Micron-sized lasers fabricated from upconverting nanoparticles (UCNP) coupled to whispering gallery mode (WGM) microresonators can exhibit continuous-wave anti-Stokes lasing useful for tracking cells, environmental sensing, and coherent stimulation of biological activity. The integration of these microlasers into organisms and microelectronics requires even smaller diameters, however, which raises threshold pump powers beyond practical limits for biological applications. To meet the need for low lasing thresholds and high fidelity fabrication methods, we use correlative optical and electron microscopy to uncover the nanoparticle assembly process and structural factors that determine efficient upconverted lasing. We show that 5 μm microspheres with controlled submonolayer UCNP coatings exhibit, on average, 25-fold lower laser thresholds (1.7 ± 0.7 kW/cm2) compared to the mean values of the lowest threshold UCNP lasers, and variability is reduced 30-fold. WGMs are observed in the upconversion spectra for TiO2-coated microspheres as small as 3 μm, a size at which optical losses had previously prevented such observations. Finally, we demonstrate that the WGM signatures of these upconverting microlasers can be imaged and distinguished through tissue-mimicking phantoms. These advances will enable the fabrication of more efficient upconverting lasers for imaging, sensing, and actuation in optically complex environments.
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