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Unification of electron emission mechanisms: from liquids to lasers

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posted on 14.12.2020, 17:23 by Sarah Ashley Lang
Electronic processes, such as electronic breakdown and electron emission, in gases and liquids have implications in microplasmas, laser applications, water purification, biomedical applications, geographical mapping, and radiation detection. Electron emission and breakdown mechanisms are heavily researched and characterized in gases. Much of the current research into these mechanisms is focused on unifying breakdown and emission mechanisms. For electron emission, these mechanisms include field emission (FE), space-charge-limited emission (SCLE), thermionic emission (TE), and photoemission (PE), while gas breakdown emission mechanisms include Paschen’s law (PL) and Townsend breakdown (TB)with ion-enhanced FE becoming important at microscale. This research first unified SCLE and FE in vacuum and has been extended to include SCLE with collisions (for a gas at non-vacuum) and TE. This thesis extends this approach in electron emission unification, referred to as “nexus” theory, in two directions. First, we will apply this theory to liquids to examine the transition from FE to SCLE and hypothesize about the implications should there be a phase change. Second, we will incorporate PE, which becomes important with increasing interest in ultrafast laser phenomena at nanoscale and development of solar cells, with SCLE, TE, and FE.

Initial nexus theory studies included gas at non-vacuum pressures by including electron mobility in the electron force law. In principle, this behavior should be the same whether the medium is air or liquid. Electron emission and breakdown, which can arise from field emission, are increasingly important in plasma water treatment, pulsed power systems, radiation detection, and even understanding the physics of high electric fields applied to liquid helium for the Spallation Neutron Source. To demonstrate the applicability of nexus theory to liquids, we fit experimental data for electron emission in hydrocarbons to the full theory unifying FE to SCLE with and without collisions. The measured current followed Fowler-Nordheim scaling for FE at lower voltages with space charge beginning to contribute at higher voltages; none of the hydrocarbons study fully transitioned to Mott-Gurney (SCLE with collisions) scaling within the experimentally studied parameter range. Considering a higher mobility representative of a vapor in the theory demonstrates the feasibility of achieving Child-Langmuir (SCLE in vacuum)scaling for the gaps of the size considered experimentally. Thus, this approach may ultimately be applied to model electron emission during both phases changes and transitions between the mechanisms.

We next extended the gas nexus theory to analyze the transitions between PE and the other emission mechanisms. We modified the previous theory that used the generalized thermal-field emission (GTF) theory for electron current to instead use the generalized thermal-field photoemission (GTFP) theory. Using this, we obtained exact solutions for current as a function of applied voltage and demonstrated the asymptotic behavior with regard to the modified Fowler DuBridge (MFD) equation, which models PE. We combined the MFD equation with the other asymptotic solutions to develop state diagrams unifying the various emission mechanisms to provide guidance to the mechanisms and transitions relevant under various conditions of mobility, gap distance, temperature, and laser energy/wavelength/frequency. These diagrams provide guidance on which asymptotic solution or more detailed theory would be necessary to accurately relate current and voltage under various operating conditions.




Degree Type

Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering


Nuclear Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Dr. Allen Garner

Additional Committee Member 2

Dr. Robert Bean

Additional Committee Member 3

Dr. Jonathan Poggie