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Unique spectroscopic properties of isolated rare earth ions in solids offer optical linewidths rivaling those of trapped single atoms and enable a variety of recent applications. We design rare-earth-doped crystals, ceramics, and fibers with persistent or transient “spectral hole” recording properties for applications including high-bandwidth optical signal processing where light and our solids replace the high-bandwidth portion of the electronics; quantum cryptography and information science including the goal of storage and recall of single photons; and medical imaging technology for the 700-900 nm therapeutic window. Ease of optically manipulating rare-earth ions in solids enables capturing complex spectral information in 105 to 108 frequency bins. Combining spatial holography and spectral hole burning provides a capability for processing high-bandwidth RF and optical signals with sub-MHz spectral resolution and bandwidths of tens to hundreds of GHz for applications including range-Doppler radar and high bandwidth RF spectral analysis. Simply stated, one can think of these crystals as holographic recording media capable of distinguishing up to 108 different colors. Ultra-narrow spectral holes also serve as a vibration-insensitive sub-kHz frequency reference for laser frequency stabilization to a part in 1013 over tens of milliseconds. The unusual properties and applications of spectral hole burning of rare earth ions in optical materials are reviewed. Experimental results on the promising Tm3+:LiNbO3 material system are presented and discussed for medical imaging applications. Finally, a new application of these materials as dynamic optical filters for laser noise suppression is discussed along with experimental demonstrations and theoretical modeling of the process.


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