Electric Field Enhancing Artifacts as Precursors for Vacuum High-Voltage Breakdown
Abrupt formation of plasma in a high-voltage insulating vacuum gap and subsequent discharge of electrodes limits the reliability of a class of vacuum electronic devices, such as X-ray tubes. It has been suggested that electron field emission from negatively charged electrodes would precede and initiate such discharge. Heating and evaporation of material upon field emission would cause dense plasma to develop in periods of nanoseconds. High-pressure plasma would expand from the cathode,
... y bridging the gap. Nevertheless, the very reason for the unredictable initial development of discharge events after long periods of reliable operation is still matter of debate. Experience from industrial processes suggests hydrocarbon contamination to degrade the electric stability of high-voltage gaps. While former attempts aimed at explaining high field emission by carbonaceous 2D structures or surface resonance effects, this paper discusses whether 3D structures may grow slowly, until their evaporation in a matter of nanoseconds. Similar to the production of carbon nanotubes, protruding structures might comprise carbon and, in addition, metallic nanoparticles, which would boost production of vapor during their explosion. The hypothesis was tested by scanning electron and energy-dispersive X-ray inspection of two cathodes of medical X-ray tubes, covered with metallic seed nanoparticles, which served as model systems. A third cleaner cathode was inspected for comparison. Although certain suggested conditions of carbon feed, elevated substrate temperature and nanoparticle contamination of the surfaces were met, images showed only a very weak sign of growth of suspicious carbon structures. It seems, therefore, unlikely that CNT-like structures are a major cause of high-voltage breakdown between electrodes of X-ray tubes.