, most of the common 'lab' style HeNe laser power supplies are actually just a standard power supply brick in a box with AC power cord, fuse, line filter, on/off/key switch, power-on light, Alden connector to attach the HeNe laser head, and an interlock connector and/or line voltage select switch on some models. These units are, of course, somewhat more expensive than the bare bricks and are also much less likely to show up on the surplus market.

    See the chapter: Laser and Parts Sources for possible commercial and non-commercial suppliers of HeNe laser tubes, heads, and power supplies as well as things to watch out for when purchasing items like this from private individuals or commercial suppliers other than major laser companies. Manufacturers of new HeNe laser power supply bricks include Laser Drive and Melles Griot; surplus sources include Meredith Instruments, Midwest Laser Products, and MWK Laser Products. There are many others.

    Compatibility Checklist for HeNe Laser Power Supply Bricks

    Assuming you know the power requirements of your HeNe tube or laser head, use the following guidelines when selecting a brick type power supply:

    1. The operating current should be within the current range of the power supply. If the supply has a fixed current setting, as long as this is within about 10 percent, it will probably be acceptable. I would prefer the error to be on the low side if there is a choice to maximize tube life Laser power output may be slightly lower than its rating but probably not by anything significant.

    2. The operating voltage should be within the voltage range of the power supply. The operating voltage is either specified explicitly for a laser head or calculated from the HeNe tube voltage + ballast resistor voltage drop (Io * Rb). Where only a single voltage is listed for a power supply, assume it is the upper limit; the supply will probably operate reliably between this value and 25 to 30 percent less (somewhat dependent on the current as well). So, a supply listed as 2,450 VDC would be happy if your laser head only required 1,800 VDC but don't go much lower unless you have the actual specs and they indicate it is permitted. Some have a much wider range, but finding out the hard way that your model doesn't isn't fun. Your HeNe tube could end up with more current than it wants but more likely, the power supply would become as dead as a - brick. :(

    3. Generally, the starting voltage provided by a brick supply will be adequate as long as the operating voltage is within its compliance range. However, some hard-to-start HeNe tubes may benefit from running near the lower-end of a larger power supply (with its higher starting voltage) as opposed to near the upper-end of a smaller one.

    Selecting a lower rated power supply as long as it meets the requirements, above, will also likely be cheaper and a larger power supply won't get you anymore laser output!

    Of course other specs like input voltage (e.g., 5, 12, or 20 to 30 VDC, or 115/230 VAC), control inputs, CDRH delay, output connector type, and size and weight, must also be compatible.

    For high power (e.g., 25 mW and up) external cavity lab style HeNe lasers, options are somewhat limited. The only companies I know of that still manufacture these as standard products are: Jodon, Inc. and Spectra-Physics. They may actually use (possibly custom) models from the laser power supply companies (see the next section) so it's worth checking those as well when searching for a replacement.

    Common Color Coding of Power Supply Bricks

    Note: Not all of the HeNe laser power supplies in the next few sections are "bricks" in the strict sense of the term (portions aren't potted!), and the wiring may be via connectors instead of color coded wiring but so be it. :)

    Most of the HeNe laser power supply bricks you are likely to encounter will have been manufactured by one of the following companies (in alphabetical order):

    Others may simply be relabeled products of these major manufacturers but there are also occasional units from lesser known companies, or those who would not be expected to make any sort of power supply!

    The laser head wiring will usually be done in one of the following ways:

    Where no output connector is present, the following procedures can be used to identify the positive and negative wires:

    The CDRH (Center For Devices And Radiologic Health) of the Food and Drug Administration delay mentioned with respect to some of these power supplies prevents the beam from coming on for 3 to 5 seconds after power is applied (i.e., should the ON switch be hit accidentally) and may be needed to meet certain regulatory requirements.

    Whether or not each of the various control inputs or status outputs are present on a particular unit is model dependent.

    The following two sections have a summary of some of the wiring color codes I have come across for HeNe laser power supply bricks.

    Note: color1/color2 means color1 with a color2 stripe.

    Sample Color Coding of AC Input Power Supply Bricks

    The following run off of the AC line. Usually, they can be wired for either 115 VAC or 230 VAC operation but sometimes the manufacturer saved a few cents and doesn't provide this option. There is no standard color coding for these bricks though the examples below cover most common models. Earth ground (green or green/yellow) should be tied to power line earth ground for safety. This is usually a direct connection but can also be via a 100 ohm resistor to prevent ground loops. Unless specifically noted as not necessary by the manufacturer, a fuse should be installed in series with the Hot wire. A rating of 0.5 to 1 A should be adequate for most small bricks but a several amp fuse may be required for those driving higher power lasers. The fuse is to deal with catastrophic internal failure like a shorted rectifier which could cause parts to explode if there is no protection. A momentary output fault shouldn't blow the fuse. See the section: Importance of Fusing Power Supply Bricks.

    If you're curious as to how the dual voltage capability is done, here is the simplified circuit for the AC line front-end of one of these power supplies:

        L1 o-----+----|>|-------+---------+-----o DC (+)
                ~|    D2        |+        |
                 +----|<|----+  |       +_|_
                      D3     |  |     C1 ---
                 +----|>|----|--+       - |
                 |    D4     |    +-------+     +320 VDC to chopper
        L2 o-----+----|<|----+ -  |       |
                ~            |    |     +_|_
        L3 o-----------------|----+   C2 ---
                             |          - |
                             +------------+-----o DC (-)

    In either case, the polarity of the AC wiring (e.g., for 115 VAC whether Hot goes to L1/L2 and Neutral goes to L3 or vice-versa) shouldn't matter in terms of safety or performance. But follow the manufacturer's recommendations if they show a particular wiring arrangement.

    It should be possible to confirm the correct wiring for your line voltage if the power supply isn't labeled or listed below ASSUMING YOU ARE SURE THAT THE WIRES YOU ARE DEALING WITH ARE FOR THE AC INPUT (you really don't want to be pumping line voltage into a logic level enable!). Use a Variac limited to a maximum voltage of around 120 VAC to feed the supply with its output connected to a known good compatible laser head or HeNe laser tube with 75K ohm ballast resistor. Try each of the 3 possible pairs in turn. For 2 of these, the laser should start at about 60 to 85 VAC. The 3rd will be the 230 VAC configuration and may not start at all on your maximum of 120 VAC. However, locating this pair is a good way to confirm which wires should be tied together for 115 VAC operation. Note that assuming you have the correct three (3) wires, there is no combination (even tying together L1 and L3 or L2 and L3) that will produce smoke from a 115 VAC input and every one but using only the 230 VAC pair alone will result in correct operation. (I just consider it cleaner to tie L1 to L2 as opposed to leaving one of these open or tying it to L3.) CAUTION: There are just guidelines - your mileage may vary!

    Here are the color codes for some common AC line powered models:

    1. Aerotech (115/230 VAC type). Red (or possibly other color except green or green/yellow) wire loop enables CDRH delay (cut to disable). The AC input wire color may depend on model. Green or green with a yellow stripe is earth ground and connected to cathode lead internally. (Some typical specs: LSS 05 - 1,400 V +/-200 V, 4.0 mA; LSS 2, 1,900 V +/-250 V, 5.0 mA; LSS 5 - 2,500 V +/-300 V, 6.0 mA. Current may actually be slightly different depending on option but will probably be marked if not equal to what's shown above. There is no current adjust pot accessible from the outside. I know exactly where the pot is (by examining a unit that was partially destroyed) but that doesn't help since the rock-hard Epoxy potting compound surrounds it and drilling a hole at that location would be useless. Note that the designation 05, 2, or 5 means that the supply is sort of intended for 0.5 mW, 2 mW, or 5 mW HeNe tubes respectively, but of course this isn't written in stone!) The same color code is used for rectangular bricks and integral cylindrical power supplies.

      • 115 VAC: Brown and blue or gray (tied together) to black.
      • 230 VAC: Blue (or gray) to brown, black open.

    2. Coherent (115 VAC types). Green is earth ground but may NOT be connected to cathode lead internally. Purple wire loop enables CDRH delay (cut to disable).

      • 115 VAC: Whites (tied together) to yellow.
      • 230 VAC: White to white, yellow open.
      • Current select: Connecting white/orange to white/purple selects 6.5 mA; open selects 5.25 mA (model CR90-115). Others may differ.

