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Trigatron CV100, with wire mesh to contain any explosion CV100f (2).JPG
Trigatron CV100, with wire mesh to contain any explosion

A trigatron is a type of triggerable spark gap switch designed for high current and high voltage, (usually 10-100 kV and 20-100 kA, though devices in the mega-ampere range exist as well). It has very simple construction and in many cases is the lowest cost high energy switching option. It may operate in open air, it may be sealed, or it may be filled with a dielectric gas other than air or a liquid dielectric. The dielectric gas may be pressurized, or a liquid dielectric (e.g. mineral oil) may be substituted to further extend the operating voltage. Trigatrons may be rated for repeated use (over 10,000 switching cycles), or they may be single-shot, destroyed in a single use.

Spark gap arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap

A spark gap consists of an arrangement of two conducting electrodes separated by a gap usually filled with a gas such as air, designed to allow an electric spark to pass between the conductors. When the potential difference between the conductors exceeds the breakdown voltage of the gas within the gap, a spark forms, ionizing the gas and drastically reducing its electrical resistance. An electric current then flows until the path of ionized gas is broken or the current reduces below a minimum value called the "holding current". This usually happens when the voltage drops, but in some cases occurs when the heated gas rises, stretching out and then breaking the filament of ionized gas. Usually, the action of ionizing the gas is violent and disruptive, often leading to sound, light and heat.

A dielectric gas, or insulating gas, is a dielectric material in gaseous state. Its main purpose is to prevent or rapidly quench electric discharges. Dielectric gases are used as electrical insulators in high voltage applications, e.g. transformers, circuit breakers, switchgear, radar waveguides, etc.

A liquid dielectric is a dielectric material in liquid state. Its main purpose is to prevent or rapidly quench electric discharges. Dielectric liquids are used as electrical insulators in high voltage applications, e.g. transformers, capacitors, high voltage cables, and switchgear. Its function is to provide electrical insulation, suppress corona and arcing, and to serve as a coolant.


A trigatron has three electrodes. The heavy main electrodes are for the high current switching path, and a smaller third electrode serves as the trigger. During normal operation, the voltage between the main electrodes is somewhat lower than the breakdown voltage corresponding to their distance and the dielectric between them (usually air, argon-oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, or sulfur hexafluoride). To switch the device, a high voltage pulse is delivered to the triggering electrode. This ionizes the medium between it and one of the main electrodes, creating a spark which shortens the thickness of non-ionized medium between the electrodes. The triggering spark also generates ultraviolet light and free electrons in the main gap. These lead to the rapid electrical breakdown of the main gap, culminating in a low resistance electric arc between the main electrodes. The arc will continue to conduct until current flow drops sufficiently to extinguish it.

Breakdown voltage

The breakdown voltage of an insulator is the minimum voltage that causes a portion of an insulator to become electrically conductive.

Argon Chemical element with atomic number 18

Argon is a chemical element with symbol Ar and atomic number 18. It is in group 18 of the periodic table and is a noble gas. Argon is the third-most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere, at 0.934%. It is more than twice as abundant as water vapor, 23 times as abundant as carbon dioxide, and more than 500 times as abundant as neon. Argon is the most abundant noble gas in Earth's crust, comprising 0.00015% of the crust.

Oxygen Chemical element with atomic number 8

Oxygen is a chemical element with symbol O and atomic number 8. It is a member of the chalcogen group on the periodic table, a highly reactive nonmetal, and an oxidizing agent that readily forms oxides with most elements as well as with other compounds. By mass, oxygen is the third-most abundant element in the universe, after hydrogen and helium. At standard temperature and pressure, two atoms of the element bind to form dioxygen, a colorless and odorless diatomic gas with the formula O
. Diatomic oxygen gas constitutes 20.8% of the Earth's atmosphere. As compounds including oxides, the element makes up almost half of the Earth's crust.

The triggering electrode is most often mounted through a hole in the center of the positive main electrode. The undrilled main electrode is the negative electrode. When switching high currents, the electrodes undergo considerable heat stress, as they are directly involved in the electric arc. This causes the surfaces to undergo gradual vaporization, so some designs incorporate methods to easily adjust the distance between the electrodes or to actually replace the electrodes. The main electrodes are typically fabricated from brass, or alloys of copper and tungsten for longer electrode life.

