A mercury-arc valve or mercury-vapor rectifier or (UK) mercury-arc rectifieris a type of electrical rectifier used for converting high-voltage or high-current alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC). It is a type of cold cathode gas-filled tube, but is unusual in that the cathode, instead of being solid, is made from a pool of liquid mercury and is therefore self-restoring. As a result, mercury-arc valves were much more rugged and long-lasting, and could carry much higher currents than most other types of gas discharge tube.
Invented in 1902 by Peter Cooper Hewitt, mercury-arc rectifiers were used to provide power for industrial motors, electric railways, streetcars, and electric locomotives, as well as for radio transmitters and for high-voltage direct current (HVDC) power transmission. They were the primary method of high power rectification before the advent of semiconductor rectifiers, such as diodes, thyristors and gate turn-off thyristors (GTOs) in the 1970s. These solid state rectifiers have since completely replaced mercury-arc rectifiers thanks to their higher reliability, lower cost and maintenance and lower environmental risk.
In 1882 Jemin and Meneuvrier observed the rectifying properties of a mercury arc.The mercury arc rectifier was invented by Peter Cooper Hewitt in 1902 and further developed throughout the 1920s and 1930s by researchers in both Europe and North America. Before its invention, the only way to convert AC current provided by utilities to DC was by using expensive, inefficient, and high-maintenance rotary converters or motor-generator sets. Mercury-arc rectifiers or "converters" were used for charging storage batteries, arc lighting systems, the DC traction motors for trolleybuses, trams, and subways, and electroplating equipment. The mercury rectifier was used well into the 1970s, when it was finally replaced by semiconductor rectifiers.
Operation of the rectifier relies on an electrical arc discharge between electrodes in a sealed envelope containing mercury vapor at very low pressure. A pool of liquid mercury acts as a self-renewing cathode that does not deteriorate with time. The mercury emits electrons freely, whereas the carbon anodes emit very few electrons even when heated, so the current of electrons can only pass through the tube in one direction, from cathode to anode, which allows the tube to rectify alternating current.
When an arc is formed, electrons are emitted from the surface of the pool, causing ionization of mercury vapor along the path towards the anodes. The mercury ions are attracted towards the cathode, and the resulting ionic bombardment of the pool maintains the temperature of the emission spot, so long as a current of a few amperes continues.
While the current is carried by electrons, the positive ions returning to the cathode allow the conduction path to be largely unaffected by the space charge effects which limit the performance of vacuum tubes. Consequently, the valve can carry high currents at low arc voltages (typically 20-30 V) and so is an efficient rectifier. Hot-cathode, gas discharge tubes such as the thyratron may also achieve similar levels of efficiency but heated cathode filaments are delicate and have a short operating life when used at high current.
The temperature of the envelope must be carefully controlled, since the behaviour of the arc is determined largely by the vapor pressure of the mercury, which in turn is set by the coolest spot on the enclosure wall. A typical design maintains temperature at 40 °C (104 °F) and a mercury vapor pressure of 7 millipascals.
The mercury ions emit light at characteristic wavelengths, the relative intensities of which are determined by the pressure of the vapor. At the low pressure within a rectifier, the light appears pale blue-violet and contains much ultraviolet light.
The construction of a mercury arc valve takes one of two basic forms — the glass-bulb type and the steel-tank type. Steel-tank valves were used for higher current ratings above approximately 500 A.
The earliest type of mercury vapor electric rectifier consists of an evacuated glass bulb with a pool of liquid mercury sitting in the bottom as the cathode.Over it curves the glass bulb, which condenses the mercury that is evaporated as the device operates. The glass envelope has one or more arms with graphite rods as anodes. Their number depends on the application, with one anode usually provided per phase. The shape of the anode arms ensures that any mercury that condenses on the glass walls drains back into the main pool quickly to avoid providing a conductive path between the cathode and respective anode.
Glass envelope rectifiers can handle hundreds of kilowatts of direct-current power in a single unit. A six-phase rectifier rated 150 amperes has a glass envelope approximately 600 mm (24 inches) high by 300 mm (12 inches) outside diameter. These rectifiers will contain several kilograms of liquid mercury. The large size of the envelope is required due to the low thermal conductivity of glass. Mercury vapor in the upper part of the envelope must dissipate heat through the glass envelope in order to condense and return to the cathode pool. Some glass tubes were immersed in an oil bath to better control the temperature.
