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You better be thinking about upgrading your eye pro to protect against laser damage

With the recent tantrums a few things have started to become clear about future civil unrest and CW-2. One of those things is damage from cheap but powerful lasers.


Once again Andy Ngo is on the ball.

36-year old Bryan Kelley allegedly pointed a laser into an officer’s eyes that so powerful it can cause permanent blindness, and possibly strong enough to burn through clothing and protective equipment.

Industrial strength lasers file image, via Laser Tools Co.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt described the laser as “so powerful that it would burn through paper and cause dry material to catch fire.” 

The Portland Police department went so far as to post a video to YouTube demonstrating the laser’s power in action. The device is seen in the demonstration burning holes in a thick piece of cardboard in a mere couple seconds

You can see above just how powerful they can be. This is an issue the military has been aware of for a long time. Optics covers and eye pro exist to protect the soldier on the battlefield from laser damage to the eyes. The powerful lasers used being ubiquitous on the modern battlefield. The protests in Hong Kong showing how fast the cheap and powerful lasers were used against the communist gov’s JBTs.

The recovered laser is remarkably compact for being so powerful, appearing in evidence photos to be no longer than an iPhone. 

Portland Police Bureau image showing the recovered compact but powerful laser, compared to size of an iPhone.

A Fox News report referenced recent Department of Homeland Security testimony before the Senate saying that multiple federal agents have lately been “temporarily blinded” by lasers being used by Portland protesters and rioters. 

these high-powered compact lasers are sold with protective equipment for use and with strong warnings against pointing them at humans.

Over the course of months of unrest in Portland and other parts of the northwest, laser devices have been frequently used by rioters and demonstrators against police

12 thoughts on “You better be thinking about upgrading your eye pro to protect against laser damage”

  1. I’ve been meaning to get some The captains journal mentioned something similar recently. Ideally i would get something with an ANSI Z87 rating.

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  2. Remember, you need to be aware that some laser eye protection works only at specific frequencies. There are multi-frequency eye protection glasses/goggles available, but you need to read the specs to see which frequencies the protection will block.

    There are a couple of companies making night and day eye pro for pilots against three different common laser frequencies. They’re not cheap, but they do work.

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      • 520 nm is the wavelength. Wavelenths of visible light are typically represented in nano-meters. A nanometer is 1.0E-09 meters; a millimeter is 1.0E-03 meters. So a nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter.

        Visible light ranges from about 380 nm to about 700 to 740 nm.

        Note: Lasers can be made in the invisible-to-human-eye wavelengths. There are IR and UV lasers; heck, during the SDI days, the nuke boys were working on X-ray spectrum lasers.

        50000 mw is 50 watts. I’m dubious about that power rating, but it doesn’t take 50 watts at close range to burn the retina – it takes only about 500 mw of a red-spectrum laser to cause serious/permanent eye injury at close range. Green lasers have less potential to cause eye injury.

        There are plenty of one (1) watt (1,000 mw) laser pointers/pens/etc available now, and they have a real capability to harm someone’s vision. They’re available in about a dozen different wavelengths.

        I’ve looked at 50+ watt lasers for the purpose of checkering stocks. I reckon to do the first pass with a laser, then run the single-vein tool over the laser track, and then use the three-wide tool after that to chase the pattern wide. Or I could run all the tracks with a burning laser, and then V-groove them with the single-vein tool and finish the pattern that way. There’s all manner of applications of high-powered lasers in a machine shop.

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  3. Okay, a brief primer on laser eye protection … caveat, I am not a laser health physicist, just a laser user who’s had some laser safety training classes.

    Critical parameters: wavelength, power, and laser type (CW or pulsed). These let you determine the level of attenuation (optical density) needed to knock down that laser’s output to the level it’s safe for your eye.

    Wavelength; aka color. The laser wavelength is usually given in nanometers (nm), or microns (um); there are 1000 nm per micron. The average human eye can see from around 740 nm (or 0.74 microns), which is deep red, to around 380 nm – deep violet. The eye can transport and focus light down to at least 1.064 microns (or 1064 nm), but you can’t see it, because the rods and cones don’t work for that long of a wavelength. This is important because even though you can’t see near-infrared laser beams, the eye still will focus them and if it’s powerful enough it can burn your retina.

