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Step By Step

Step 1: Get a Laser Diode

DVD-RW drives are quite common today. The faster ones require a high-powered laser in order to generate enough power, fast enough, to do the job. I suppose it's the luck of the draw what exact diode they use, how it's powered, etc etc. This is where I got lucky.

This is the DVD drive I bought for $39.99 (Canadian), for the express purpose of tearing it apart for a laser diode:

Once I had the DVD drive, it took me less than 15 minutes to completely strip it and extract the optical works. There were two diodes, lots of little mirrors and things, and some circuitry. It took another few minutes to extract the two diodes with their heat sinks. The rest of the optical bits and pieces were saved, as was the motor that opened and closed the drawer - it can be used, with a mirror, to do effects. Everything else was junked.

Step 2: Test the Laser Diode

Once you have the diode out, you need to figure out how to make it go, if it's visible or not, and if it's got enough power to make it worth your while.

The laser diodes I'm familiar with look like this:

5.6mm laser diodes

They may not look exactly like that, though. Here's the actual diode and heat sink I took from the DVD drive:

DVD diode
Since everything connected to the computer chassis was at ground, and the diode was soldered to its heat sink and the sink was bolted to the optical assembly which was attached to the DVD mechanism which eventually was tied to the computer chassis, I reckoned that the DVD diode's case was ground. That meant one of the other two pins was the +vdc.
Knowing that most laser pointers ran on 3v (two AAA batteries) I got a 3vdc supply and - aiming the diode emitter window away from me - I hooked (-) to the heat sink and touched (+) to one of the leads.

Presto! A huge flood of monochromatic red light all over my desk. So, I had a visible red laser diode!

How powerful was it? The best I could do was hold it a mm or two from some thin black plastic and fire it up. It melted through the plastic in a few seconds. Yep, it was strong!
Movie of DVD diode going through plastic. (download and view offline)

In order to use the diode though, I had to get the laser diode out of its wierdly shaped heatsink. It was soldered in, and I know heat can be lethal to laser diodes, so it was a trick getting it out. I used solderwick to extract the solder, set my iron on fairly hot (short uses at high temp is better than long uses at medium temp), and managed to get it out without hurting it. Needle files were then used to clean off the rest of the solder, rather than risk more heat with the iron.

If you're lucky, you might even get a laser diode that is conveniently identified like this:
easy to use diode
GND is ground of course, LD is the Laser Diode, hook Positive here, and the third pin might be a photodiode or might be unused.

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