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Two different types of phototubes Phototubes.jpg
Two different types of phototubes

A phototube or photoelectric cell is a type of gas-filled or vacuum tube that is sensitive to light. Such a tube is more correctly called a 'photoemissive cell' to distinguish it from photovoltaic or photoconductive cells. Phototubes were previously more widely used but are now replaced in many applications by solid state photodetectors. The photomultiplier tube is one of the most sensitive light detectors, and is still widely used in physics research.

Vacuum tube device that controls electric current between electrodes in an evacuated container

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.

Photomultiplier tube

Photomultiplier tubes (photomultipliers or PMTs for short), members of the class of vacuum tubes, and more specifically vacuum phototubes, are extremely sensitive detectors of light in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum. These detectors multiply the current produced by incident light by as much as 100 million times or 108 (i.e., 160 dB), in multiple dynode stages, enabling (for example) individual photons to be detected when the incident flux of light is low.


Operating principles

Phototubes operate according to the photoelectric effect: Incoming photons strike a photocathode, knocking electrons out of its surface, which are attracted to an anode. Thus current is dependent on the frequency and intensity of incoming photons. Unlike photomultiplier tubes, no amplification takes place, so the current through the device is typically of the order of a few microamperes. [1]

Photoelectric effect physical phenomenon

The photoelectric effect is the emission of electrons or other free carriers when light falls on a material. Electrons emitted in this manner can be called photo electrons. This phenomenon is commonly studied in electronic physics, as well as in fields of chemistry, such as quantum chemistry or electrochemistry.

The photon is a type of elementary particle, the quantum of the electromagnetic field including electromagnetic radiation such as light, and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. The photon has zero rest mass and always moves at the speed of light within a vacuum.

A photocathode is a negatively charged electrode in a light detection device such as a photomultiplier or phototube that is coated with a photosensitive compound. When this is struck by a quantum of light (photon), the absorbed energy causes electron emission due to the photoelectric effect.

The light wavelength range over which the device is sensitive depends on the material used for the photoemissive cathode. A caesium-antimony cathode gives a device that is very sensitive in the violet to ultra-violet region with sensitivity falling off to blindness to red light. Caesium on oxidised silver gives a cathode that is most sensitive to infra-red to red light, falling off towards blue, where the sensitivity is low but not zero. [2]

Caesium Chemical element with atomic number 55

Caesium or cesium is a chemical element with symbol Cs and atomic number 55. It is a soft, silvery-golden alkali metal with a melting point of 28.5 °C (83.3 °F), which makes it one of only five elemental metals that are liquid at or near room temperature. Caesium has physical and chemical properties similar to those of rubidium and potassium. The most reactive of all metals, it is pyrophoric and reacts with water even at −116 °C (−177 °F). It is the least electronegative element, with a value of 0.79 on the Pauling scale. It has only one stable isotope, caesium-133. Caesium is mined mostly from pollucite, while the radioisotopes, especially caesium-137, a fission product, are extracted from waste produced by nuclear reactors.

Antimony Chemical element with atomic number 51

Antimony is a chemical element with symbol Sb (from Latin: stibium) and atomic number 51. A lustrous gray metalloid, it is found in nature mainly as the sulfide mineral stibnite (Sb2S3). Antimony compounds have been known since ancient times and were powdered for use as medicine and cosmetics, often known by the Arabic name, kohl. Metallic antimony was also known, but it was erroneously identified as lead upon its discovery. The earliest known description of the metal in the West was written in 1540 by Vannoccio Biringuccio.

Silver Chemical element with atomic number 47

Silver is a chemical element with symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it exhibits the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal. The metal is found in the Earth's crust in the pure, free elemental form, as an alloy with gold and other metals, and in minerals such as argentite and chlorargyrite. Most silver is produced as a byproduct of copper, gold, lead, and zinc refining.

Vacuum devices have a near constant anode current for a given level of illumination relative to anode voltage. Gas filled devices are more sensitive but the frequency response to modulated illumination falls off at lower frequencies compared to the vacuum devices. The frequency response of vacuum devices is generally limited by the transit time of the electrons from cathode to anode.


One major application of the phototube was the reading of optical sound tracks for projected films. Phototubes were used in a variety of light-sensing applications until they were superseded by photoresistors and photodiodes.

Sound film motion picture with synchronized sound

A sound film is a motion picture with synchronized sound, or sound technologically coupled to image, as opposed to a silent film. The first known public exhibition of projected sound films took place in Paris in 1900, but decades passed before sound motion pictures were made commercially practical. Reliable synchronization was difficult to achieve with the early sound-on-disc systems, and amplification and recording quality were also inadequate. Innovations in sound-on-film led to the first commercial screening of short motion pictures using the technology, which took place in 1923.

Photoresistor light dependent resistor

A photoresistor is a light-controlled variable resistor. The resistance of a photoresistor decreases with increasing incident light intensity; in other words, it exhibits photoconductivity. A photoresistor can be applied in light-sensitive detector circuits, and light-activated and dark-activated switching circuits.

Photodiode type of photodetector based on a p-n-junction

A photodiode is a semiconductor device that converts light into an electrical current. The current is generated when photons are absorbed in the photodiode. Photodiodes may contain optical filters, built-in lenses, and may have large or small surface areas. Photodiodes usually have a slower response time as their surface area increases. The common, traditional solar cell used to generate electric solar power is a large area photodiode.