Brass alloy of copper and zinc

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, in proportions which can be varied to achieve varying mechanical and electrical properties. It is a substitutional alloy: atoms of the two constituents may replace each other within the same crystal structure. In contrast, bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.

Copper Chemical element with atomic number 29

Copper is a chemical element with symbol Cu and atomic number 29. It is a soft, malleable, and ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity. A freshly exposed surface of pure copper has a pinkish-orange color. Copper is used as a conductor of heat and electricity, as a building material, and as a constituent of various metal alloys, such as sterling silver used in jewelry, cupronickel used to make marine hardware and coins, and constantan used in strain gauges and thermocouples for temperature measurement.

Tungsten Chemical element with atomic number 74

Tungsten, or wolfram, is a chemical element with symbol W and atomic number 74. The name tungsten comes from the former Swedish name for the tungstate mineral scheelite, tung sten or "heavy stone". Tungsten is a rare metal found naturally on Earth almost exclusively combined with other elements in chemical compounds rather than alone. It was identified as a new element in 1781 and first isolated as a metal in 1783. Its important ores include wolframite and scheelite.

Glass trigatrons are often enclosed in a woven wire mesh, to provide protection from fragmentation if the device explodes due to internal overpressure.

Trigatrons find many different uses in pulsed power applications. For example, they were used in early radar modulators to feed the high-power pulses into the magnetrons, for use with slapper detonators, or for triggering a Marx generator.

Pulsed power is the science and technology of accumulating energy over a relatively long period of time and releasing it very quickly, thus increasing the instantaneous power.

Radar object detection system based on radio waves

Radar is a detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, angle, or velocity of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. A radar system consists of a transmitter producing electromagnetic waves in the radio or microwaves domain, a transmitting antenna, a receiving antenna and a receiver and processor to determine properties of the object(s). Radio waves from the transmitter reflect off the object and return to the receiver, giving information about the object's location and speed.

Slapper detonator

A slapper detonator, also called exploding foil initiator (EFI), is a relatively recent kind of a detonator developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, US Patent No. 4,788,913. It is an improvement of the earlier exploding-bridgewire detonator; instead of directly coupling the shock wave from the exploding wire, the expanding plasma from an explosion of a metal foil drives another thin plastic or metal foil called a "flyer" or a "slapper" across a gap, and its high-velocity impact on the explosive then delivers the energy and shock needed to initiate a detonation. Normally all the slapper's kinetic energy is supplied only by the heating of the plasma by the current passing through it, though constructions with a "back strap" to further drive the plasma forward by magnetic field exist too. This assembly is quite efficient; up to 30% of the electrical energy can be converted to the slapper's kinetic energy.

See also

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Electrical discharge machining

Electrical discharge machining (EDM), also known as spark machining, spark eroding, burning, die sinking, wire burning or wire erosion, is a manufacturing process whereby a desired shape is obtained by using electrical discharges (sparks). Material is removed from the work piece by a series of rapidly recurring current discharges between two electrodes, separated by a dielectric liquid and subject to an electric voltage. One of the electrodes is called the tool-electrode, or simply the "tool" or "electrode," while the other is called the workpiece-electrode, or "work piece." The process depends upon the tool and work piece not making actual contact.

Corona discharge electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid such as air surrounding a conductor that is electrically charged

A corona discharge is an electrical discharge brought on by the ionization of a fluid such as air surrounding a conductor that is electrically charged. Spontaneous corona discharges occur naturally in high-voltage systems unless care is taken to limit the electric field strength. A corona will occur when the strength of the electric field around a conductor is high enough to form a conductive region, but not high enough to cause electrical breakdown or arcing to nearby objects. It is often seen as a bluish glow in the air adjacent to pointed metal conductors carrying high voltages, and emits light by the same property as a gas discharge lamp.


A flashtube, also called a flashlamp, is an electric arc lamp designed to produce extremely intense, incoherent, full-spectrum white light for very short durations. Flashtubes are made of a length of glass tubing with electrodes at either end and are filled with a gas that, when triggered, ionizes and conducts a high voltage pulse to produce the light. Flashtubes are used mostly for photographic purposes but are also employed in scientific, medical, industrial, and entertainment applications.

Gas-filled tube arrangement of electrodes in a gas within an insulating, temperature-resistant envelope

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.