    3. Laser Drive (115/230 VAC type). Green or green with a yellow stripe is earth ground and connected to cathode lead internally. There may be a a current adjust pot.

      • 115 VAC: Whites (tied together) to yellow.
      • 230 VAC: White to white, yellow open.
      • TTL high (+3 to +5 VDC) required between yellow/white (+) and yellow/black (-) to enable laser.
      • Output status signal (possibly around 11 VDC, to drive lamp or something): Gray.

      Some 115 VAC Laser Drive power supplies may only have two whites for input. In this case, 115 VAC goes between the whites. There are no other options. :)

    4. Melles Griot (115/230 VAC type). Violet wire loop enables CDRH delay (cut to disable). Green is earth ground and connected to cathode lead internally. There is usually a current adjust pot near where the input wires exit the brick (may be covered with tape). Some models may not have both 115 VAC and 230 VAC options and/or the CDRH loop. (Some or all Melles Griot power supplies are manufactured by Laser Drive.) An additional number after the 3 digit model may be present to indicate the factory default current setting (changing it voids the warranty, I'm sure you care!) or a code for the maximum power rating of the supply.

      The following is for their model 05-LPM-379:

      • 115 VAC: Whites (tied together) to yellow.
      • 230 VAC: White to white, yellow open.

      This is for models like the 05-LPM-379, 05-LPM-340, 05-LPM-903, 05-LPM-915, and 05-LPM-939:

      • 115 VAC: Brown and blue (tied together) to white,
      • 230 VAC: Brown to blue, white open.

    5. Power Technology (115/230 VAC type). Violet wire loop enables CDRH delay (cut to disable). Whether AC inputs are white or gray depends on model. Green or green with a yellow stripe is earth ground and connected to cathode lead internally.

      • 115 VAC: Whites or grays (tied together) to yellow.
      • 230 VAC: White to white (or gray to gray), yellow open.
      • TTL enable: Separate pair of wires, on of which is usually White/black. Requires +5 VDC on white/red, high to enable, low to inhibit. These color codes and operation vary by model. The actual voltage may not matter very much with anything from 3 to 10 VDC turning on the laser. Other possible colors include white/yellow and yellow/white.

    6. Spectra-Physics (115/230 VAC type). Violet wire loop enables CDRH delay (cut to disable). Green is earth ground and connected to cathode lead internally. Typical model is 229-7P, which uses the round Spectra-Physics high voltage connector.

      • 115 VAC: Either or both reds or whites (depends on model) to yellow.
      • 230 VAC: Red to red or white to white (depending on model).

    Sample Color Coding of DC Input Power Supply Bricks

    The following operate from a low voltage DC input. Most require 9 to 12 VDC but some may use a higher voltage like 18 or 24 VDC. Where covered with a metal foil shield, this will also be connected to the cathode. Red, violet, or other color (except green or green/yellow) wire loop may be present to enable CDRH delay (cut to disable). Regulated input voltage may be needed depending on model. Positive input is almost always red; negative will likely be black or blue. (Both of these may be of thicker gauge than the other low voltage wires.)

    A general idea of the proper voltage for such a supply if not labeled or listed below can be found by driving it from a variable DC source with a known good compatible laser head or HeNe laser tube and 75K ohm ballast resistor connected to its output. Increase the input voltage until the laser starts but don't go above 12 V even if nothing happens until you have checked for the possibility of a logic signal being needed to enable operation. Figure the voltage at which the laser starts to be around 60 to 75 percent of nominal. If the thing is still, well, dead as a brick at 12 V, it might require a higher voltage but even a 24 V unit should probably show some signs of life (audible whine or ticking) on an input as low as 12 V if it is enabled and functioning correctly. Another indication that the supply is doing something is substantial input current - at least 100 mA even if the laser hasn't started. However, if it looks like a near short circuit, you might have the polarity reversed (some models have a diode across the input to guard against this possibility)! CAUTION: These are just guidelines - your mileage may vary!

    Here are the color codes for some common low voltage DC powered models:

    1. Aerotech. There are several variations on input voltage range. These also have a current adjustment pots with a range of around 3 to 5 mA, maybe a bit more (the AC line powered Aerotech power supplies that I have do not have them accessible except perhaps with a chisel!). The factory default current is typically 4 or 5 mA for the LSS 05 (0.5 mW) units and 5 mA for the LSS 2 (2 mW) units. The measured minimum voltage for stable output with one cylindrical unit, model unknown, is shown below. The ground return loop and operation monitor are not both present on a given unit and may not be present at all. The enable may not be present on all versions.

      • 12, 18, 24, 20 to 30 VDC, etc. Check nameplate: Red.
      • Ground (common): Blue.
      • Ground return from cathode: Green/yellow loop. Cut to add current meter and/or beam-on indiactor LED.
      • Operation monitor?: Green/yellow (no loop).
      • Enable: Yellow - ground to turn on laser.

    2. Laser Drive model 103-23:

      • +21 to 31 VDC: Red.
      • Ground (common): Black.
      • Enable: Yellow - ground to turn on laser.

    3. Yahata Electric Works, Ltd. model HVR-C234H-1. They call this a "High Voltage Unit" but it's a HeNe laser power supply. Input is via a 3 pin connector, not color coded wires, and only the high voltage circuitry is potted. Output specs are: 2.35 kV at 6.5 mA connections are via 3/16" (+) and 1/8" (-) FastOn lugs. CAUTION: This power supply is NOT short circuit protected as I found out! :(

      Pins listed when viewing power supply case with output terminals facing down:

      • +24 VDC (1 A max): Bottom pin (towards center of case).
      • Ground (common): Top pin (near edge of case).
      • Trigger: Middle pin, pull to ground and release to start, leave open to run, ground to stop.

    4. 12 VDC type, manufacturer unknown, Herbach and Rademan part number TM91LSR1495. Output on 1/4" FastOn lugs with hand printed lables which may be wrong - double check polarity before powering a laser!

      • +12 VDC: Red.
      • Ground (common): Black.

    5. 12 VDC type, models unknown (from barcode scanners):

      • +12 VDC: Red.
      • Ground (common): Black.
      • Enable: Yellow - ground to turn on laser.

      And another:

      • +12 VDC: Red.
      • Ground (common): Black.
      • Enable: While/yellow - high (+4 V) to turn on laser.
      • Scan motor: Black/white, white/black, and blue/black.

    6. Scanner head brick, manufacturer unknown (+12 VDC). This may be a sort of Standard. (My sample may have come from a Symbol Technologies LS-6000/6500 scanner but it had no markings.)

      • +12 VDC: Red.
      • Ground (common): Black.
      • Enable: Yellow or white with yellow stripe - turns laser on when connected to a level between +5 and +12 VDC.
      • -12 VDC output: White or white with black stripe - to other circuitry, possibly for RS232 driver used by scanner.

    Importance of Fusing Power Supply Bricks

    Do NOT be tempted to cut corners and omit safety devices like fuses when wiring up a HeNe laser power supply brick! Well, any power supply, for that matter, but because these are totally potted, there are added dangers. Even well designed commercial power supply bricks may lack internal protection and have been known to explode like grenades if not wired up with a fuse or the wrong fuse is used. A proper fuse will prevent or at least greatly reduce the possibility of a component cooking for long enough to cause this sort of damage. Many or even most newer brick power supplies do have an internal fuse which will blow should there be a failure of a major component, but not an overload like a momentary short on the output. (Of course, once blown, the power supply is only good as a rectangular hockey puck.) Unless the specifications or label states: "Internally Fused" or something similar, add one of your own in the Hot side of the AC line. If you acquire a power supply already wired (e.g., on eBay), check to see if there is a fuse and add one if not. It's cheap insurance.

    Electrolytic capacitors are probably the components most susceptible to this cranky behavior. Where out in the open, a blown capacitor (due to a shorted line rectifier, for example) will just result in a POP, smelly gas, white smoke, and a whole bunch of capacitor guts (foil, etc.) all over everything (though such capacitors have also been known to just vanish into thin air). However, when totally encased in solid Epoxy, there is no place for the gas to go. So, pressure builds up, probably to several hundred PSI, before something lets loose. This is a rare occurrance but one you don't really want to experience!

