# HIGH VOLTAGE ENGINEERING - UNIT 1 Electrical Breakdown of Gases in Uniform Fields

Introduction At normal temperature and pressure, gases are excellent insulators but ‘background currents’ of the order of micro-amps can be measured if an electric field of several kV/mm is applied. This current results from the electron/ion pairs produced by highenergy particles, either cosmic rays or derived from natural radioactivity, striking an air molecule: high-energy particle + M ==> M+ + e If the voltage is increased sufficiently, the electron is accelerated by the electric field towards the positive electrode (or anode) and further ionisation can occur. The electron will collide with gas molecules and most of these will be elastic collisions, but, if it has gained enough kinetic energy (KE), it will ionise the gas molecule it hits: e + M ==> M+ + e + e. ‘Enough energy’ means energy greater than the ionisation energy of the molecule. The process of acceleration until a collision with a molecule occurs, with most of the collisions elastic, and some inelastic (i.e., ionising) is illustrated in the ‘AVAL-1.exe’ program. The KE gained by the electron is (electric field)*(distance travelled before the next collision) – see box below. Now there are two electrons and the process can repeat, and repeat, and repeat, causing an exponential increase in the number of electrons. The situation after 4 such sets of ionisations by accelerated electrons is illustrated in the AVAL-2.exe program from which the diagram below is taken. (The original high-energy particle ionisation occurs at A – subsequent ionisations are caused by the accelerated electrons).

There are 1+1+2+4+8 = 16 positive ions … and 16 electrons here Note that while the electron is accelerated towards the anode, the positively-charged ion is – obviously – accelerated towards the cathode. However the ion, being far heavier, is accelerated more slowly: the average velocity of the electrons is about ten times faster than that for the ions. This causes the situation seen above with the electrons moving swiftly to the right in a group, leaving clumps of 1, 2, 4 and 8 ions behind. This is seen more clearly in the AVAL-4.exe program in which 10 sets of ionisations have occurred (so there are 210, or 1024, electrons and the same number of positive ions).
Kinetic energy gained by the electron = work done on the electron = (force on the electron) * (distance travelled by the electron) = (e.E)*x – i.e., proportional to both the electric field and the distance gone.

– 1.1 –

Avalanches In the ‘AVAL-4’ diagram below there are 1024 electrons (and the same number of positive ions). p. Raether.The electron will normally have many elastic (low-energy) collisions before the ionising collision – hence the crooked paths seen in the animations. electrons positive ions Note the overlapping of the two graphs: this means that there will be a number of electron/positive-ion collisions which may result in recombination: e + M+ ==> M + energy This recombination energy is usually released as a photon of light energy. as this phenomenon is called. 1964. both in a 36-mm gap. Because of the random nature of the number of collisions before the ionising collision. The distribution graphs for the two charged particles are shown. The voltage was a DC voltage pulse lasting 0. the distance between ionisations is also variable – again. (a) (b) ‘Cloud chamber photography’ of single avalanches (a) in nitrogen (N2) at 0. and explain the comet-like shape of the ‘avalanche’. Electron Avalanches and Breakdown in Gases. as seen in the animations.4 ms. the electrons and ions being indistinguishable in black and white reproduction.37 bar and (b) in carbon dioxide (C02). [H.5] – 1.2 – .