The current-carrying capacity of a glass-bulb rectifier is limited partly by the fragility of the glass envelope (the size of which increases with rated power) and partly by the size of the wires fused into the glass envelope for connection of the anodes and cathode. Development of high-current rectifiers required leadwire materials and glass with very similar coefficients of thermal expansion in order to prevent leakage of air into the envelope. Current ratings of up to 500 A had been achieved by the mid-1930s, but most rectifiers for current ratings above this were realised using the more robust steel-tank design.
For larger valves, a steel tank with ceramic insulators for the electrodes is used, with a vacuum pump system to counteract slight leakage of air into the tank around imperfect seals. Steel-tank valves, with water cooling for the tank, were developed with current ratings of several thousand amps.
Like glass-bulb valves, steel-tank mercury arc valves were built with only a single anode per tank (a type also known as the excitron) or with multiple anodes per tank. Multiple-anode valves were usually used for multi-phase rectifier circuits (with 2, 3, 6 or 12 anodes per tank) but in HVDC applications, multiple anodes were often simply connected in parallel in order to increase the current rating.
A conventional mercury-arc rectifier is started by a brief high-voltage arc within the rectifier, between the cathode pool and a starting electrode. The starting electrode is brought into contact with the pool and allowed to pass current through an inductive circuit. The contact with the pool is then broken, resulting in a high emf and an arc discharge.
The momentary contact between the starting electrode and the pool may be achieved by a number of methods, including:
Since momentary interruptions or reductions of output current may cause the cathode spot to extinguish, many rectifiers incorporate an additional electrode to maintain an arc whenever the plant is in use. Typically, a two or three phase supply of a few amperes passes through small excitation anodes. A magnetically shunted transformer of a few hundred VA rating is commonly used to provide this supply.
This excitation or keep-alive circuit was absolutely necessary for single-phase rectifiers such as the excitron and for mercury-arc rectifiers used in the high-voltage supply of radiotelegraphy transmitters, as current flow was regularly interrupted every time the Morse key was released.
Both glass and metal envelope rectifiers may have control grids inserted between the anode and cathode.
Installation of a control grid between the anode and the pool cathode allows control of the conduction of the valve, thereby giving control of the mean output voltage produced by the rectifier. Start of the current flow can be delayed past the point at which the arc would form in an uncontrolled valve. This allows the output voltage of a valve group to be adjusted by delaying the firing point, and allows controlled mercury-arc valves to form the active switching elements in an inverter converting direct current into alternating current.
To maintain the valve in the non-conducting state, a negative bias of a few volts or tens of volts is applied to the grid. As a result, electrons emitted from the cathode are repelled away from the grid, back towards the cathode, and so are prevented from reaching the anode. With a small positive bias applied to the grid, electrons pass through the grid, towards the anode, and the process of establishing an arc discharge can commence. However, once the arc has been established, it cannot be stopped by grid action, because the positive mercury ions produced by ionisation are attracted to the negatively charged grid and effectively neutralise it. The only way of stopping conduction is to make the external circuit force the current to drop below a (low) critical current.
Although grid-controlled mercury-arc valves bear a superficial resemblance to triode valves, mercury-arc valves cannot be used as amplifiers except at extremely low values of current, well below the critical current needed to maintain the arc.
Mercury-arc valves are prone to an effect called arc-back (or backfire), whereby the valve conducts in the reverse direction when the voltage across it is negative. Arc-backs can be damaging or destructive to the valve, as well as creating high short-circuit currents in the external circuit, and are more prevalent at higher voltages. One example of the problems caused by backfire occurred in 1960 subsequent to the electrification of the Glasgow North Suburban Railway where steam services had to be re-introduced after several mishaps.For many years this effect limited the practical operating voltage of mercury-arc valves to a few kilovolts.
The solution was found to be to include grading electrodes between the anode and control grid, connected to an external resistor-capacitor divider circuit. MW, 100 kV HVDC link from mainland Sweden to the island of Gotland in 1954.Dr. Uno Lamm conducted pioneering work at ASEA in Sweden on this problem throughout the 1930s and 1940s, leading to the first truly practical mercury-arc valve for HVDC transmission, which was put into service on the 20
Uno Lamm’s work on high voltage mercury-arc valves led him to be known as the "Father of HVDC" power transmissionand inspired the IEEE to dedicate an award named after him, for outstanding contributions in the field of HVDC.
