The threshold condition for a 4-level quantum cascade laser (QCL)-active region is formulated to include thermally activated leakage of charge carriers from active region confined states into states with higher energy. A method is described and demonstrated to extract the associated thermal escape current density from measurements at laser threshold. This current is modeled by including both the temperature dependent subband-distribution of charge carriers and longitudinal optical-phonon probability. The method is used to analyze the thermally activated leakage of charge carriers in two short-wavelength strain-compensated InGaAs/InAlAs QCL-structures. The energies of the higher-lying states extracted from the model are in good agreement with the values calculated numerically within the effective-mass approximation. The estimated scattering time for the thermal activation process agrees with the expected value as well. Our approach offers a straightforward and accurate method to analyze and troubleshoot thermally activated leakage in new QCL-active region designs.

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