e. is defined as the probability. α. For similar reasons it is found that η/p = g(E/p). a function of E/p. The energy gained between collisions = e. Even then it is only just below zero.752-757.E.D&EI. the units are assumed to be mm. The number of collisions (any kind) per unit distance = 1/λ = Ap (A is a constant) ∴ the number of ionising collisions. η. 2000).7. if attachment is more likely than ionisation when a collision occurs. from the above. α/p = f(E/p) alpha/p (1/mm. the kinetic energy (KE) gained between collisions needs to exceed the energy required to ionise the molecule. The distance between collisions is inversely proportional to the density and hence to the pressure so it should not be surprising (see box) that α/p = f(E/p). MacAlpine & Li. In nitrogen the attachment coefficient.3 kV/mm bar. is defined as ά =α–η Many text books use the empirical equation α/p = 1100(exp{-27. that an electron will attach to a molecule to form a negative ion.bar) – 1. pp. So. For simplicity. The attachment coefficient.The ionisation coefficients The ionisation coefficient. say F(E/p). As mentioned earlier. Better ones are available but are generally more troublesome to apply (see.4 E/p}) for air but it is very approximate. in oxygen it is very small. for example. and in general in this course. The field at which α=η is called the Critical Field. that is. ά.3 – . IEEE Trans. In addition there is a possibility (especially for slower-moving electrons) that an attaching collision takes place: e + M ==> M–. below 2. or η>α. an effective ionisation coefficient. kV and bar – or their combinations.. or. in this graph of ά/p versus E/p for air it is only at low fields.λ = eE/p because λ (= mean free path between collisions) is proportional to 1/p (p = pressure) The probability of a collision resulting in ionisation is a function of the energy gained between collisions. Vol. per unit distance travelled in the direction of the anode. is negligible. is F(E/p)*Ap. 25 20 Li-MacA Geballe & H Prasad Morruzzi & P 15 10 5 0 0 -5 1 2 3 4 5 6 E/p (kV/mm. η. Here. α.bar) Clearly. is defined as the probability that an electron will make an ionising collision in travelling unit distance in the direction of the anode. ά is negative). that η>α (i. avalanches cannot develop.

4x105 Unless the field is non-uniform. ά = 1. varying Now try 35 kV n(10mm) = exp(30) = 1. ά or (α-η). Now try 30 kV: ά = 1. the same approach as used above gives n(x) = exp( ∫ ά(E). E = 2. or. odourless and heavy. so that. which means α varies with x.dx.ά) = 108 Therefore So. n(x) = eαx with x. V = 32 kV. It is colourless.dx ) This is useful in for example. may be obtained as ά/p = 26E . Avalanches in non-uniform fields In a non-uniform field.5 kV/mm. n(x) 1 0 x ∫ dn/n = ∫ α. The average size of an avalanche Consider the number of electrons n passing through a plane at a distance x from the cathode in the direction of the electric field (towards the anode) in a time ∆t.85 kV/mm – as shown in the graph overleaf – and the attachment coefficient is much larger than that for oxygen.g. From the right-hand graph. using the definition of α.Avalanche calculations The average size of an avalanche may be calculated for uniform-field conditions by considering the number of electrons n passing through a plane at a distance x from the cathode in the direction of the electric field (towards the anode) in a time ∆t. say. dn = n. SF6 This is a very important insulating gas and is widely used in equipment for electrical power transmission and distribution. breakdown MUST occur near this voltage.230.1x1013 …. or by emission from the electrode) in air at atmospheric pressure. The number of electrons passing through a plane at a distance x + dx may be written as n + dn (again in a time ∆t) where.3 mm-1 ∴the number of electrons in the head of the so n(x) = exp(∫ α.84 mm-1. Simple integration (see box) gives n(x) = eάx How big is an avalanche? Consider an electron produced at x = 0 in a 10-mm gap (e. Sulphur hexafluoride. avalanche when it strikes the anode will be n(10mm) = exp(13) = 4. If the applied voltage is 25 kV. 108 electrons in the head of the avalanche when it strikes the anode? n(10mm) = exp(10. as an electron-ion pair due to a cosmic ray.dx). coaxial cable or busbar systems – see next lecure. For SF6 the ‘critical field’ is at 8.αdx. an empirical expression for the ‘effective ionisation coefficient’. The reverse calculation: what is the voltage which gives. – 1. and remembering that each avalanche is started by a single electron. integrating between limits of x = 0 and x. and ά is found (from the graph on the previous page) to be close to zero. This is a huge increase! Clearly if the current (the sum of all the electrons in all the avalanches which occur in a second) increases at this rate.4 – .