Mercury arc valves with grading electrodes of this type were developed up to voltage ratings of 150 kV. However, the tall porcelain column required to house the grading electrodes was more difficult to cool than the steel tank at cathode potential, so the usable current rating was limited to about 200–300 A per anode. Therefore, Mercury arc valves for HVDC were often constructed with four or six anode columns in parallel. The anode columns were always air-cooled, with the cathode tanks either water-cooled or air-cooled.
Single-phase mercury-arc rectifiers were rarely used because the current dropped and the arc could be extinguished when the AC voltage changed polarity. The direct current produced by a single-phase rectifier thus contained a varying component (ripple) at twice the power supply frequency, which was undesirable in many applications for DC. The solution was to use two-, three-, or even six-phase AC power supplies so that the rectified current would maintain a more constant voltage level. Polyphase rectifiers also balanced the load on the supply system, which is desirable for reasons of system performance and economy.
Most applications of mercury-arc valves for rectifiers used full-wave rectification with separate pairs of anodes for each phase.
In full-wave rectification both halves of the AC waveform are utilised. The cathode is connected to the + side of the DC load, the other side being connected to the center tap of the transformer secondary winding, which always remains at zero potential with respect to ground or earth. For each AC phase, a wire from each end of that phase winding is connected to a separate anode "arm" on the mercury-arc rectifier. When the voltage at each anode becomes positive, it will begin to conduct through the mercury vapor from the cathode. As the anodes of each AC phase are fed from opposite ends of the centre tapped transformer winding, one will always be positive with respect to the center tap and both halves of the AC Waveform will cause current to flow in one direction only through the load. This rectification of the whole AC waveform is thus called full-wave rectification.
With three-phase alternating current and full-wave rectification, six anodes were used to provide a smoother direct current. Three phase operation can improve the efficiency of the transformer as well as providing smoother DC current by enabling two anodes to conduct simultaneously. During operation, the arc transfers to the anodes at the highest positive potential (with respect to the cathode).
In HVDC applications, a full-wave three-phase bridge rectifier or Graetz-bridge circuit was usually used, each valve accommodated in a single tank.
As solid-state metal rectifiers became available for low-voltage rectification in the 1920s, mercury arc tubes became limited to higher voltage and especially high-power applications.
Mercury-arc valves were widely used until the 1960s for the conversion of alternating current into direct current for large industrial uses. Applications included power supply for streetcars, electric railways, and variable-voltage power supplies for large radio transmitters. Mercury-arc stations were used to provide DC power to legacy Edison-style DC power grids in urban centers until the 1950s. In the 1960s, solid-state silicon devices, first diodes and then thyristors, replaced all lower-power and lower voltage rectifier applications of mercury arc tubes.
Several electric locomotives, including the New Haven EP5 and the Virginian EL-C, carried ignitrons on board to rectify incoming AC to traction motor DC.
One of the last major uses of mercury arc valves was in HVDC power transmission, where they were used in many projects until the early 1970s, including the HVDC Inter-Island link between the North and South Islands of New Zealand and the HVDC Kingsnorth link from Kingsnorth power station to London.However, starting about 1975, silicon devices have made mercury-arc rectifiers largely obsolete, even in HVDC applications. The largest ever mercury-arc rectifiers, built by English Electric, were rated at 150-kV, 1800 A and were used until 2004 at the Nelson River DC Transmission System high-voltage DC-power-transmission project. The valves for the Inter-Island and Kingsnorth projects used four anode columns in parallel, while those of the Nelson River project used six anode columns in parallel in order to obtain the necessary current rating. The Inter-Island link was the last HVDC transmission scheme in operation using mercury arc valves. It was formally decommissioned on 1 August 2012. The mercury arc valve converter stations of the New Zealand scheme were replaced by new thyristor converter stations. A similar mercury arc valve scheme, the HVDC Vancouver Island link was replaced by a three-phase AC link.
Mercury arc valves remain in use in some South African mines and Kenya (at Mombasa Polytechnic - Electrical & Electronic department).
Mercury arc valves were used extensively in DC power systems on London Underground, [ citation needed ] After they were no longer needed as shelters, Belsize Park and several other deep shelters were used as secure storage, particularly for music and television archives. This led to the mercury-arc rectifier at the Goodge Street shelter featuring in an early episode of Doctor Who as an alien brain, cast for its "eerie glow".and one was still observed to be in operation in 2004 at the disused deep-level air-raid shelter at Belsize Park.