Paschens law

Paschen's law is an equation that gives the breakdown voltage, that is, the voltage necessary to start a discharge or electric arc, between two electrodes in a gas as a function of pressure and gap length. It is named after Friedrich Paschen who discovered it empirically in 1889.

Ignitron type of gas-filled tube used as a controlled rectifier

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.

Electrical breakdown when current flows through an electrical insulator when the voltage applied across it exceeds the breakdown voltage

Electrical breakdown or dielectric breakdown is when current flows through an electrical insulator when the voltage applied across it exceeds the breakdown voltage. This results in the insulator becoming electrically conductive. Electrical breakdown may be a momentary event, or may lead to a continuous arc if protective devices fail to interrupt the current in a power circuit.


The krytron is a cold-cathode gas-filled tube intended for use as a very high-speed switch, somewhat similar to the thyratron. It consists of a sealed glass tube with four electrodes. A small triggering pulse on the grid electrode switches the tube on, allowing a large current to flow between the cathode and anode electrodes. The vacuum version is called a vacuum krytron, or sprytron. The krytron was one of the earliest developments of the EG&G Corporation.

Marx generator

A Marx generator is an electrical circuit first described by Erwin Otto Marx in 1924. Its purpose is to generate a high-voltage pulse from a low-voltage DC supply. Marx generators are used in high-energy physics experiments, as well as to simulate the effects of lightning on power-line gear and aviation equipment. A bank of 36 Marx generators is used by Sandia National Laboratories to generate X-rays in their Z Machine.

High voltage electrical energy at voltages high enough to inflict harm on living organisms (numerical definition depends on context)

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Electric arc electrical breakdown of a gas that produces an ongoing electrical discharge

An electric arc, or arc discharge, is an electrical breakdown of a gas that produces an prolonged electrical discharge. The current through a normally nonconductive medium such as air produces a plasma; the plasma may produce visible light. An arc discharge is characterized by a lower voltage than a glow discharge and relies on thermionic emission of electrons from the electrodes supporting the arc. An archaic term is voltaic arc, as used in the phrase "voltaic arc lamp".

Nitrogen laser

A nitrogen laser is a gas laser operating in the ultraviolet range using molecular nitrogen as its gain medium, pumped by an electrical discharge.

An electron avalanche is a process in which a number of free electrons in a transmission medium are subjected to strong acceleration by an electric field and subsequently collide with other atoms of the medium, thereby ionizing them. This releases additional electrons which accelerate and collide with further atoms, releasing more electrons—a chain reaction. In a gas, this causes the affected region to become an electrically conductive plasma.

Electric discharge flow of electric charge through a gas, liquid or solid

An electric discharge is the release and transmission of electricity in an applied electric field through a medium such as a gas.

A TEA laser is a gas laser energized by a high voltage electrical discharge in a gas mixture generally at or above atmospheric pressure. The most common types are carbon dioxide lasers and excimer lasers, both used extensively in industry and research, less common are nitrogen lasers. The acronym "TEA" stands for Transversely Excited Atmospheric.

Electric spark kind of electrical discharge

An electric spark is an abrupt electrical discharge that occurs when a sufficiently high electric field creates an ionized, electrically conductive channel through a normally-insulating medium, often air or other gases or gas mixtures. Michael Faraday described this phenomenon as "the beautiful flash of light attending the discharge of common electricity".

A leader is a hot, highly conductive channel of plasma that plays a critical part during dielectric breakdown within a long electric spark.

Plasma activation is a method of surface modification employing plasma processing, which improves surface adhesion properties of many materials including metals, glass, ceramics, a broad range of polymers and textiles and even natural materials such as wood and seeds. It is widely used in industrial processes to prepare surfaces for bonding, gluing, coating and painting. Plasma processing achieves this effect through a combination of reduction of metal oxides, ultra-fine surface cleaning from organic contaminants, modification of the surface topography and deposition of functional chemical groups. Importantly, the plasma activation can be performed at the atmospheric pressure using air or typical industrial gases including hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. Thus, the surface functionalization is achieved without expensive vacuum equipment or wet chemistry, which positively affects its costs, safety and environmental impact. Fast processing speeds further facilitate numerous industrial applications.

Electric discharge in gases occurs when electric current flows through a gaseous medium due to ionization of the gas. Depending on several factors, the discharge may radiate visible light. The properties of electric discharges in gases are studied in connection with design of lighting sources and in the design of high voltage electrical equipment.