    I've recently come across a defective Melles Griot (made by Laser Drive) 05-LPM-370 power supply brick that was on its way to exploding with a noticeable bulge in the top surface. This was scary as that implied some significant pressure inside. It was being powered by a Variac (5 A fuse) into a stack of resistors (about 500K) and a 5 mW tube in an attempt to make it maintain a stable discharge (the tube was flashing). I don't know if a proper fuse would have blown though. :(

    Here are specific instructions for some common Laser Drive bricks: 314S - 1 A, 314T 115 VAC 60 Hz - 0.4 A, 314T 220 VAC 60 Hz - 0.2 A, 230 VAC, 50 Hz - 0.25 A (all slow blow type). For other types where the recommended fuse rating isn't available, use 1/2 A for small power supplies (e.g., up to 5 mW lasers), 1 A for larger ones. Slow blow fuses really should be fine as the sorts of failures being protected against are going to put many times the rated current through the fuse. However, I've usually had no problems with normal fuses. Since these fuses should not blow under normal operation and even reasonable abuse, just solder them to the Hot power leads of the power supply and line cord (but take care that the heat of the soldering iron doesn't melt the fuse element!).

    (From: Someone who would rather remain anonymous.)

    Besides the obvious dangers of these little power supplies, such as the high voltage at low current, there is another danger anyone powering up a HeNe brick power supply should be aware of. This could save you a trip to the hospital or worse - HeNe laser power supply - Proves the "Big Bang theory":

    ALWAYS use a properly sized fuse in line with your power supply! Everyone knows this, right? But did you know that there are some commercial HeNe laser power supplies that can actually EXPLODE if there just happens to be an internal problem in the supply or the laser head when powered up if a fuse is not used in-line with the input, or if there is a fuse but it is grossly oversized in it's amperage rating, or maybe even if it is of the correct amperage but a "slow blow" type instead of a "fast blow"?

    I have heard of these certain power supplies actually exploding within 1 to 2 seconds after being powered up, well today, it happened to ME while testing a lot of power supplies for 2 to 3 mW HeNe laser heads! No names will be mentioned, but the manufacturer's initials are L.D.

    The power supply that did explode on me was fused, but someone, (no not me) put in a 20 amp fuse instead of a 1.5 - 2 amp. Well this was a used surplus unit pulled from medical equipment, of which I was testing out several. The first 5 worked just fine, but the 6th one had other ideas. Little did I know when I first applied the required 115 VAC that this was a bad power supply, but that's why I was testing them.

    Well, within 1.5 seconds of applying power to it, surprise, surprise - the entire side of the plastic case and a lot of the hard Epoxy potting suddenly became dangerous flying shrapnel. Plus, the resulting extremely loud BANG was deafening and the resulting shock wave felt like being hit in your inner ear by a speeding golf ball at the world tournament. I was only 4 feet away from it at the time, but even now, 6.5 hours later, my ear is still quite painful. I would liken the sound of the blast to a 12 gauge shotgun being fired within two feet of your ears. The flying shrapnel could have caused very serious injuries. But thankfully, it didn't hit any of us. (But, what about the laser tube? :) --- sam.)

    The catastrophic failure occurred because to large a fuse was used but I guarantee that the results would have been NO different with this particular power supply if no fuse was used.

    What actually happened was that because of a malfunction in the power supply (probably a shorted rectifier in the AC line input), a 3/4" x 1/2" electrolytic capacitor exploded inside the case thus turning this power supply into a hard Epoxy and plastic BOMB.

    I do not believe that all commercially produced HeNe laser power supplies can react this way if powered up with an internal problem. But trust me on this one: Be sure to use a fuse and of the correct rating and type because you don't want to find out the hard way.

    An executive of the above unnamed manufacturer said that if a fuse would eliminate this exploding problem when the power supply goes south. I also noticed that this, now totally dead power supply drew much more current than is normal from the 115 VAC input when first powered. This would have blown a fuse of the correct size. However, I guess we will never know if this actually would have prevented the power supply from exploding! :(

    Adapters for DC HeNe Power Supply Bricks

    Most HeNe laser power supplies which use a DC input require a voltage between 9 to 12 VDC. However, some may require one that is higher like 18 VDC or 20 to 30 VDC (the latter typically originate from larger barcode scanners or older HeNe laser based LaserDisc players). Wall adapters for these are not that common. (Note that bricks using 115/230 VAC may also work with 300 VDC if wired for 230 VAC since their input is a rectifier and filter but AC wall outlets are generally more readily available!)

    Here are several simple regulated power supplies which may be constructed easily using parts available from Radio Shack, or possibly from your junk box. (1) and (2) are basically the same but cover the 9 to 12 V and 20 to 28 V ranges, respectively. (3) is for the higher voltage input but may be built using a 12 V transformer. However, if you have a suitable transformer, (2) is preferred to (3). These can easily be modified for your specific requirements (like 18 VDC). T1 can be an AC wall adapter with an adequate current rating but realize that their output voltage can vary by a ratio of 2:1 depending on load (they use mediocre transformers!). A low voltage power transformer will generally have a much stiffer output characteristic - less change in output voltage versus load current.

    It is always s good idea to have a fuse on the output, especially where the supply is capable of much higher current than required for the brick. Where T1 is an normal power transformer, a fuse should also be included in its primary. If T1 is part of a wall adapter, this isn't required as it is already protected internally.

    The following assume a power requirement of 10 W max. Depending on the actual ratings of your brick, component values may need to be changed.

    1. Output 9 to 12 VDC: This one uses a 12 V, 1 A power transformer with a bridge rectifier, filter, and IC regulator. The diodes can be 1N4001s or better, or a bridge rated at least 50 V and 1 A.

         H o--+ T1
               )||            D1         In +--------+ Out        F1 _
               )|| +---+------|>|--+---+----| LT1084 |----+-----+---_ ---o +Output
               )||(    |           |   |    +--------+    |     | 1A
               )||(    |      D2   |   |     Com |   R1   |     |
               )||(    |   +--|>|--+   |         +--/\/\--+     |
       115 VAC )||(    |   |           |         |  180         |   C2
       (fused) )||(    |   |      C1 +_|_     R2 /             _|_+ 10uF
               )||(    |   | 5,000uF  ---   1.2K \    +---+    ---  25V
               )||(    |   |     25V - |         /    |   |     | - Tant-
               )||(    |   |  D3       |         |    v   |     |    alum
               )|| +---|---+--|<|--+   |         +--/\/\--+     |
               )||     |           |   |           R3 500 |     |
         N o--+        |      D4   |   |        +9 to 12V |     |
                       +------|<|--+---+------------------+-----+--------o Common

    2. Output 20 to 28 VDC: This one uses a 24 V, .5 A power transformer with a bridge rectifier, filter, and IC regulator. The diodes can be 1N4002s or better, or a bridge rated at least 100 V and 1 A. For a +15 to 21 VDC output, use an 18 V power transformer and adjust the values of R2 and R3 appropriately.

         H o--+ T1
               )||            D1         In +--------+ Out        F1 _
               )|| +---+------|>|--+---+----| LT1084 |----+-----+---_ ---o +Output
               )||(    |           |   |    +--------+    |     | 1A
               )||(    |      D2   |   |     Com |   R1   |     |
               )||(    |   +--|>|--+   |         +--/\/\--+     |
       115 VAC )||(    |   |           |         |  180         |   C2
       (fused) )||(    |   |      C1 +_|_     R2 /             _|_+ 10uF
               )||(    |   | 5,000uF  ---   2.7K \    +---+    ---  50V
               )||(    |   |     50V - |         /    |   |     | - Tant-
               )||(    |   |  D3       |         |    v   |     |    alum
               )|| +---|---+--|<|--+   |         +--/\/\--+     |
               )||     |           |   |          R3 1.5K |     |
         N o--+        |      D4   |   |       +20 to 28V |     |
                       +------|<|--+---+------------------+-----+--------o Common

    3. Output 20 to 28 VDC: This one uses a 12 V, 1 A power transformer and is a voltage doubler feeding an IC regulator. The diodes can be 1N4002s or better (at least 100 V, 1 A. It may even be possible to use the AC wall adapter from an older modem for T1 (at least near the lower end of the voltage range) but testing would be required as the actual performance of these cheap transformers vary quite a bit. I tried a wall adapter from a pre-Jurassic 2400 baud modem - that worked fine with the voltage set between 21 and 26 VDC powering a Laser Drive model 103-23 HeNe laser power supply with a 1 mW (6 inch long) HeNe tube.