Related Research Articles

Cathode ray stream of electrons observed in vacuum tubes

Cathode rays are streams of electrons observed in vacuum tubes. If an evacuated glass tube is equipped with two electrodes and a voltage is applied, glass behind the positive electrode is observed to glow, due to electrons emitted from the cathode. They were first observed in 1869 by German physicist Johann Wilhelm Hittorf, and were named in 1876 by Eugen Goldstein Kathodenstrahlen, or cathode rays. In 1897, British physicist J. J. Thomson showed that cathode rays were composed of a previously unknown negatively charged particle, which was later named the electron. Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) use a focused beam of electrons deflected by electric or magnetic fields to render an image on a screen.

A cathode is the electrode from which a conventional current leaves a polarized electrical device. This definition can be recalled by using the mnemonic CCD for Cathode Current Departs. A conventional current describes the direction in which positive charges move. Electrons have a negative electrical charge, so the movement of electrons is opposite to that of the conventional current flow. Consequently, the mnemonic cathode current departs also means that electrons flow into the device's cathode from the external circuit.

Triode electronic device having three active electrodes; the term most commonly applies to a single-grid amplifying vacuum tube

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.

Fluorescent lamp Light source

A fluorescent lamp, or fluorescent tube, is a low-pressure mercury-vapor gas-discharge lamp that uses fluorescence to produce visible light. An electric current in the gas excites mercury vapor, which produces short-wave ultraviolet light that then causes a phosphor coating on the inside of the lamp to glow. A fluorescent lamp converts electrical energy into useful light much more efficiently than incandescent lamps. The typical luminous efficacy of fluorescent lighting systems is 50–100 lumens per watt, several times the efficacy of incandescent bulbs with comparable light output.

Cold cathode Type of electrode and part of cold cathode fluorescent lamp.

A cold cathode is a cathode that is not electrically heated by a filament. A cathode may be considered "cold" if it emits more electrons than can be supplied by thermionic emission alone. It is used in gas-discharge lamps, such as neon lamps, discharge tubes, and some types of vacuum tube. The other type of cathode is a hot cathode, which is heated by electric current passing through a filament. A cold cathode does not necessarily operate at a low temperature: it is often heated to its operating temperature by other methods, such as the current passing from the cathode into the gas.

Scintillation counter

A scintillation counter is an instrument for detecting and measuring ionizing radiation by using the excitation effect of incident radiation on a scintillating material, and detecting the resultant light pulses.

Thyratron type of gas filled tube

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.

An image intensifier or image intensifier tube is a vacuum tube device for increasing the intensity of available light in an optical system to allow use under low-light conditions, such as at night, to facilitate visual imaging of low-light processes, such as fluorescence of materials in X-rays or gamma rays, or for conversion of non-visible light sources, such as near-infrared or short wave infrared to visible. They operate by converting photons of light into electrons, amplifying the electrons, and then converting the amplified electrons back into photons for viewing. They are used in devices such as night vision goggles.

Glow discharge plasma formed by the passage of electric current through a gas

A glow discharge is a plasma formed by the passage of electric current through a gas. It is often created by applying a voltage between two electrodes in a glass tube containing a low-pressure gas. When the voltage exceeds a value called the striking voltage, the gas ionization becomes self-sustaining, and the tube glows with a colored light. The color depends on the gas used.

Photodetector sensors of light or other electromagnetic energy

Photodetectors, also called photosensors, are sensors of light or other electromagnetic radiation. A photo detector has a p–n junction that converts light photons into current. The absorbed photons make electron–hole pairs in the depletion region. Photodiodes and photo transistors are a few examples of photo detectors. Solar cells convert some of the light energy absorbed into electrical energy.

Time projection chamber

In physics, a time projection chamber (TPC) is a type of particle detector that uses a combination of electric fields and magnetic fields together with a sensitive volume of gas or liquid to perform a three-dimensional reconstruction of a particle trajectory or interaction.

Hollow-cathode lamp

A hollow-cathode lamp (HCL) is type of cold cathode lamp used in physics and chemistry as a spectral line source and as a frequency tuner for light sources such as lasers. An HCL takes advantage of the hollow cathode effect, which causes conduction at a lower voltage and with more current than a cold cathode lamp that does not have a hollow cathode.

Albert W. Hull American inventor

Albert Wallace Hull is an American physicist and electrical engineer who made contributions to the development of vacuum tubes, and invented the magnetron. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Townsend discharge gas ionisation process where free electrons are accelerated by an electric field, collide with gas molecules, and consequently free additional electrons

The Townsend discharge or Townsend avalanche is a gas ionisation process where free electrons are accelerated by an electric field, collide with gas molecules, and consequently free additional electrons. Those electrons are in turn accelerated and free additional electrons. The result is an avalanche multiplication that permits electrical conduction through the gas. The discharge requires a source of free electrons and a significant electric field; without both, the phenomenon does not occur.


  1. J.B. Calvert (2002-01-16). "Electronics 30 - Phototubes". University of Denver.
  2. Mullard Technical Handbook Volume 4 Section 4:Photoemissive Cells (1960 Edition)