Mechanisms for triggering high-voltage breakdown in vacuum
The electrical and optical characteristics of a cylindrical alumina insulator (94% Al203) have been measured under ultra-high vacuum (P < 10-8 mBar) conditions. A high-resolution CCD camera was used to make real-time optical recordings of DC prebreakdown luminescence from the ceramic, under conditions where DC current magnitudes were limited to less than 50μA. Two concentric metallized rings formed a pair of co-axial electrodes, on the end-face of the alumina tube; a third 'transparent' electrode was employed to study the effect of an orthogonal electric field upon the radial conduction processes within the metallized alumina specimen. The wavelength-spectra of the emitted light was quantified using a high-speed scanning monochromator and photo-multiplier tube detector. Concurrent electrical measurements were made alongside the recording of optical-emission images. An observed time-dependence of the photon-emission is correlated with a time-variation observed in the DC current-voltage characteristics of the alumina. Optical images were also recorded of pulsed-field surface-flashover events on the alumina ceramic. An intensified high-speed video technique provided 1ms frames of surface-flashover events, whilst 100ns frames were achieved using an ultra high-speed fast-framing camera. By coupling this fast-frame camera to a digital storage oscilloscope, it was possible to establish a temporal correlation between the application of a voltage-pulse to the ceramic and the evolution of photonic emissions from the subsequent surface-flashover event. The electro-optical DC prebreakdown characteristics of the alumina are discussed in terms of solid-state photon-emission processes, that are believed to arise from radiative electron-recombination at vacancy-defects and substitutional impurity centres within the surface-layers of the ceramic. The physical nature of vacancy-defects within an alumina dielectric is extensively explored, with a particular focus placed upon the trapped electron energy-levels that may be present at these defect centres. Finally, consideration is given to the practical application of alumina in the trigger-ceramic of a sealed triggered vacuum gap (TVG) switch. For this purpose, a physical model describing the initiation of electrical breakdown within the TVG regime is proposed, and is based upon the explosive destabilisation of trapped charge within the alumina ceramic, triggering the onset of surface-flashover along the insulator. In the main-gap prebreakdown phase, it is suggested that the electrical-breakdown of the TVG is initiated by the low-field 'stripping' of prebreakdown electrons from vacancy-defects in the ceramic under the influence of an orthogonal main-gap electric field.