Reliability Of Vacuum Tube
Reliability Of Vacuum Tube
The chief reliability problem of a tube is that the filament or cathode is slowly “poisoned” by atoms from other elements in the tube, which damage its ability to emit electrons. Trapped gases or slow gas leaks can also damage the cathode or cause plate-current runaway due to ionization of free gas molecules. Vacuum hardness and proper selection of construction materials are the major influences on tube lifetime. Depending on the material, temperature and construction, the surface material of the cathode may also diffuse onto other elements. The resistive filaments that heat the cathodes may burn out as lamp filaments do, but usually not so quickly as they need not be so hot. 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 or cathode, quickly ruining it. Designers therefore worked hard to develop tube designs that sealed reliably. This was why most tubes were constructed of glass. Metal alloys (Cunife and Fernico) and glasses had been developed for light bulbs that expanded and contracted in similar amounts, as temperature changed. These made it easy to construct an insulating envelope of glass, and pass wires through the glass to the electrodes.
When a vacuum tube is overloaded or operated past its design dissipation, its anode (plate) may glow red. In consumer equipment, a glowing plate is universally a sign of an overloaded tube and must be corrected immediately. However, some large transmitting tubes are designed to operate with their anodes at red, orange or in rare cases, white heat.
It is very important that the vacuum inside the envelope be as perfect, or “hard”, 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. Unabsorbed free air sometimes ionizes and becomes visible as a pink-purple glow discharge between the tube elements.
To prevent any remaining gases from remaining in a free state in the tube, modern tubes are constructed with “getters”, which are usually small, circular troughs filled with metals that oxidize quickly, with barium being the most common. While the tube envelope is being evacuated, the internal parts except the getter are heated by RF induction heating to extract any remaining gases from the metal. The tube is then sealed and the getter is heated to a high temperature, again by Radio frequency induction heating causing the material to evaporate, absorbing/reacting with any residual gases and usually leaving a silver-colored metallic deposit on the inside of the envelope of the tube. The getter continues to absorb any gas molecules that leak into the tube during its working life. If a tube develops a crack in the envelope, this deposit turns a white color when it reacts with atmospheric oxygen. Large transmitting and specialized tubes often use more exotic getters. Early gettered tubes used phosphorous based getters and these tubes are easily identifiable as the phosphorous leaves a characteristic orange deposit on the glass. The use of Phosphorous was short lived and was quickly replaced by the superior barium getters. Unlike the barium getters, the phosphorous did not absorb any further gasses once it had fired.
Cooling Of Vacuum Tubes
All vacuum tubes produce heat while operating. Compared to semiconductor devices, larger tubes operate at higher power levels and hence dissipate more heat. The majority of the heat is dissipated at the anode, though some of the grids can also dissipate power. The tube’s heater also contributes to the total, and is a source that semiconductors are free from.
In order to remove generated heat, various methods of cooling may be used. For low power dissipation devices, the heat is radiated from the anode – it often being blackened on the external surface to assist. Natural air circulation or convection may be required to keep power tubes from overheating. For larger power dissipation, forced-air cooling (fans) may be required.
High power tubes in large transmitters or power amplifiers are liquid cooled, usually with de-ionised water for heat transfer to an external radiator, similar to the cooling system of an internal combustion engine. Since the anode is usually the cooled element, the anode voltage appears directly on the cooling water surface, thus requiring the water to be an electrical insulator. Otherwise the high voltage can be conducted through the cooling water to the radiator system; hence the need for de-ionised water. Such systems usually have a built-in water conductance monitor which will shut down the high tension supply (often kilovolts) if the conductance gets too high.