    Optical density. This is how much attenuation a set of laser eyewear will provide at a given wavelength, or over range of wavelengths. It’s a log scale. OD 0 is no attenuation. OD 1 is a factor of 10 attenuation. OD 6 is a million times attenuation, and so forth. The link I pasted above, to ThorLabs, has some plots of OD versus wavelength for their standard laser eye pro.

    Visible light transmission, or VLT. Given as a percentage usually. This is the “average” brightness reduction you will see when you put on the glasses. Generally, the more wavelengths a set of eye pro blocks, and the higher the OD rating, the less the VLT is going to be. You can think of this as sort of a rating of how good the eye pro would be as sunglasses – lower VLT = darker. The lower the VLT, the more problematic using them is going to be at night.

    There are different standards for what’s eye safe, depending on the type of laser: CW (continuous-wave, or always lasing); pulsed; and ultra-short pulse (USP). You calculate safe average power limits for CW lasers; for pulsed lasers, it’s energy per pulse, and for USP it’s even more complicated because the ultra short pulses tend to spread out over the spectrum. Fortunately, for the near future, we’re not that likely to run into a pulsed or USP laser on the street – too big and bulky for convenience.

    Which brings us to power ratings. For CW lasers, power output is usually given in watts (W), or milliwats (mW); 1000 mW = 1 W. That’s – and this is very important – at the wavelength the laser is rated for.

    Remember that discussion above about 1064 nm light? Many of the laser pointers that work at wavelengths shorter than, say, red, will actually start somewhere in the infrared and “upconvert” the light into the visible spectrum, because it’s easier to make high-power laser diodes in the infrared than in the visible. A green laser pointer will almost certainly work by taking 1064 nm light, passing it through some nonlinear optical elements to halve the wavelength to 532 nm – green light. Blue/violet laser pointers often play a similar trick; to get blue/violet, use a “tripling” crystal to get blue/violet light (354 nm) from 1064 nm.

    The conversion is usually on the order of 10 – 50% efficient, so there’s usually lots of light at 1064 nm (or whatever the starting wavelength was) left over. A good laser will include something called a “dichroic” to dump that somewhere safe. Dichroics aren’t cheap. I’ve not worked with any of the cheap-but-powerful pointers yet, but I wouldn’t bet they have a good, or any, dichroic system. Which means the “waste” infrared laser light will likely come out the end of the pipe.

    Takeaway: any eye pro you buy as defense against cheap laser pointers, should have protection in the infrared as well as in the visible.

    For a CW laser, the optical density you need will depend on the laser’s output power. I use this one as my go-to quick-check:
    https://www.lia.org/evaluator/od.php
    As an example, let’s consider what a we’d want to block out a fairly hefty blue laser – say, 5000 mW at 450 nm.

    According to that site, we’d need an OD of at least 3.7 to protect our eyes from that laser. (If it were a 50-W laser, we’d need an OD of at least 4.7. Which makes sense – we increased the power by 10x, so we need 10x the attenuation, so the OD went up by 1.)

    Now, let’s assume that 5-W blue laser is starting as a 900-nm laser, which we can’t see; that it has a 33% conversion efficiency; and that it has no dichroic. That would mean the laser had to start with 15 watts at 900 nm, half of which is converted to blue; so we’re left with another 10 W at 900 nm.

    Plug those numbers in, and we find we need an OD of at least 4.01 at 900 nm.

    So, for that particular 5-W blue laser, we’d want to look for eye pro rated at:
    OD 4.01 @ 900 nm
    OD 3.7 @ 450 nm

    Note, these are minimum OD ratings; higher provides more attenuation.

    One last note for now, fitment and coverage is very important. If you can see around the edges of the laser goggles, a laser beam can “see in” to your eye. I wear prescription glasses, so tend to prefer “goggle” types that fit over my regular glasses … and by the way include coverage on the top, bottom, and sides as well. It won’t win any fashion prizes (except maybe in the labwear category), but it works well.

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    • Thanks for this info. It’s been 35+ years since I worked in a lab with a powerful laser (40 watts back then – CW – and it was few with a 460V 3-phase power supply that was water-cooled). The way we insured safety at the high power level was to get all the optics set up at a very low power level, then we’d shut the doors to the lab and fire the laser. A PDP-11/20 would do all the data gathering on the experiment (and programming that was my job).

      This laser was on the UV end of the spectrum, and we’d use strips of optical paper, waved across the laser’s path, to “find” the beam. When the paper dropped in two, there was the beam.

      In hindsight, this crap was dangerous, but schools didn’t give a squack about grad student safety. Grad students are expendable.

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