         H o--+ T1
               )||          D1           In +--------+ Out        F1 _
               )|| +---+----|>|--------+----| LT1084 |----+-----+---_ ---o +Output
               )||(    |               |    +--------+    |     | 1A
       115 VAC )||(    |          C1 +_|_    Com |   R1   |     |
       (fused) )||(    |    10,000uF  ---        +--/\/\--+     |
               )||(    |         25V - |         |  180         |   C3
               )||(    |               |      R2 /             _|_+ 10uF
               )|| +---|---------------+    2.7K \    +---+    ---  50V
               )||     |               |         /    |   |     | - Tant-
         N o--+        |          C2 +_|_        |    v   |     |    alum
                       |    10,000uF  ---        +--/\/\--+     |
                       |         25V - |         R3 1.5K  |     |
                       |    D2         |       +20 to 28V |     |
                       +----|<|--------+------------------+-----+--------o Common

    The LT1084 is a modern low dropout IC regulator but an LM317 can also be used. (However, the voltage rating of T1 may need to be increased by 1 or 2 V to compensate for the added voltage drop of the older technology regulator.) Or, use a fixed positive regulator (e.g., 7812 or 7824) which would eliminate the resistors. A 150 uF aluminum electrolytic capacitor can be used in place of the tantalum (required for stability with the LT1084, only a few uF is required for the LM317 or 78xx regulators). Fixed or adjustable negative voltage regulators can also be substituted though there is no benefit unless that's all you have in your junk box. Just reverse all the diodes and capacitor polarities. A good heatsink should be put on the regulator especially if the output voltage is much lower than the voltage on the main filter cap(s).

    CAUTION: Double check the pinout for your IC regulator - they are not all the same. Here are some examples (all views from the front):

      78xx (Fixed Pos)    79xx (Fixed Neg)    LM317 (Adj Pos)     LM337 (Adj Neg)
       ___                 ___                 ___                 ___
      |_O_|               |_O_|               |_O_|               |_O_|
      |   | 1 = Input     |   | 1 = Common    |   | 1 = Adjust    |   | 1 = Adjust 
      |___| 2 = Common    |___| 2 = Input     |___| 2 = Output    |___| 2 = Input
       |||  3 = Output     |||  3 = Output     |||  3 = Input      |||  3 = Output
       123                 123                 123                 123
    The LT1084 has the same pinout as the LM317.

    Examples of the Use of Commercial Power Supply Bricks

    The following two sections describe the required connections and additional circuitry that I used to make complete lasers using two types of HeNe tubes and power supplies that were available from Herbach and Rademan. This will be similar to what is required when wiring up any compatible combination of HeNe laser power supply bricks and HeNe laser tubes or heads. (Note that I am not necessarily recommending H&R as a surplus laser supplier - they are quite overpriced in this area. However, I didn't know any better when I purchased my first HeNe lasers!)

    1 mW HeNe Laser Powered by 12 VDC, 1 A Wall Adapter

    H&R part numbers: HeNe tube - TM94LSR2631, Power supply - TM91LSR1495.

    This uses a short (140 mm) HeNe tube (Siemens LGR7655 or equivalent) and no-name power supply running off of 9 VDC. I mounted these in a case which was from a 1/8" cartridge tape backup system in its former life. In order to obtain regulated 9 VDC, an LM317 IC regulator on a heat sink was added along with a power switch, power-on LED, and the required ballast resistor of 150K. The ballast resistor was determined by monitoring the HeNe tube current and selecting values until the current was correct (apparently, this particular brick has no internal current regulation). The HeNe tube was mounted on standoffs using a pair of nylon cable clamps and aimed through a hole drilled in the plastic case which.

            F1 _   S1      +-------+                   In+ +--------+ HV+
      V+ o----_ ---/ ---+--| LM317 |--+------+-----+-------|        |-------+
            1A    Power |  +-------+  |      |     |       |        |       |
                        |      | A    /      |     / R3    |        |       / Rb
                        |      |      \ R1   |     \ 500   | 9 VDC  |       \ 150K
                        |      |      / 240  |     /       | HeNe   |       /
                       _|_ C1  |      |    +_|_ C2 |       | Laser  |       | Tube+
                       --- .1  +------+     --- 10 |       | Power  |     .-|-.
                        |  uF  |           - |  uF | Power | Supply |     |   |
                        |      \ R2          |   __|__ IL1 | Brick  |     |   | LT1
                        |      / 1.5K        |   _\_/_ LED |        |     |   |
                        |      \             |     |       |        |     ||_||
                        |      |             |     |   Gnd |        | HV- '-|-'
      V- o--------------+------+-------------+-----+-------|        |-------+ Tube-
    It may be easier to locate a 12 VAC, 1 A wall transformer since these were commonly used to power older obsolete modems. In this case, add a bridge rectifier and a 5,000 to 10,000 uF, 25 V filter capacitor to the input.

    WARNING: Double check polarity before powering a laser. The unit I first received had the HV polarity reversed from the hand printed labels. I sent if back and they simply stuck new labels over the old ones. :)

    2 mW HeNe Laser Using AC Line Operated Power Supply Brick

    This setup was sold as a power supply and HeNe tube combination. Although no longer available from H&R, this same laser does show up from other surplus outfits, on eBay, and elsewhere. A similar unit is shown under power in Siemens LGR7631A HeNe Laser Tube and Laser Drive Power Supply Brick (Powered) (photo courtesy of: Joseph Chiu (

    This particular brick can be wired for either 115 VAC or 230 VAC operation and includes an 'enable' input which must be pulled up to turn on the tube (thus the 9 V battery visible in the photo). Likewise, rather than using a separate power supply just for this, I provided a battery holder with 4 AA cells. Even old tired decrepit ones work fine in this application! The only other parts I added were the line cord, power switch, fuse, light, and enable switch. Everything is mounted on a nice wooden frame painted flat black. :)

    The ballast resistor was already built into the tube mounting so that this was truly a 'plug-and-play' assembly.

           F1 _   S1                       white +----------+ HV+
      H o----_ ---/ ---+-----------------+-------|          |--------<<---+
          .5A    Power |                 | white |          | RED         |
                       /                 +-------|          |             / Rb
                    R1 \                         | 115/230  |             \ 75K
                   47K /      S2 Enable  yel/wht | VAC HeNe |             /
                       |    +-----/ -------------|  Laser   |             | Tube+
                      +|+   |                    |  Power   |           .-|-.
                  IL1 |o|   |   | | | |  yel/blk |  Supply  |           |   |
                 NE2H |o|   +---||||||||---------|  Brick   |           |   | LT1
                Power +|+      +| | | | -        |          |           |   |
                       |       B1 5-6 V          |          |           ||_||
                       |                  yellow |          | BLACK     '-|-'
     N o---------------+-------------------------|          |--------<<---+ Tube-
                                                 +----------+ HV-
                                                 green |
     G o-----------------------------------------------+

    1. BLACK and green wires are joined inside power supply so tube cathode will be tied to earth ground when plugged into properly grounded outlet.

    2. Wiring shown for 115 VAC. For operation on 230 VAC, use white wires on each side of line and leave yellow wire unconnected.
    A closeup of the components of another similar unit is shown in Siemens LGR7631A HeNe Laser Tube and Laser Drive Power Supply Brick (Components) (photo courtesy of: Effie Wiegand ( Note the black 'button' on the right-end of the tube (attached to the plastic anode insulator). This contains a slightly angled glass plate presumably to protect the tube's output mirror. I found it to be quite dirty on one sample I acquired - the beam quality was terrible until it was removed (just pulls off). In fact, I believe the previous owner sold the laser for next to nothing due to the messed up beam! These also came with a diverging lens on an adjustable mount of sorts (visible in the lower right of the photo). I assume this to be the first lens in a beam expander and collimator (but the other components stay with whatever sort of barcode scanner, printer, or other equipment from which this laser originated).

    Lab Style HeNe Laser Power Supply Using Power Supply Brick

    I installed an Aerotech LSS 5(6.5) HeNe laser power supply in an aluminum Minibox(tm) chassis to create a 'lab' style unit capable of driving HeNe laser heads requiring 2,200 to 2,800 V (including ballast resistor) at 6.5 mA. These are typically 4 to 12 mW red HeNe lasers (or lower power other color HeNe lasers) though the specific requirements will depend on model.