Special types of single-phase mercury-arc rectifiers are the Ignitron and the Excitron. The Excitron is similar to other types of valve described above but depends critically on the existence of an excitation anode to maintain an arc discharge during the half-cycle when the valve is not conducting current. The Ignitron dispenses with excitation anodes by igniting the arc each time conduction is required to start. In this way, ignitrons also avoid the need for control grids.
In 1919, the book "Cyclopedia of Telephony & Telegraphy Vol. 1"described an amplifier for telephone signals that used a magnetic field to modulate an arc in a mercury rectifier tube. This was never commercially important.
Mercury compounds are toxic, highly persistent in the environment, and present a danger to humans and the environment. The use of large quantities of mercury in fragile glass envelopes presents a hazard of potential release of mercury to the environment should the glass bulb be broken. Some HVDC converter stations have required extensive clean-up to eliminate traces of mercury emitted from the station over its service life. Steel tank rectifiers frequently required vacuum pumps, which continually emitted small amounts of mercury vapor.
A triode is an electronic amplifying vacuum tube consisting of three electrodes inside an evacuated glass envelope: a heated filament or cathode, a grid, and a plate (anode). Developed from Lee De Forest's 1906 Audion, a partial vacuum tube that added a grid electrode to the thermionic diode, the triode was the first practical electronic amplifier and the ancestor of other types of vacuum tubes such as the tetrode and pentode. Its invention founded the electronics age, making possible amplified radio technology and long-distance telephony. Triodes were widely used in consumer electronics devices such as radios and televisions until the 1970s, when transistors replaced them. Today, their main remaining use is in high-power RF amplifiers in radio transmitters and industrial RF heating devices. In recent years there has been a resurgence in demand for low power triodes due to renewed interest in tube-type audio systems by audiophiles who prefer the sound of tube-based electronics.
In electronics, a vacuum tube, an electron tube, or valve or, colloquially, a tube, is a device that controls electric current flow in a high vacuum between electrodes to which an electric potential difference has been applied.
A high-voltage, direct current (HVDC) electric power transmission system uses direct current for the bulk transmission of electrical power, in contrast with the more common alternating current (AC) systems. For long-distance transmission, HVDC systems may be less expensive and have lower electrical losses. For underwater power cables, HVDC avoids the heavy currents required to charge and discharge the cable capacitance each cycle. For shorter distances, the higher cost of DC conversion equipment compared to an AC system may still be justified, due to other benefits of direct current links. HVDC currently uses voltages between 100 kV and 800 kV, with an 1,100 kV link in China recently completed in November 2019.
A rectifier is an electrical device that converts alternating current (AC), which periodically reverses direction, to direct current (DC), which flows in only one direction.
A thyratron is a type of gas-filled tube used as a high-power electrical switch and controlled rectifier. Thyratrons can handle much greater currents than similar hard-vacuum tubes. Electron multiplication occurs when the gas becomes ionized, producing a phenomenon known as Townsend discharge. Gases used include mercury vapor, xenon, neon, and hydrogen. Unlike a vacuum tube (valve), a thyratron cannot be used to amplify signals linearly.
A gas-filled tube, also known as a discharge tube, is an arrangement of electrodes in a gas within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope. Gas-filled tubes exploit phenomena related to electric discharge in gases, and operate by ionizing the gas with an applied voltage sufficient to cause electrical conduction by the underlying phenomena of the Townsend discharge. A gas-discharge lamp is an electric light using a gas-filled tube; these include fluorescent lamps, metal-halide lamps, sodium-vapor lamps, and neon lights. Specialized gas-filled tubes such as krytrons, thyratrons, and ignitrons are used as switching devices in electric devices.
An ignitron is a type of gas-filled tube used as a controlled rectifier and dating from the 1930s. Invented by Joseph Slepian while employed by Westinghouse, Westinghouse was the original manufacturer and owned trademark rights to the name "Ignitron". Ignitrons are closely related to mercury-arc valves but differ in the way the arc is ignited. They function similarly to thyratrons; a triggering pulse to the igniter electrode turns the device "on", allowing a high current to flow between the cathode and anode electrodes. After it is turned on, the current through the anode must be reduced to zero to restore the device to its nonconducting state. They are used to switch high currents in heavy industrial applications.
The HVDC Volgograd–Donbass is a 475 kilometres (295 mi) long bipolar ±400 kV high voltage direct current powerline used for transmitting electric power from Volga Hydroelectric Station at Volgograd in Russia to Donbass in eastern Ukraine and vice versa.
