The Hollow-Cathode Effect and the Theory of Glow Discharges

P. F. Little, A. von Engel


The nature of the processes in the cathode dark space and the negative glow of a glow discharge is not well understood. Moreover, the existing theory leading to relations between the cathode fall in potential, the current density, the width of the dark space and the electric field distribution in it is based on dubious assumptions and does not indicate the important physical processes in operation. Thus further experimental evidence would be valuable in developing the theory. By exploring the electric field between two plane-parallel cathodes with an electron beam, and observing simultaneously the other discharge parameters, new information was obtained. A double (hollow) cathode was used because in a conventional glow discharge the dark space, cathode fall and current density are interdependent; here the cathode separation controls the width of the dark space. When the separation is sufficiently reduced the two negative glows coalesce and the light emitted as well as the cathode current density rise greatly. This is the hollow-cathode effect. Results show that the field in the two dark spaces of a hollow cathode falls linearly with the distance from the cathode, and thus the net space-charge density is constant, as it is known to be in the conventional discharge. From the same observations the dark-space length is found. The conclusions drawn from these results lead to an elementary theory which covers both the hollow and the conventional glow discharge in various gases as indeed it should, since with increasing cathode separation the first goes over into the second type. The main feature is the contribution of the ultra-violet quanta from the glow to the photo-electric emission from the cathodes which is regarded as the essential factor in secondary electron emission. Another result comes from a reconsideration of the motion of positive ions in the dark space based on atomic beam studies and the modern theory of elastic collisions between ions and atoms. The discrepancy between earlier experiments showing that ions of energy of the order of the cathode fall in potential arrive at the cathode and classical calculations leading to low ion energies is resolved by allowing for small-angle scattering and charge transfer.

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