    This arrangement is basically what is inside most modern commercial 'lab' style HeNe laser power supplies - a standard brick model mounted in a box with AC power cord, fuse, line filter, on/off/key switch, power-on light, Alden connector to attach the HeNe laser head, and an interlock connector and/or line voltage select switch on some models - along with an inflated price! :)

              +--------+  F1 _    S1            brown +------------+
        H o---|        |----_ ----/ ---+------+-------|            |------< HV+
              |        |  1A    Power  |      |  blue |            | RED
              |        |        (Key)  / R1   +-------|  Aerotech  |
              |        |               \ 47K          |  115/230   |
              | Corcom |               /          red |    VAC     |
              |  Line  |               |        +-----| LSS 5(6.5) |    Alden
              | Filter |              +|+       |     | HeNe Laser |  Connector
              |        |          IL1 |o|       | red |   Power    |
              |        |         NE2H |o|       +-----|   Supply   |
              |        |        Power +|+             |   Brick    |
              |        |               |        black |            | BLACK
        N o---|        |---------------+--------------|            |------< HV-
              +--------+                              +------------+
                  |                                   green |
        G o-------+-----------------------------------------+

    1. BLACK and green wires are joined inside power supply so tube cathode will be tied to earth ground when plugged into properly grounded outlet.

    2. Wiring shown for 115 VAC. For operation on 230 VAC, use blue and brown wires on each side of line and leave black wire unconnected.

    3. The red wires jumpered together (CDRH loop) enable 4 second power-on delay.

    Initial Testing of HeNe Laser Power Supply Bricks

    Two aspects of power supply operation should be checked as soon as possible after powering up your HeNe tube for the first time: polarity and current.

    If the power supply is a name brand unit or was pulled from a device like a bar code scanner, it is safe to assume that the connections (the output in particular) are correctly labeled. However, some power supplies sold to hobbyists (e.g., from places like Herbach & Rademan or HSC Electronic Supply) have been known to have incorrectly marked high voltage connections. (The models I have seen this on are a low voltage inverter type with red and black wire leads for the 9 or 12 V input and spade terminals for the high voltage marked with hand printed or typed stickers for VA and VC - apparently at random.) If your power supply looks like it was put together in someone's basement, this should confirmed to prevent damage to the HeNe tube from reverse polarity.

    At the same time, the HeNe tube current can be checked.

    Put a 1K, 1/4 W resistor in series with the cathode return and measure across it with a voltmeter for the correct polarity and current. The end of the resistor attached to the HeNe tube cathode should be positive and the current will be 1 mA/V of your reading. Also see the section: Making Measurements on HeNe Laser Power Supplies.

    HeNe Laser Power Supplies in Series or Parallel?

    So you have a couple of HeNe laser power supply bricks for use with 1 to 2 mW HeNe lasers and someone just gave you a 5 mW HeNe laser head. Is it possible to use the two in series or parallel instead of buying or building a suitable power supply?

    Larger HeNe tubes require much more operating and starting voltage, and possibly more current as well. The current difference is of less consequence than the voltage difference.

    For example, a 5 mW tube may have a nominal current rating of 6.5 mA but will probably run just fine on 4 or 5 mA (though a higher value ballast resistor may be needed to maintain stability). However, the 5 mW tube will require about twice the operating and starting voltage of a 1 mW tube (thus requiring a series connection if such a kludge is possible at all).

    Whether the power supplies can be hooked in series or parallel depends on their design. The inverter types in particular (which includes all bricks), could become mighty unhappy. I wouldn't recommend connecting HeNe power supplies in series without knowing exactly what's inside. You could end up with two dead power supplies and there could also be safety issues with respect to insulation breakdown, explosive disassembly of internal components, and other undesirable and unfortunate consequences.

    However, it may be possible to connect them in parallel to increase the current capability. Where both power supplies regulate using high-side current sensing (as is common with bricks since the negative returns usually go directly to ground), then this may be possible if both power supplies are able to operate within their current compliance range. Additional details are left as an exercise for the student. :)

    And, there is one special case which does have a good chance of success as described in the next section.

    Boosting the Current of a HeNe Laser Power Supply

    So, you got a great deal on a HeNe laser power supply rated 2,500 V at 6.0 mA. This would be great for powering a 5 mW HeNe laser except for one problem: Most 5 mW HeNe lasers run optimally at 6.5 mA. Now, as a practical matter, 6.0 mA is usually still just fine and most people would never notice the difference in output power, stability, or (optical) noise. But, for the purist, 6.5 mA would still be best.

    It should be possible to add that extra 0.5 mA from a second (non-HeNe laser) power supply in parallel with a HeNe laser power supply with a fixed output current. This would usually be used with a potted power supply brick lacking a current adjust pot since otherwise, it's usually a simple matter to just modify it directly!

    All that is needed is a power supply capable of providing the additional current at a voltage greater than the operating voltage of the HeNe laser (tube + ballast resistance). The source can be a potted high voltage (voltage regulated) module, voltage multiplier from an isolated transformer, or some other similar low current power supply. Feed the auxiliary power supply into the top of the ballast resistance via a HV isolation diode (e.g., microwave oven or CRT HV rectifier) to prevent the starting voltage from appearing on the auxiliary supply. To protect the HeNe laser power supply brick, it won't hurt to install a similar HV isolation diode in series with it's output as well (though this is probably not essential). The amount of added current can be adjusted with resistors in series with the auxiliary source. The negative outputs of both power supplies should be tied together.

                            6kV          R1     >10kV
      HeNe Laser PS + o-----|>|----+----/\/\-----|<|-----o + Auxiliary Supply
                      To top of ballast resistance

    Since the current regulator of the HeNe laser power supply doesn't see the extra current, it won't fight the auxiliary power supply. However, it is the responsibility of the auxiliary power supply to do the regulation of the added current. Since it's only a very small current, series resistors are probably good enough - no active regulation is needed. A current regulated supply could also be used as long as the current sensing of both the power supplies takes place separately. This usually means the auxiliary power supply senses current in the HV feed, not the return (which is usually grounded), since this is what most HeNe laser power supply bricks do.

    I've tested this approach with an Aerotech LSS 5(L) AC line powered brick fixed at 6.0 mA and a variable HV DC power supply. The HV rectifier from a 12 inch CRT monitor was used for isolation with a 100K resistor for current limiting. The current could be varied from 6.0 mA (provided by the brick) and 7.0 mA or more by adjusting the auxiliary supply.

    It would be a simple matter to construct an auxiliary power supply with a low voltage DC input using a 555 and MOSFET to drive a small flyback. A duty cycle/frequency adjust pot would permit output current to be easily varied. This could turn an otherwise not terribly useful fixed current brick into a very flexible lab HeNe power supply.

    Reducing the Current of a HeNe Laser Power Supply

    While less common than the case above, there may come a time when it would be nice to operate a 7.0 mA power supply with a laser tube requiring only 6.0 or 6.5 mA.

    In principle, this could be done by adding a current bypass in parallel with the HeNe laser tube. If it weren't for the issue of the very high starting voltage, a simple resistor (rated for high voltage) would be adequate. For a known voltage across the laser head (tube + ballast resistance), Ohm's Law could be used to determine the resistance value to use. For a small reduction in current (e.g., 0.5 or 1 mA), no regulation would be needed. However, the problem is how to deal with the starting voltage. Any resistance connected permanently across the laser head would probably prevent the starting voltage from being high enough due to the very limited current availability of most starting circuits. One way around this would be to add a high voltage relay that only closed the current bypass after the tube has started. However, it probably would need to be a mechanical relay and one rated for 10 kV or greater. A manual HV switch could also be used.

    Using a HeNe Laser Power Supply for Other Applications

    HeNe laser power supplies can be used for non-laser experiments as long as they are not called upon to operate outside their normal compliance range. Depending on model, you can get anywhere from 1 kV to 6 kV (or more) at a few mA. One such application is as a capacitor charger for small pulsed solid state lasers. See the chapter: Complete SS Laser Power Supply Schematics for a specific example.

    Put a load on the output so that it runs in the normal operating (not starting) range of voltages. Near the upper end is fine (e.g., higher load resistance) as long as the voltage remains within specs but you don't want to have the supply continually attempting to start a non-existent HeNe tube - that is hard on any supply.

    Note that most HeNe laser power supplies including 'bricks' are NOT totally isolated between input and output - the negative of the high voltage is probably either directly or via some high resistance connected to the earth ground (AC line types) or the negative of the input (DC input types). Check the continuity between the black HV lead and the negative of the input. Many are tied together internally. Even if it isn't 0 ohms, there may be current sensing feedback that is via high value resistors.

