Joglekar, A., Liu, H., Spooner, G. et al. Appl. Phys. B (2003) 77: 25. doi:10.1007/s00340-003-1246-z
A remarkable feature of material damage induced by short-pulsed lasers is that the energy threshold becomes deterministic for sub-picosecond pulses. This effect, coupled with the advent of kHz and higher repetition rate chirped pulse amplification systems, has opened the field of femtosecond machining. Yet the mechanism of optical breakdown remains unclear. By examining the damage threshold as a function of polarization, we find that, contrary to established belief, multiphoton ionization plays an insignificant role in optical breakdown. The polarization independence, combined with the observed precise and uniform dielectric breakdown threshold even for nanometer-scale features, leads us to conclude that the fundamental mechanism is ‘self-terminated’ Zener-impact ionization, and that the deterministic and uniform damage threshold throughout the sample threshold stems from the uniform valence-electron density found in good-quality optical materials. By systematically exploring optical breakdown near threshold, we find that we can consistently machine features as small as 20 nm, demonstrating great promise for applications ranging from Micro ElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) construction and microelectronics, to targeted disruption of cellular structures and genetic material.