So, I'm a little fuzzy on vacuum tube designs, but I am under the impression that some use the filament directly as the cathode, while some use the filament to heat a plate which is the cathode. Since the filament is what burns out on a vacuum tube (I am aware of sputtering, but that failure takes longer to happen), why aren't tubes built with an external, replaceable filament? Furthermore, why do filaments actually burn out as often as they do? Toasters, for example, seem to have a very long lifetime, and their filaments are in air.
- Anybody can ask a question
- Anybody can answer
- The best answers are voted up and rise to the top
Some tubes use directly heated cathodes. The filament is called the 'heater' in tube land and the part that the electrons are emitted from is the cathode. (The term 'plate' is reserved for the anode where the electrons are collected). Most use indirectly heated cathodes, which allows heating with AC. I have seen a lot of heaters made with very fine filaments with an oxide coating, usually barium oxide. The oxide is fragile and it evaporates over time and leads to the burnouts or shorts. In some heaters the filaments are packed into a small space and go back and forth and heat a cylinder of thin metal with the oxide coating on the outside.
Why the oxide? Tungsten has a work function of about 4.5 eV or electron volts. The electrons must have this much energy to escape the metal. To give them the energy, the heater is run very hot, like 2700C like a light bulb. With the oxide coatings the work function is about 1.1eV. The energy of the electrons in the heater goes up with temperature exponentially. So, getting really hot makes a big difference. But so does reducing the work function and running at lower temperature which uses less power and extends the life. At 1.1eV the heater can be a dull red heat instead of light bulb white.
Heaters are not replaceable because the glass tube is sealed at both ends (or a sealed metal can for some devices) and maintains a hard vacuum. In fact, after as much air is removed with a vacuum pump, the tube is sealed and a "barium getter" is heated electrically to react with any remaining gasses. The result in a very good vacuum. A side-effect makes the mirror-like spot on the side of the tube.
A toaster needs to produce heat, like 1500 Watts, so a large wire is used and a lot of current. The tube needs to have a hot cathode which can be very low mass and is in a high vacuum. A fine tungsten wire will get hot with less current and consume less power. But it will also be easier to damage with heat and vibration.
Direct heated tungsten was used until about 1930. Tungsten with a little thorium in it was found to have a lower work function and was used until the barium oxide effect was discovered.