  • Back to HeNe Laser Power Supplies Sub-Table of Contents.

    Ballast Resistors, Function, Selecting

    What is the Purpose of the Ballast Resistor?

    Every HeNe laser (as well as any other gas laser, fluorescent lamp, xenon arc lamp, or other similar device) needs components between the actual voltage source and the tube to stabilize the discharge and limit/regulate the current. Without a ballast, the resulting discharge would be flashing, flickering, or unstable in some other way AND the tube and power supply would likely destroy each other due to excessive uncontrolled current flow. For high power devices, the ballast may take the form of an inductor or transformer, or an electronic circuit that performs an equivalent set of functions. For the HeNe laser, the ballast is almost always a simple resistance. The purpose of the ballast resistor (Rb) in a HeNe laser is twofold:
    1. Assure stability: Rb used to adjust the total resistance in the HeNe tube circuit so that it is comfortably positive. This is needed for stability to balance the negative resistance characteristics of the HeNe tube itself.

    2. The second function depends to some extent on the type of power supply:

      • For power supplies that are not current regulated, Rb serves to limit the HeNe tube current to the optimal and safe value for proper operation with the desired input voltage to the power supply (e.g., 115 VAC). Although the size of Rb doesn't directly affect laser output power, it controls the current and output power peaks at a specified current - above or below this optimum value and it goes down. Thus, unlike the case of a resistor in series wtih an incandescent lamp, reducing the value of the Rb may in fact reduce laser output.

      • For power supplies that are current regulated, the value of Rb can be chosen to place the operating point near the middle of the compliance range of the regulator. This will maximize immunity from input variations and ripple, and may reduce stress on regulator components as well.
    Selecting a ballast resistor that works with a given tube is usually a trivial exercise. So, don't let the length of the following discussions intimidate you! It is quite possible that for the entire future of the universe (until the big crunch and even beyond), you will have no need to use any other value than the usual 75K ohms. However, there are situations where this will not work well or at all when mating a power supply to a HeNe tube or laser head other than the model or size for which it was originally designed.

    If you are connecting a power supply to a laser head (not just a bare tube), there is almost certainly a ballast resistor inside the head itself. So, an additional full ballast resistor will not be needed unless you find that the original value is insufficient. Also, the power supply may already have some amount of ballast resistance (partial or up to 75K) and the combination may be too large! When the designation Rb is used, it means the *total* ballast resistance but this may actually be made of up 2 and sometimes even 3 parts. See the section: Locations of the Ballast Resistance.

    Also see Power Technology's What is a Ballast Resistor and Why Should I Use One? technical note for some general considerations.

    Note: Although a single resistance value may be specified below for Rb, it is better to construct the actual ballast resistor from several lower value resistors in series to achieve the required voltage and power ratings. See the section: Power Supply Construction Considerations for more info.

    Some of the procedures below may require measurement of voltage or current in the HeNe tube circuit. Before proceeding, for your own safety and the continued good health of your test equipment, see the section: Making Measurements on HeNe Laser Power Supplies.

    Locations of the Ballast Resistance

    If you examine a commercial HeNe laser, unless the HeNe tube is physically within a couple of inches of its power supply, there is a good chance that the actual components that comprise the ballast resistance are split into 2 and possibly even 3 separate sets of physical resistors:
         <-- Power Supply -->|<-------------- Laser Head ------------------>|
                    Rbp              Rba     Tube+ +-------+ Tube-   Rbc     
         HV+ o------/\/\-----<<------/\/\----------|-    ]-|---------/\/\---+
                  0 to 50K        50K to 75K       +-------+       0 to 15K |
         HV- o---------------<<---------------------------------------------+
    (Optional current sense resistor and other additional components not shown.) If it weren't for stray capacitance, only the total ballast resistance, Rb, would matter with respect to discharge stability and current regulation. If the power supply and tube are within a couple of inches of one-another, this IS all that really matters. However, in the real world, where remote laser heads are often desirable, it isn't always that simple! But, dealing with Rb as though it were a single resistor as a starting point won't hurt. Thus, unless otherwise noted, the discussions below refer to the total of all resistance in series with the HeNe tube even if Rb is not physically at a single location.

    Do you know where all your ballast resistance is hiding? :-)

    Selecting the Ballast Resistor Using Your HeNe Tube

    Using the actual HeNe tube (rather than a dummy load) is generally the easiest, fastest, and most accurate approach for selecting the ballast resistor. Unless the power supply and HeNe tube are grossly mismatched, the chance of damage to either is small. Here are several possibilities: Don't get carried away - running the tube with slightly excessive current won't damage or destroy it immediately (unlike a laser diode). However, the ballast resistor may not survive overcurrent for long since its power dissipation goes up as the square of the current. (The HeNe tube power dissipation only goes up slighly less than proportional to current due to its negative resistance characteristic.) Also, using a regulated power supply near or beyond one end or the other of its rated voltage compliance range could result in overheating or overstress of components and it may be damaged or fail completely. Thus, a regulated power supply designed for a .5 mW tube should generally not be used with a 5 mW tube (or vice-versa) for any length of time even if it appears to operate properly!

    Here are a couple of approaches to selecting the ballast resistor for a small HeNe tube and simple unregulated power supply like the one described in the section: Edmund Scientific HeNe Laser Power Supply.

    (From: Steve Nosko (

    The ballast resistor, the actual voltage at the doubler output and the tube running voltage determine the tube current. Look at the tube ratings for the running voltage and tube current - 1,150 V at 4 mA for the tube I was using.

    One can approach the design from two directions:

    Selecting the Ballast Resistor Using a Dummy Load

    This approach will also permit the limits or compliance range of the power supply to be determined without risking the HeNe tube. This may be necessary to select the ballast resistor to match a HeNe tube up with a power supply that is not marked or determine its limits - what sizes of HeNe tubes it will drive. Even when marked, the ratings on a typical HeNe laser power supply do not tell you how it will behave under varying load conditions. However, first see the section: Selecting the Ballast Resistor as the approaches described there are usually adequate for the vast majority of situations.

    Where the voltage drop across your HeNe tube is known (from its specifications or having been measured), it can in principle be replaced by a fixed resistor equal to Vop/Iop for the purpose of basic power supply testing. (However, dynamic behavior will be affected by the HeNe tube's negative resistance characteristic. This is probably not a problem as long as the resulting ballast resistance ends up greater than that magic 75K ohms.) For example, a HeNe tube rated at 4.5 mA at 1,200 V can be replaced by a 267K resistor at its operating point. Then, enough ballast resistance is added beyond 75K so that the proper current (4.5 mA in this case) is obtained.

    Using a dummy load will also permit a ballast resistor value to be selected such that the regulator operates near the middle of its compliance range. This will provide the maximum tolerance of low and high input (AC or DC) voltage (input compliance) and slight differences among HeNe tubes and/or conditions as the tube heats up and/or component values drift with age and use.

    CAUTION: Determining the limits of some power supplies is like testing a new jet fighter; pushing the envelope entails some risk as the power supply can be damaged or destroyed if run outside its design specifications. This is especially true with power supplies that are current regulated. Damage could result if the design is not adequately protected. Many commercial designs are quite robust but don't push your luck! If your power supply is current regulated, see the section: Determining the Compliance Range of a Power supply.

    The discussion below assumes a power supply which does NOT include a current regulator. If yours does, see the section: Determining the Compliance Range of a Power Supply if you want to determine more about your power supply's characteristics.

    Use a voltage divider constructed from a 500K potentiometer (actually four 100K (5 W) resistors and five 20K, (1 W) resistors to get high enough wattage - not an actual pot since such things probably do not exist), 75K (5 W) resistor and 1K (sense) resistor.

    This load will short out (and thus disable) voltage multiplier type starting circuits or fool any auto start circuit into thinking the tube is running.

    These resistor values should work for most tubes rated between 1100 V and 2,400, and currents between 4 mA and 8 mA with typical power supplies but yours may be the exception. Therefore, the resistor values may need to be adjusted if you cannot obtain meaningful results.

