Electric discharge in gases
occurs when electric current flows through a gaseous medium due to the ionization of the gas. Depending on several factors, the discharge may radiate visible light. The properties of electric discharges in gases are studied in connection with the design of lighting sources and in the design of high voltage electrical equipment.
Electric Discharge types
- I: Townsend discharge, below the breakdown voltage. At low voltages, the only current is that due to the generation of charge carriers in the gas by cosmic rays or other sources of ionizing radiation. As the applied voltage is increased, the free electrons carrying the current gain enough energy to cause further ionization, causing an electron avalanche. In this regime, the current increases from femtoamperes to microamperes, i.e. by nine orders of magnitude, for very little further increase in voltage. The voltage-current characteristics begins tapering off near the breakdown voltage and the glow becomes visible.
- II: glow discharge, which occurs once the breakdown voltage is reached. The voltage across the electrodes suddenly drops and the current increases to milliampere range. At lower currents, the voltage across the tube is almost current-independent; this is used in glow discharge voltage-regulator tubes. At lower currents, the area of the electrodes covered by the glow discharge is proportional to the current. At higher currents the normal glow turns into abnormal glow, the voltage across the tube gradually increases, and the glow discharge covers more and more of the surface of the electrodes. Low-power switching (glow-discharge thyratrons), voltage stabilization, and lighting applications (e.g. Nixie tubes, decatrons, neon lamps) operate in this region.
- III: arc discharge, which occurs in the ampere range of the current; the voltage across the tube drops with increasing current. High-current switching tubes, e.g. triggered spark gap, ignitron, thyratron and krytron (and its vacuum tube derivate, sprytron, using vacuum arc), high-power mercury-arc valves and high-power light sources, e.g. mercury-vapor lamps and metal halide lamps, operate in this range.