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Vacuum tube

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In electronics, a vacuum tube like a transistor is generally used for amplification of a signal. Once used in most electronic devices, vacuum tubes are now used only in specialized applications. For most purposes, transistors are now used as a switch in a computer, integrated circuits and discrete semiconductor devices. They're less expensive, much smaller, longer-lasting and more rugged than vacuum tubes.

Vacuum tubes, or tubes or thermionic valves are arrangements of electrodes surrounded by vacuum within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope. Although the envelope was classically glass, power tubes often use ceramics, and military tubes often use glass-lined metal.



Vacuum tubes resemble incandescent light bulbs, in that they have a filament sealed in a glass envelope, which has been evacuated of all air. Tubes have a filament heated by an electric current. When hot, the filament releases electrons into the vacuum, a process called thermionic emission. The resulting negatively-charged cloud of electrons is called a space charge. These electrons will be electrostatically drawn to a positively charged outer metal plate called the anode, or more commonly just the plate. This results in a measurable electrical current "flowing" throught he vacuum of the tube from the filament to the plate.

Electrons do not flow from the plate back toward the filament, even if the charge on the plate is made negative in relation to the filament, because the plate is not heated, and therefore does not emit enough electrons to develop a space charge. This arrangement of a filament and plate is called a diode and was invented in 1904 by John Ambrose Fleming, scientific adviser to the Marconi company, based on an observation by Thomas Edison.

The next innovation, due to Lee DeForest in 1907, was to place another electrode, the grid, between the filament and plate. The grid is a bent wire or screen. De Forest discovered that the current flow from filament to plate depended on the voltage applied to the grid, and that the current drawn by the grid was very low. As the applied voltage of the grid varied from negative to positive, the current of electrons flowing from the filament to the plate would vary correspondingly. Thus the grid was said to "control" the plate current. The resulting three-electrode device was therefore an excellent amplifier. DeForest called his invention the audion, but it is better known as a triode. The valve equivalent of a transistor, triodes were used in early valve amplifiers[?].

The non-linear operating characteristic of the triode gave early valve audio amplifiers a distortion that became known as the valve sound. To remedy this problem, engineers plotted curves of the applied grid voltage and resulting plate currents, and discovered that there was a range of relatively linear operation. In order to use this range, a negative voltage had to be applied to the grid to place the tube in the "middle" of the linear area with no signal applied. This was called the idle condition, and the plate current at this point the "idle current". The controlling voltage was superimposed onto this fixed voltage, resulting in linear swings of plate current for both positive and negative swings of the input voltage. This concept was called grid bias[?].

Batteries were designed to provide the various voltages required. "A Batteries" provided the filament voltage. B Batteries provided the plate voltage. To this day, plate voltage is referred to as "B+". C Batteries were used to provide grid bias, although many circuits used grid leak[?] resistors or voltage dividers[?] to provide proper bias.

Many further innovations followed. It became common to use the filament to heat a separate electrode called the cathode, and to use the cathode as the source of electron flow in the tube rather than the filament itself. This minimized the introduction of "hum" when the filament was energized with alternating current. In such tubes, the filament is called a heater to distinguish it as an inactive element.

A two-valve home-made radio from 1958. The valves are the two glass columns with the dark tops. The leads at the bottom connect to the low-voltage filament supply and to the high-voltage anode supply.
Larger version

When triodes were first used in radio transmitters and receivers, it was found that they were often unstable and had a tendency to oscillate due to anode to grid capacitance. Many complex circuits were developed to reduce this problem (e.g. the Neutrodyne[?] amplifier), but proved unsatisfactory ofer wide ranges of frequencies. It was discovered that the addition of a second grid, located between the control grid and the plate and called a screen grid[?] could solve these problems. A positive voltage slightly lower than the plate voltage was applied, and the screen grid was bypassed (for high frequencies) to ground with a capacitor. This arrangement decoupled the anode and the first grid, completely eliminating the oscillation problem. This two-grid tube is called a tetrode, meaning four active electrodes.

However the tetrode too had a problem, especially in higher-current applications. At high instantaneous plate currents, the plate would become negative with respect to the screen grid. The positive voltage on the second grid accelerated the electrons, causing them to strike the anode hard enough to knock out secondary electrons[?] which tended to be captured by the second grid, reducing the plate current and the amplification of the circuit. Again the solution was to add another grid. This third grid was biased at either ground or cathode voltage and its negative voltage (relative to the anode) electrostatically suppressed the secondary electrons by repelling them back toward the anode. This three-grid tube is called a pentode, meaning five electrodes.