    Connect the components as follows:

                       +----+               +--o Measure o--+
                       |    |               |               |
                    R1 v    |      R2       v       Rs      v  I ->
          PS+ o-------/\/\--+-----/\/\------+------/\/\-----+------o PS-
                    500K 25 W    75K 5 W            1K
    Measure the voltage across Rs to determine current. The sensitivity will be 1 V/mA. Alternatively, simply put a 10 or 20 mA current meter across or in place of Rs. (Then, Rs is effectively 0 for the calculations, below.)
    1. Start with R1 at its maximum.

    2. Apply power and measure the current (I) through Rs as described above. Your goal is for this to be equal to the nominal HeNe tube current (Io).

    3. Kill power and confirm that any capacitors have discharged before touching anything!

    4. If the measured current is still too low, reduce R1 and try again (goto step 2).

    5. Calculate or measure the resistance of the entire R1 assembly. The value of the ballast resistor (Rb) should then be:
                           Rb = R1 + 75,000 + Rs - (Vo/Io);
      where Vo is the operating voltage from the tube specifications.

  • Back to HeNe Laser Power Supplies Sub-Table of Contents.

    Determining Characteristics, Fixed Current Considerations

    Determining the Compliance Range of a Power Supply

    Most commercial HeNe laser power supplies incorporate some type of regulator to maintain the current through the tube constant. It may be fixed at a set value like 5 mA or 6.5 mA or may be variable via a front panel or internal pot, by changing a resistor somewhere, or even by a control voltage (providing modulation, for example).

    By varying the load using the test circuit (above), and taking measurements of both voltage and current, the limits of such a regulated power supply can be explored. Over the useful compliance range of a power supply, output voltage will automatically vary to maintain the output current nearly constant independent of input and load variations and ripple from the power supply itself.

    However, since the HeNe tube introduces some negative resistance into the equation, actual performance may not be quite the same as with the dummy load. Thus, although the power supply may be able to maintain a specified current over a certain range of dummy load resistance values, some portions of this range (usually at either end) may not result in stable behavior with actual HeNe tubes.

    CAUTION: There is always some risk of damage if the specifications are unknown and the designers didn't provide adequate protection. Keep this in mind if you decide to test your power supply in this manner.

    Using the same setup as described in the section: Selecting the Ballast Resistor Using a Dummy Load the compliance range of a power supply can be determined without a HeNe tube:

    CAUTION: For regulated power supplies (inverters in particular), only leave power applied long enough to take your readings if the current is not being maintained at the specified value as this may be stressful to some designs. Where the specifications include a voltage rating (e.g., 2,500 V), this is generally the maximum that should be output continuously. In this case, the upper limit is already known - going beyond this is asking for trouble.

    1. Start with R1 at a modest value and work first one way and then the other so that the limits in both directions can be determined. A suggested initial value for R1 is around 250K. This is likely to be within the compliance limits of typical power supplies for small to medium size (i.e, .5 to 5 mW) HeNe tubes).

    2. Apply power and note both the current (I) through Rs and the total voltage (Vout) from the power supply.

      CAUTION: For power supplies with linear regulators, it is best to use a variable input source and bring up the supply slowly while also monitoring the voltage across the pass transistor(s) to assure it doesn't begin to approach their breakdown voltage. If this happens, R1 is too small (beyond the lower limit of compliance).

      Current can be measured as described above. Vout can be measured if you have a voltmeter with a high enough range or calculated as:

      Vout = (R1 + 75,000 + Rs) * I;

    3. There will be three possibilities (Io is the value of current that the power supply is supposed to be maintaining):

      • If I = Io, the power supply is within regulation.
      • If I < Io, R1 is (or has become) too large.
      • If I > Io, R1 is (or has become) too small.

      Kill power and confirm that any capacitors have discharged before touching anything. Modify R1 as appropriate and goto step 2. You are finished if the entire range over which current is nearly constant has been explored.

    4. The compliance limits are at the points where the current goes out of regulation at each end of the range of values of R1. As noted above, whether these are actually usable limits depends on design and your particular HeNe tube.

    5. The HeNe tube voltages (range of Vo) that will be supported (assuming a 75K Rb) will be within the limits:
                             (R1(u) * Io) > Vo > (R1(l) * Io);
      where R1(u) is the value of R1 at the upper end and R1(l) is the value of R1 at the lower end of the range where the current (I) is constant.

      For a given HeNe tube with specified Vo and Io, the Rb which has the power supply in the center of its compliance range is given by:

                  Rb = (((R1(u) + R1(l).)/ 2) + 75,000 + Rs - (Vo / Io);
    As noted above, for regulated supplies, the current will be maintained at nearly a constant value over some range of output voltage. Therefore, if possible, select the ballast resistor (Rb) for your particular HeNe tube such that the supply is operating near the center of its voltage compliance range. Of course, where a large tube is used on a smaller supply or vice-versa, the usable compliance range will be reduced. In fact, there isn't even any sort of guarantee that the 'optimal' Rb value calculated above will even work with your HeNe tube! Life it not simple. :-)

    An alternative is to perform the compliance tests with a HeNe tube installed. The problem with this is that starting may make measurements more difficult and result only applies directly to the HeNe tube that is used. However, this IS a more accurate procedure. The series resistance is varied in the same manner as described above except that it will much smaller since much of the voltage drop is taken up by the HeNe tube. The modified setup is shown below:

                +----+                                +--o Measure o--+
                |    |                   LT1          |               |
             R1 v    |     R2   Tube+ +-------+ Tube- v       Rs      v  I ->
      PS+ o----/\/\--+----/\/\--------|-    ]-|-------+------/\/\-----+------o PS-
             200K 15 W   50K 5 W      +-------+               1K
    The procedure is otherwise similar but take care when making measurements since the starting circuit is no longer disabled and use an initial R1 of 25K instead of 250K. As noted above, if you had previously determined the limits of your power supply using the dummy load, with the HeNe tube installed, the discharge may become unstable before these limits are reached. Details are left as an exercise for the student. :-)

    Fixed Current Power Supply Considerations

    Many inverter type power supplies are completely potted (i.e., 'bricks') and will have a fixed current specification (e.g., 5 mA, 6.5 mA) and a maximum voltage specification (e.g., 1,750 V, 2,500 V). They will generally work with a 75K ballast resistor and attempt to maintain their rated current through a variety of HeNe tubes (various sizes and power ratings). Unless there is an adjustment accessible through an access hole, there is no easy way change this current set-point.

    CAUTION: These power supplies may attempt to maintain the set HeNe tube current even when the operating voltage is beyond their specifications as might be the case with a high power HeNe tube on a small power supply or a ballast resistor that is too large. The power supply may overheat or be overstressed under these conditions and fail without warning. See the section: Typical HeNe Tube Specifications to determine if your HeNe tube is likely to be within the capabilities of your power supply brick.

    Where the current rating of your HeNe tube does not match the power supply (and it cannot be adjusted), your options are limited. There is no easy way to increase or decrease current with external circuitry. However, if it is within +/- 10 percent of the optimum current, don't worry about it. If the current is within +/- 20 percent of optimum, it still isn't the end of the world (though a different power supply would be the best solution):

    Where the power supply components are accessible (it is not a potted brick), modifications may be possible but how easy this is depends on the design. See the sections starting: Current Regulators and the chapter: Complete HeNe Laser Power Supply Schematics for examples.

  • Back to HeNe Laser Power Supplies Sub-Table of Contents.

    Power Supply Measurements, Testing, Repair

    Making Measurements on HeNe Laser Power Supplies

    Voltage and/or current measurements on a HeNe laser power supply may be needed to characterize its performance bounds, to troubleshoot or identify a defective unit, or to monitor conditions during operation or with different HeNe tubes, particularly where there are user adjustments (i.e., a Variac used as an input voltage source). Note: I DO NOT recommend the use of typical DMMs (Digital MultiMeters) for measurements in high voltage power supplies of this type. Many of these are more susceptible to damage from voltage or current spikes than analog VOMs (Volt Ohm Meters) or simple dedicated moving coil (D'Arsenval) panel meters. However, even with these, there can be internal arcing which may result in damage that doesn't show up until long after you have forgotten all about HeNe laser power supplies! :(

    It is difficult to measure the output voltage of a HeNe laser power supply with a multimeter even if it is supposedly within your meter's range. Connecting the meter across the tube while it is on will likely extinguish the arc due to the capacitance of the probe inducing a momentary dip in the voltage. Even if the tube remains lit or restarts, there may actually be oscillation resulting in an erroneous reading. Where possible, measurements should be made upstream of the ballast resistor(s) and corrected for their voltage drop.

