Vacuum Tube

Monday, March 19th, 2018 - Basic Electronics

In electronics, a vacuum tube or (thermionic) valve (outside North America) is a device generally used to amplify, or otherwise modify, a signal by controlling the movement of electrons in an evacuated space. For most purposes, the vacuum tube has been replaced by the much smaller and less expensive transistor, either as a discrete device or in an integrated circuit. However, tubes are still used in several specialised applications such as audio systems and high power RF transmitters, as the display device in cathode ray tube television sets, and to generate microwaves in microwave ovens.

The vacuum tube is a voltage-controlled device, which means that the relationship between the input and output circuits is determined by a transconductance function. The solid-state device most closely analogous to the vacuum tube is the JFET, although the vacuum tube typically operates at far higher voltage (and power) levels than the JFET.

Vacuum tube

Explanation Of Vacuum Tube

Vacuum tubes, or thermionic valves, are arrangements of electrodes in a vacuum within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope. Although the envelope was classically glass, power tubes often use ceramic and metal. The electrodes are attached to leads which pass through the envelope via an air tight seal. On most tubes, the leads are designed to plug into a tube socket for easy replacement.

The simplest vacuum tubes resemble incandescent light bulbs in that they have a filament sealed in a glass envelope which has been evacuated of all air. When hot, the filament releases electrons into the vacuuma process called thermionic emission. The resulting negatively-charged cloud of electrons is called a space charge. These electrons will be drawn to a metal “plate” inside the envelope if the plate (also called the anode) is positively charged relative to the filament (or cathode). The result is a current of electrons flowing from filament to plate. This cannot work in the reverse direction because the plate is not heated and cannot emit electrons. This very simple example described can thus be seen to operate as a diodea device that conducts current only in one direction.

History Of Development

Inside of a vacuum tubeInside of a vacuum tube with plate cut open.

The 19th century saw increasing research with evacuated tubes, such as the Geissler and Crookes tubes. Scientists who experimented with such tubes included Eugen Goldstein, Nikola Tesla, Johann Wilhelm Hittorf, Thomas Edison, and many others. These tubes were mostly for specialized scientific applications, or were novelties, with the exception of the light bulb. The groundwork laid by these scientists and inventors, however, was critical to the development of vacuum tube technology.

Though the thermionic emission effect was observed as early as 1873, it is Thomas Edison’s 1883 investigation of the “Edison Effect” that is the best known. He promptly patented it (U.S. Patent 307031), but as the particle nature of the electron was not known until 1897, he did not understand the process.

Diodes And Triodes On Vacuum Tube

John Ambrose Fleming had worked for Edison; in 1904, as scientific adviser to the Marconi company, he developed the “oscillation valve” or kenotron. Later known as the diode, it allowed electric current to flow in only one direction, enabling the rectification of alternating current. Its operation is described in greater detail in the previous section.

In 1906 Lee De Forest placed a bent wire serving as a screen between the filament and plate electrode, later known as the “grid” electrode. As the voltage applied to the grid was varied from negative to positive, the amount of electrons flowing from the filament to the plate would vary accordingly. Thus the grid was said to electrostatically “control” the plate current. The resulting three-electrode device was therefore an excellent and very sensitive amplifier of voltages. DeForest called his invention the “Audion”. In 1907, DeForest filed U.S. Patent 879532 for a three-electrode version of the Audion for use in radio communications. The device is now known as the triode. De Forest’s device was not strictly a vacuum tube, but clearly depended for its action on ionisation of the relatively high levels of gas remaining after evacuation. The De Forest company in its Audion leaflets warned against operation which might cause the vacuum to become too hard. The first true vacuum triodes were the Pliotrons developed by Irving Langmuir at the General Electric research laboratory (Schenectady, New York) in 1915. These were closely followed by the French ‘R’ Type which was in widespread use by the allied military by 1916. These two types were the first true vacuum tubes.

The non-linear operating characteristic of the triode caused early tube audio amplifiers to exhibit harmonic distortions at low volumes. This is not to be confused with the overdrive that tube amplifiers exhibit at high volume levels (known as the tube sound). To remedy the low volume overdrive 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”. Today this current would be called the quiescent or standing 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. These were often rechargable – usually of the lead-acid type ranging from 2 to 12 volts (1-6 cells) with single, double and triple cells being most common. In portable radios, flashlight bateries were sometimes used.

The “B” batteries provided the plate voltage. These were generally of Dry cell construction, containing many small 1.5 Volt cells in series and typically came in ratings of 22.5, 45, 60, 90 or 135 volts. To this day, plate voltage is referred to as B+. Some sets used “C” batteries were used to provide grid bias, although many circuits used grid leak resistors, voltage dividers or Cathode bias to provide proper tube bias.

Direct And Indirect Heating

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.

Tetrodes And Pentodes

Tetrodes and pentodes

A two-tube homemade radio from 1958. The tubes are the two columns with the dark tops. The flying leads connect to the low-voltage filament and high-voltage anode supplies.

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 parasitic anode to grid capacitance. Many complex circuits were developed to reduce this problem (e.g. the Neutrodyne amplifier), but proved unsatisfactory over 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 to it, 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.


Radio transmitter high power vacuum tube. The knitted copper leads provide heater current for the cathode. The tube also has a heat sink. Dubendorf museum of the military aviation.

However, the tetrode had a problem toothe positive voltage on the second grid accelerated the electrons, causing them to strike the anode hard enough to knock out secondary electrons. These could then be captured by the second grid, reducing the plate current and the amplification of the circuit. This effect was sometimes called “tetrode kink”. Again the solution was to add another grid, called a suppressor 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.

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