Semiconductor optical amplifiers (SOAs) are amplifiers which use a semiconductor to provide the gain medium. These amplifiers have a similar structure to Fabry–Pérot laser diodes but with anti-reflection design elements at the end faces. Recent designs include anti-reflective coatings and tilted wave guide and window regions which can reduce end face reflection to less than 0.001%. Since this creates a loss of power from the cavity which is greater than the gain, it prevents the amplifier from acting as a laser. Another type of SOA consists of two regions. One part has a structure of a Fabry-Pérot laser diode and the other has a tapered geometry in order to reduce the power density on the output facet.
Semiconductor optical amplifiers are typically made from group III-V compound semiconductors such as GaAs/AlGaAs, InP/InGaAs, InP/InGaAsP and InP/InAlGaAs, though any direct band gap semiconductors such as II-VI could conceivably be used. Such amplifiers are often used in telecommunication systems in the form of fiber-pigtailed components, operating at signal wavelengths between 0.85 µm and 1.6 µm and generating gains of up to 30 dB.
The semiconductor optical amplifier is of small size and electrically pumped. It can be potentially less expensive than the EDFA and can be integrated with semiconductor lasers, modulators, etc. However, the performance is still not comparable with the EDFA. The SOA has higher noise, lower gain, moderate polarization dependence and high nonlinearity with fast transient time. The main advantage of SOA is that all four types of nonlinear operations (cross gain modulation, cross phase modulation, wavelength conversion and four wave mixing) can be conducted. Furthermore, SOA can be run with a low power laser.This originates from the short nanosecond or less upper state lifetime, so that the gain reacts rapidly to changes of pump or signal power and the changes of gain also cause phase changes which can distort the signals. This nonlinearity presents the most severe problem for optical communication applications. However it provides the possibility for gain in different wavelength regions from the EDFA. "Linear optical amplifiers" using gain-clamping techniques have been developed.
High optical nonlinearity makes semiconductor amplifiers attractive for all optical signal processing like all-optical switching and wavelength conversion. There has been much research on semiconductor optical amplifiers as elements for optical signal processing, wavelength conversion, clock recovery, signal demultiplexing, and pattern recognition.