Tubes with 4, 5, 6, or 7 grids, called hexodes, heptodes, octodes, and nonodes, were generally used for frequency conversion in superheterodyne receivers. The additional grids were all "control grids[?]" with different signals applied to each one. In combination with each other, they create a single, combined effect on the plate current (and thus the signal output) of the tube circuit. The heptode, or pentagrid converter[?], was the most common of these. 6BE6 is an example of a heptode.

It was common practice in some tube types (e.g. the Compactron) to include more than one group of elements in one bulb. For instance, type 6SN7 is a "dual triode" which, for most purposes, can perform the functions of two triode tubes, while taking up half as much space and costing less.

The beam power tube is usually a tetrode with the addition of "beam forming electrodes" which take the place of the supressor grid. These angled plates focus the electron stream onto certain spots on the anode which can withstand the heat generated by the impact of massive numbers of electrons, and thus overcome some of the practical barriers to designing high-power, high-efficiency power tubes. 6L6 is a beam power tube.

The chief reliability problem of a tube is that, like a light bulb, the filament eventually burns out. To increase filament life, tube designers try to run filaments at as low a temperature as possible while still sustaining sufficient thermionic emission. To encourage electron emission at lower temperatures, filaments are coated, usually with thorium. To meet the reliability requirements of the air defense computer system SAGE, it was necessary to build special "computer vacuum tubes" with extended filament life. The problem of early filament burnout was traced to evaporation of silicon used in the tungsten alloy to make the wire easier to draw. Elimination of the silicon from the filament wire alloy (and paying extra for more frequent replacement of the wire drawing dies[?]) allowed production of tubes that met the reliability requirements of SAGE.

Another important reliability problem is that the tube fails when air leaks into the tube. Usually oxygen in the air reacts chemically with the hot filament. Designers therefore worked hard to develop tube designs that sealed reliably. This was much of the reason why many tubes were constructed of glass. Metal alloys and glasses had been developed for light bulbs that expanded and contracted the same amounts when hot. These made it easy to construct an insulating envelope of glass, and pass wires through the glass to the electrodes and filament.

It is very important that the vacuum inside the envelope be as perfect as possible. Any gas atoms remaining will be ionized at operating voltages, and will conduct electricity between the elements in an uncontrolled manner. This can lead to erratic operation or even catastrophic destruction of the tube and associated circuitry.

To prevent any remaining gasses from remaining in a free state in the tube, modern tubes are constructed with "getters[?]", which are usually small, circular troughs filled with reactive metals. Once the tube envelope is evacuated and sealed, extremely high voltages are applied to the tubes causing the getters to flash, burning up all the remaining oxygen in the envelope, and usually depositing a silver-colored ash on the inside of the envelope of the tube.

Some special-purpose tubes are intentionally constructed with various gasses in the envelope. For instance, voltage regulator[?] tubes contain various inert gasses such as argon, helium or neon, and take advantage of the fact that these gasses will ionize at predictable voltages.

Tubes usually have glass envelopes, but metal and ceramic are possible choices. The nuvistor is a tiny tube made only of metal and ceramic. In some tubes, the metal envelope is also the anode. 4CX800 is an external anode tube of this sort.

Near the end of World War II, to make radios more rugged, some aircraft and army radios began to integrate the tube envelopes into the radio's molded aluminum or zinc chassis. The radio became just a printed circuit, with non-tube components, that was soldered to the chassis that contained all the tubes.

Tubes were ubiquitous in the early generations of electronic devices, such as radios, televisions, and early computers. They are still used for specialised audio amplifiers, notably for electric guitar amplification, and for very high-powered applications such as microwave ovens and signal amplification for broadcast radio.

Other vacuum tube electronic devices include the magnetron, klystron, traveling wave tube[?] and cathode ray tube. The magnetron is the most common type of tube in microwave ovens. Most televisions, oscilloscopes and computer monitors use cathode ray tubes.

Other tube devices

Specialist low-pressure gas-filled tube devices include the Nixie tube and the dekatron. These are used to display numerals.

One of the proposed designs for a fusion reactor is basically a tube, the Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor.

See also: Irving Langmuir

External links and References

  • http://www.marconicalling.com/museum/html/events/events-i=39-s=0
  • Plenty of interesting information about vacuum tubes at http://www.svetlana.com/docs/tubeworks.
  • A lot of very interesting technical information about vacuum tubes, with PDF files from old books in both English and German, with an outstanding theoretical discussion can be found at http://www.radau5.ch/valves. The difference between the American and the German techniques is interesting. The American technique usually uses the gain as central parameter in the calculation. The German technique uses the transparency (durchgriff) as the central parameter, which is a little bit more abstract but since the transparency is the most constant of all the parameters of the tube, it makes calculations more predictable and more precise.

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