The HVDC Inter-Island link is a 610 km (380 mi) long, 1200 MW bipolar high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission system connecting the electricity networks of the North Island and South Island of New Zealand together. It is commonly referred to as the Cook Strait cable in the media and in press releases, although the link is much longer than its Cook Strait section, and consists of 3 parallel cables. The link is owned and operated by state-owned transmission company Transpower New Zealand.
The Pacific DC Intertie is an electric power transmission line that transmits electricity from the Pacific Northwest to the Los Angeles area using high voltage direct current (HVDC). The line capacity is 3,100 megawatts, which is enough to serve two to three million Los Angeles households and represents almost half of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) electrical system's peak capacity.
The Nelson River DC Transmission System, also known as the Manitoba Bipole, is an electric power transmission system of two high voltage, direct current lines in Manitoba, Canada, operated by Manitoba Hydro as part of the Nelson River Hydroelectric Project. It is now recorded on the list of IEEE Milestones in electrical engineering. Several records have been broken by successive phases of the project, including the largest mercury-arc valves, the highest DC transmission voltage and the first use of water-cooled thyristor valves in HVDC.
HVDC Kingsnorth was a high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) transmission system connecting Kingsnorth in Kent to two sites in London. It was at one time the only application of the technology of high voltage direct current transmission for the supply of transformer stations in a city, and the first HVDC link to be embedded within an AC system, rather than interconnecting two asynchronous systems. It was also the first HVDC scheme to be equipped with self-tuning harmonic filters and to be controlled with a "Phase Locked Oscillator", a principle which subsequently became standard on all HVDC systems.
An HVDC converter station is a specialised type of substation which forms the terminal equipment for a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission line. It converts direct current to alternating current or the reverse. In addition to the converter, the station usually contains:
A traction substation, traction current converter plant or traction power substation (TPSS) is an electrical substation that converts electric power from the form provided by the electrical power industry for public utility service to an appropriate voltage, current type and frequency to supply railways, trams (streetcars) or trolleybuses with traction current.
A frequency changer or frequency converter is an electronic or electromechanical device that converts alternating current (AC) of one frequency to alternating current of another frequency. The device may also change the voltage, but if it does, that is incidental to its principal purpose, since voltage conversion of alternating current is much easier to achieve than frequency conversion.
The Fleming valve, also called the Fleming oscillation valve, was a thermionic valve or vacuum tube invented in 1904 by Englishman John Ambrose Fleming as a detector for early radio receivers used in electromagnetic wireless telegraphy. It was the first practical vacuum tube and the first thermionic diode, a vacuum tube whose purpose is to conduct current in one direction and block current flowing in the opposite direction. The thermionic diode was later widely used as a rectifier — a device which converts alternating current (AC) into direct current (DC) — in the power supplies of a wide range of electronic devices, until beginning to be replaced by the selenium rectifier in the early 1930s and almost completely replaced by the semiconductor diode in the 1960s. The Fleming valve was the forerunner of all vacuum tubes, which dominated electronics for 50 years. The IEEE has described it as "one of the most important developments in the history of electronics", and it is on the List of IEEE Milestones for electrical engineering.
The 866 is a mercury vapor half-wave rectifier intended for high-voltage applications. The voltage drop is approximately 15 volts up to 150 Hz. To avoid unwanted shorts the tube must be operated in a vertical position and the filament preheated for at least 30 seconds before applying the plate voltage.
The Moscow–Kashira HVDC transmission system was an early high-voltage direct current (HVDC) connection between the town of Kashira and the city of Moscow in Russia, where the terminal was at. The system was built using mercury-arc valves and other equipment removed from the Elbe Project in Berlin at the end of World War II. Although primarily experimental in nature, the system was the first true static, electronic, high-voltage DC scheme to enter service. Earlier DC transmission schemes had either used electromechanical converters based on the Thury system, such as the Lyon–Moutiers DC transmission scheme or had been at only medium voltage, such as the 12 kV frequency converter scheme at Mechanicville, New York in the United States.
An HVDC converter converts electric power from high voltage alternating current (AC) to high-voltage direct current (HVDC), or vice versa. HVDC is used as an alternative to AC for transmitting electrical energy over long distances or between AC power systems of different frequencies. HVDC converters capable of converting up to two gigawatts (GW) and with voltage ratings of up to 1,100 kilovolts (kV) have been built, and even higher ratings are technically feasible. A complete converter station may contain several such converters in series and/or parallel.
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