    Leaving a multimeter connected during starting may prevent the tube from firing due to its additional capacitance and reduced resistance. And, the meter may be damaged due to arcing from any high voltage starting pulses.

    Here are some recommendations:

    WARNING: Make sure whatever you have is well insulated and/or grounded where appropriate. Those high voltages can bite! Use proper high voltage cable (rated 20 kV or more - non-resistive type automotive ignition cable and TV or monitor CRT high voltage cable works well) and insulated coverings on the terminals (several layers of plastic electrical tape or Plexiglas barriers). You may be working in the dark (light-wise, at least) or with somewhat subdued lighting, so it makes sense to prevent accidental contact as much as possible. This is especially important with power supplies that may be overkill (no pun intended...really!) as is often the case with home-built equipment.

    Ballast Resistor Selector and Meter Box

    I built this hand-dandy gadget both as a means of easily adjusting the ballast resistance as well as providing a convenient readout for HeNe tube current and voltage. The entire complex circuit is mounted between a pair of blank Fiberglas-Epoxy PCB panels separated by 2 inch standoffs. It will plug into any HeNe laser power supply with an Alden connector and has special custom clip leads (read: alligator clips with formed paper clips soldered to their ends) to easily attach to the mirror mounts or HV terminals of any HeNe tube.

    The first part is the tapped ballast resistor and current monitor:

                  |                                    | 
                  |                                    V
                  | o      o      o      o      o      o      o      o
              R1  | |  R2  |  R3  |  R4  |  R5  |  R6  |  R7  |  R8  |
     HV+ <---/\/\-+-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+-/\/\-+---o Anode
         Setting->217K   190K   163K   135K   108K    81K    54K    27K 
                                                                           HV Leads
      Male Alden                                     R1-R8: 27.1K, 2W      to HeNe
      Connector                        M1                                   Tube
     HV- <-------------------------| 0-10 mA |---------------------------o Cathode

    If you're wondering about the peculiar resistor value of 27.1K, the answer is the same one as to the question: "Why do people climb mountains?". :)

    Note that (except for the 27K setting), the output anode lead always goes directly to the end of exactly one resistor to minimize capacitance at the tube and to protect the power supply in the event of a, well, unfortunate accident (like a short circuit). (For the 27K setting, the assumption is that there is an additional ballast resistance near the tube anode so capacitance doesn't matter as much.) This lead is also relatively short - about 4 inches for this same reason. Each tap is a banana jack and the tap selector is just a VERY WELL INSULATED jumper with a banana plug on its end (though I still don't recommend trying to change settings while powered!).

    The following is connected directly across the output for measuring tube voltage:

       Anode o----+----/\/\----+
                  |    20M     |
                  |    15kV     / Close ONLY after
                  o         S1 |   tube has started!
                  +       +----+ 
                  V  Rcal |    o 
                  -    5M /    +
                  o    +->\   DMM (10M input, set Rcal
                  |    |  /    -    using a low voltage
                  |    |  \    o    so DMM reads V/10.)
                  |    |  |    |
     Cathode o----+----+--+----+

    Rm is a special high voltage resistor and S1 is actually just another jumper and banana jack. The purpose of S1 is to unload the HeNe laser power supply during starting. However, if your power supply has enough current capacity while starting (usually high compliance inverter designs, not parasitic multipliers), it may be possible to keep the meter in the circuit all the time. Just make sure your components are adequately rated for the maximum starting voltage which may be present if a HeNe laser tube is not connected or simply refuses to start. The DMM will read 1/10th of the actual tube voltage. Even if the tube cuts out and tries to restart, the DMM should survive but I can offer no guarantees for your specific implementation!

    I normally use this rig with an Aerotech PS2B HeNe laser power supply which has had its regulator bypassed. (See the section: Aerotech Model PS2B HeNe Laser Power Supply (AT-PS2B).) No matter what protection there is, semiconductors tend to blow themselves up to protect the fuse. :) And for testing there is really no need for great regulation. The modified PS2B is driven by a small Variac to adjust tube current. It may be set low for 0.5 mW barcode scanner HeNe tubes or cranked up to an AC input of 140 VAC for dealing with hard-to-start tubes, or to drive any HeNe laser tube or head of up to at least 12 mW on the bench while monitoring current and voltage. (The modified PS2B is quite happy running at 140 VAC input all day but this may not be true of some other power supplies.) The combination of the PS2B, tapped ballast resistor, and metering system is my workhorse for testing HeNe lasers.

    Testing a HeNe Laser Power Supply

    Failure of a HeNe laser to lase could be due to a bad tube, bad power supply, bad connections, or you forgot to plug it into the wall socket!

    If there is a continuous glow from the inside of the HeNe tube, the power supply is probably working properly though the current could be incorrect. However, this would result in reduced output power or excessive heating - but not a totally dead laser unless the current was more than 2 or 3 times too high. (In this extreme case, if the tube is good, there would likely be at least a flash of laser light from its output at power-on and/or power-off as the tube current passes through the normal operating range).

    Where there is no sign of a discharge - even momentarily - the problem could be with the tube, wiring, or power supply.

    In either case, it would probably be a good idea to see the section: How Can I Tell if My Tube is Good before getting into heavy troubleshooting of the power supply.

    To determine if the power supply is working requires testing it for both the starting and operating voltage (and proper current if it includes an internal regulator). Of course, the easiest approach is to substitute a known working HeNe tube, but this is not always a viable option. If all that is desired is to determine if the power supply is not dead and no test equipment is available, see the procedure at the end of this section.

    Before proceeding, for your own safety and the continued health of your test equipment, see the section: Making Measurements on HeNe Laser Power Supplies.

    If the power supply has a current adjustment, see if this behaves as expected. A control that does nothing could indicate that the load resistor is sized incorrectly and the compliance range of the power supply is being exceeded (low or high).

    In all cases, a defective regulator or control circuit could result in these faults as well.

    Also see the sections: Selecting the Ballast Resistor and Starting Problems and Hard-to-Start Tubes.

    HeNe Laser Power Supply Repair

    Various types of HeNe laser power supplies may turn up in electronics surplus stores, junk yards, or buried under piles of other stuff in the back of your company or university lab storeroom.

    WARNING: Just because these are often compact units doesn't mean they cannot be lethal. See the document: Safety Guidelines for High Voltage and/or Line Powered Equipment before working on any type of equipment which uses line voltage or produces high voltage. See the section: SAFETY when Dealing with HeNe Laser Power Supplies for specific precautions.

    CAUTION: Make sure you discharge both the output of the power supply AND the HeNe tube itself with a high value power resistor (e.g., 100K consisting of a series string of 5, 20K, 2 W resistors to handle the voltage) before touching anything. Else, you may be in for a nasty surprise!

    For much more information on the servicing of these types of devices, see the following (as appropriate for your power supply):

    Replacing a Regulator Stack with Resistors

    It is quite common to inherit a HeNe laser power supply which once had a linear regulator but all that is left is either a gaping hole or a bunch of shorted transistors. :( This may even happen with an AC line operated HeNe laser power supply using a potted high voltage module. If the regulation components exploded, there will probably be no output. If they shorted - probably most common - the current will either be too high with no regulation or the laser will be flashing due to insufficient ballast resistance. (A constant current regulator looks like a high resistance to the laser.) While the purists among us will insist on a faithful reconstruction, for many purposes, simply replacing the regulator with a few resistors will provide adequate performance.

    Put a current meter set for 10 mA or more full scale in series with the HeNe tube cathode. Build up your stack from 10K to 25K, 1 to 2 W resistors. Start with about 50K ohms for each transistor that used to be in series as part of the regulator. Where the number of transistors is unknown, just start with 50K to 100K. Add or remove resistors to adjust the tube current to its rated value at normal line voltage. Within about 5 percent (e.g., 0.3 mA at 6.5 mA) should be chose enough. Err on the low side if the laser seems stable at this value. If a Variac is available, check for stability with respect to line voltage variations - the laser shouldn't drop out until the line voltage drops to below about 105 VAC (in the USA).

    WARNING: Make sure your power supply capacitors are fully discharged before touching anything!

    The efficiency of this setup will be exactly equal to that of a proper regulator. There will just be no regulation with respect to AC line fluctuations. But with the added resistance of your stack, this won't be as bad as it would be with just a ballast resistor. Since you presumably won't be swapping HeNe tubes, regulation with respect to tube characteristics isn't that important.

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