The past two decades have seen an exponential growth of interest in one of the least explored region of the electromagnetic spectrum, the terahertz (THz) frequency band, ranging from to 0.1 to 10 THz. Once only the realm of astrophysicists studying the background radiation of the universe, THz waves have become little by little relevant in the most diverse fields, such as medical imaging, industrial inspection, remote sensing, fundamental science, and so on. Remarkably, THz wave radiation can be generated and detected by using ambient air as the source and the sensor. This is accomplished by creating plasma under the illumination of intense femtosecond laser fields. The integration of such a plasma source and sensor in THz time-domain techniques allows spectral measurements covering the whole THz gap (0.1 to 10 THz), further increasing the impact of this scientific tool in the study of the four states of matter.
In this review, the authors introduce a new paradigm for implementing THz plasma techniques. Specifically, we replaced the use of elongated plasmas, ranging from few mm to several cm, with sub-mm plasmas, which will be referred to as microplasmas, obtained by focusing ultrafast laser pulses with high numerical aperture optics (NA from 0.1 to 0.9).
The experimental study of the THz emission and detection from laser-induced plasmas of submillimeter size are presented. Regarding the microplasma source, one of the interesting phenomena is that the main direction of THz wave emission is almost orthogonal to the laser propagation direction, unlike that of elongated plasmas. Perhaps the most important achievement is the demonstration that laser pulse energies lower than 1 mJ are sufficient to generate measurable THz pulses from ambient air, thus reducing the required laser energy requirement of two orders of magnitude compared to the state of art. This significant decrease in the required laser energy will make plasma-based THz techniques more accessible to the scientific community, as well as opening new potential industrial applications.
Finally, experimental observations of THz radiation detection with microplasmas are also presented. As fully coherent detection was not achieved in this work, the results presented herein are to be considered a first step to understand the peculiarities involved in using the microplasma as a THz sensor.