Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Emission of electrons in a cathode ray tube

Why do electrons detach themselves from the cathode of a vacuum tube? Certainly they are encouraged to do so by the repulsion of the negative charge placed on the cathode and the attraction from the net positive charge of the anode, but these are not strong enough to rip electrons out of atoms by main force - if they were, then the entire apparatus would have been instantly vaporized as every atom was simultaneously ripped apart!

The raisin cookie model leads to a simple explanation. We know that heat is the energy of random motion of atoms. The atoms in any object are therefore violently jostling each other all the time, and a few of these collisions are violent enough to knock electrons out of atoms. If this occurs near the surface of a solid object, the electron may come loose. Ordinarily, however, this loss of electrons is a self-limiting process; the loss of electrons leaves the object with a net positive charge, which attracts the lost sheep home to the fold. (For objects immersed in air rather than vacuum, there will also be a balanced exchange of electrons between the air and the object.)

This interpretation explains the warm and friendly yellow glow of the vacuum tubes in an antique radio. To encourage the emission of electrons from the vacuum tubes' cathodes, the cathodes are intentionally warmed up with little heater coils.

Last Update: 2009-06-21