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Thermionic Electron Emission

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Thermionic Electron Emission

Thermionic electron emission - from the Greek 'thermos', meaning 'hot'; and 'ion', meaning 'something that goes' - was first observed in 1853 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel. It was rediscovered by British physicist Frederick Guthrie in 1873. Guthrie found that a negatively charged metal sphere would lose its charge if heated enough. Though the electron had not been discovered yet and neither of these men understood the mechanisms behind the phenomenon, their discoveries would prove indispensable decades later.

As the name suggests, thermionic electron emission is the phenomenon whereby electrons are freed and emitted from a metal surface due to an increase in its temperature.

Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom

Electrons in an atom are in a state of constant motion, each possessing their own kinetic energy as they orbit the nucleus at the atom's centre. The Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom, as proposed by Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford in the early 20th century, states that the orbit of each of these electrons is dependent on their particular kinetic energies, with electrons of higher kinetic energy orbiting further from the centre of the atom.

The discrete levels at which these electrons orbit are known as energy levels, counting out from the atom's centre. An electron in an atom may go up an energy level if it gains kinetic energy, or go down an energy level if it loses kinetic energy. The Rutherford-Bohr model, although it does not tell the whole story of how atoms are structured, is useful in understanding the relationship between electron behaviour and energy interactions within the atom. In fact, it is with knowledge of these energy levels that Becquerel's unknowing discovery of thermionic electron emission can be explained.

Thermionic electron emission theory

How then, does this Rutherford-Bohr model help to explain thermionic electron emission? Simply put, electron emission happens when an electron's kinetic energy becomes great enough to escape the attractive force of the positively charged nucleus. This can occur in different ways, but in the case of thermionic electron emission, electrons in the atom gain kinetic energy when the atom's temperature is increased. As the atom's temperature increases its electrons gain energy, moving up the energy levels away from the nucleus until a critical point of kinetic energy is reached.

This critical point is known as the metal's 'work function', and is an intrinsic property of a given material. It is defined as the 'minimum amount of energy required to remove an electron from the surface of a material'. Once this work function is reached, electrons progress past the final energy level and electron emission occurs. These electrons are then referred to as free electrons, or thermions.

It is important to note that 'thermion' can also refer to any charge carrier emitted due to heating, such as ions.

This phenomenon, though discovered earlier by both Becquerel and Guthrie, was for some time referred to as the Edison effect. Edison, whilst conducting experiments to improve his new incandescent lamp, discovered that current would flow through a vacuum from a heated filament to a cooler metal surface. Years later, this discovery would pave the way for the invention of the cathode ray tube, and in turn the electron gun.

Thermionic electron emission and the electron gun

The electron gun is an electrical component that produces a concentrated beam of electrons. It is based on the principles of thermionic electron emission and is primarily used in the design of cathode ray tubes.

The basic electron gun is comprised of three main parts: a metal filament cathode that emits free electrons when the temperature is increased, a selection of electrodes that focus the resulting stream of electrons (often called a 'Wehnelt cylinder'), and a highly positive anode to accelerate the free electrons to greater speeds.

A positive 'heating voltage' is applied across the hot cathode, while a much larger positive 'acceleration voltage' is applied to the anode. As the anode has a far greater positive voltage than the hot cathode, the negative free electrons will accelerate towards it at greater and greater speeds. It is the difference in voltage (or potential difference) between the cathode and anode that determines the acceleration of the free electrons in the beam.

Interestingly, these devices resided for a long time in nearly every home. The electron gun was absolutely pivotal in the invention of the television. Before the invention of the flat-screen TV, the picture on television screens was created using beams from three electron guns. This is why 'old-fashioned' televisions were much deeper units; they needed enough space to accelerate the free electrons to the screen!

Speeds of electrons in thermionic electron emission

So, how fast exactly do electrons emitted from a metal surface travel? Well, that's easy! The kinetic energy equation can be used to work out the emitted electron's velocity, provided we know the kinetic energy of the electron when it is emitted.

A metal filament is heated until its temperature is high enough for thermionic electron emission to occur. The kinetic energy of an electron when emitted is 4.9⋅10-19 J. Calculate the minimum speed of a free-electron emitted from the metal filament, given that the mass of an electron is 9.1⋅10-31 kg.

We know that the kinetic energy formula is:

If we put the given variables into the equation above:

Then we can solve for v,

The acceleration of free electrons through a potential difference

Electrons are incredibly tiny particles with tiny masses. Though they move incredibly fast, they have extremely small kinetic energies. For this reason, a whole new unit of energy was created just for them: the electron-volt (eV). To understand what an electron-volt is, it is important to understand what happens to a free electron travelling through a potential difference between two points.

We've already seen how a potential difference was used to accelerate free electrons in the electron gun; the negative electrons just accelerate toward the more positive electrode (cathode). How much these free electrons accelerate, and in turn how much kinetic energy they gain, is dependent on the potential difference they travel through. The greater the potential difference, the more kinetic energy the electron will have gained.

Here, e is the charge of an electron, and V is the potential difference that the electron has been accelerated through. An electron-volt therefore, is the energy gained by a free electron accelerated through a 1-volt potential difference, or:

When combined with the equation for kinetic energy, it is possible to find the velocity gained by this free electron from the potential difference.

A free electron is accelerated through a potential difference of 10V. Calculate the total velocity gained by the electron due to the potential difference, given that the charge of an electron is 1.602⋅10-19 C, and the mass of an electron is 9.1⋅10-31 kg.

We know the formula relating electron-volts to kinetic energy is:

So substituting the given variables:

We can solve for v:

Thermionic Electron Emission - Key takeaways

  • Thermionic electron emission occurs when a metal's temperature increases such that its electrons gain enough kinetic energy to escape their atom.
  • Electrons in atoms are confined to discrete energy levels and can move between energy levels if they gain or lose kinetic energy.
  • Electron guns create beams of electrons through thermionic electron emission.
  • The speed of an emitted electron can be calculated from its kinetic energy.
  • The increase in velocity of an electron can be calculated using the electron volt and kinetic energy equation.

Frequently Asked Questions about Thermionic Electron Emission

Thermionic emission of electrons is the discharge of electrons from a metal surface due to its being heated.

When an atom absorbs heat energy, the electrons from its outer energy level are emitted.

Thermionic electron emission occurs due to electrons of an atom gaining kinetic energy due to a rise in temperature. When an electron has a high enough kinetic energy, it is able to escape the attractive force of the nucleus.

Thermionic emission is used in many areas, but most notably in cathode ray tubes. These devices were used in televisions and computer monitors for decades.

Final Thermionic Electron Emission Quiz


What is thermionic electron emission?

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Thermionic electron emission is the emission of electrons due to the heating of a material.

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Why does thermionic electron emission occur?

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Thermionic electron emission occurs because some of the electrons in the heated material have gained enough kinetic energy to break free of the attractive force of the nucleus.

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What do we know about electrons in an atom from the Rutherford-Bohr model of the atom?

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We know that electrons occupy discrete energy levels based on their kinetic energy.

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What component did we discuss that makes use of thermionic electron emission?

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The electron gun.

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What common household appliance previously made use of the electron gun?

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The television.

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What is the special unit of energy that we use for the kinetic energy of an electron?

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The electron-volt.

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What is an electron-volt?

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An electron-volt is the amount of kinetic energy gained by an electron when accelerated through a potential difference of 1 volt.

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What is the purpose of the Cathode in an electron gun?

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The cathode serves as the filament that will emit electrons when heated by a voltage.

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What is the purpose of the anode in an electron gun?

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The anode accelerates emitted electrons to greater speeds with a potential difference.

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