When the avalanche is small. from the formula. and that this would lead to the development of a channel of ionised conducting gas.bar 11 150 α. How big is an SF6 avalanche? Consider an electron produced at x=0 in a 10-mm gap. but in SF6 at atmospheric pressure. Both Raether (in Germany) and Meek (in England) came to the conclusion that when there were about 108 electrons in the avalanche head. But what is the criterion for breakdown? The Streamer Theory of electrical breakdown in gases The electrons in the head of the avalanche increase the field ahead of it. 1/(mm. ά = 0.2 x 106 and 2. recombination would take place: e + M+ ==> M + photon This region will therefore be a source of photons which would speed off (at the velocity of light) in all directions. 1.bar 200 Effective alpha / p.0. Similarly. respectively. then. 1. increase the field in the ‘tail’. Meek called this a ‘streamer’ (Raether called it a kanal.η 100 50 η 0 8 -50 E/p kV/mm. the field due to the avalanche itself could equal the main field. photo-ionisation . but as the avalanche grows there must be a critical size when it is the concentration of charge is great enough for the field to be increased to twice the original gap field.0 kV.5 – .4 and 4.0 and 90. and the number of electrons in the head of the avalanche is n(10mm) = 1. Between 4 and 8 kV/mm ά in air increases by a factor of 10. The mechanism they proposed was that in the region where the electrons and positive ions overlap (see diagram on page 1. in SF6 the situation is even more spectacular as breakdown tends to be close (within 1 or 2% .the ionisation of molecules by photon impact – can occur: photon + M ==> M+ + e These ‘photo-electrons’ initiate new avalanches: those in the higher-field zones ahead and behind the ‘mother avalanche’.2). When they strike molecules. this is an insignificant effect. – 1. as previously. particularly those in the high concentration zone just behind the head.see above) to the critical field.140 130 Ionisation coefficients. 89. kV/mm. 1/mm.5. the positive ions.85 kV/mm. the German word for ‘channel’). If the applied voltage is 88.bar 10 12 14 16 This formula gives the critical field as Ec = 230/26 = 8.bar) α 120 110 100 90 80 70 60 8 9 10 E/p. will grow even faster than the mother avalanche did because the value of ά increases very quickly above the critical field.35 x 1017…! Clearly the size of an SF6 avalanche increases hugely within 1 to 2% above the critical field.

This column of free charges (positive ions and electrons) is conductive so current flows. the number of charged particles increases. At A the field is perhaps 5 times in the gap remote from the avalanche – a ‘baby’ avalanche will develop far faster than the original or ‘mother’ avalanche owards the anode. an alternative criterion. so the ‘baby’ avalanche will still develop much faster than the ‘mother’ avalanche. At E the field is again about twice the gap field. Taking N = 108 = eάx = eK. the current increases – until the source impedance limits the current to the short-circuit current. For SF6. almost explosively. – 1.6 – . but in the cathode direction.4. occurs immediately ahead of the ‘head’ of the avalanche. say. D and E in the figure below.1. more and more avalanches occur. and close besides the dipole area (in the mother avalanche near E) – thus extremely quickly. and again in the anode direction (or. At C the field is zero – nothing will happen. thus producing a column of conducting ionisation. more precisely. thus dropping the voltage across the gap to near zero. but in the opposite direction. Positive feedback occurs as. though occupying a smaller space. K = 16. Consider electrons produced by photo-ionisation at A B C. behind it in the ‘tail’ region. Even at B the field is perhaps twice the gap field so the ‘baby’ avalanche will still develop much faster than the ‘mother’ avalanche.They would produce further avalanches ahead and behind. At D the field is again about twice the gap field so the ‘baby’ avalanche will still develop much faster than the ‘mother’ avalanche. 2x108 makes a change to the calculated breakdown voltage which is usually negligible in practical terms. many workers have suggested that 107 gives better agreement with experiment. It is easy to demonstrate that taking the critical size as 108 or. For N = 107. forming a column of avalanches bridging of the gap between the electrodes (see the STREAMER program). towards the maximum density of positive ions). which is therefore the breakdown criterion for uniform-filed gaps. while the field is maintained. All this development of avalanches of similar size in electron numbers. This defines electrical breakdown. B The electric field around a large avalanche A E C D The critical size for an avalanche to transform into a streamer for air is usually taken as 108. gives K = 18.

Atmospheric-pressure air as insulation involves dimensions of the order of metres (e. Gallagher & Piermain.cm = 10. Vacuum circuit-breakers operate on the left-hand part of the curve. Paschen. who published it in 1889.13 bar.cm in the figure). or αd = K ∴ Hence. but similar shapes are found for all gases. for example.Paschen's Law – Vbdn is a function of ‘pd’ This was discovered experimentally by a German scientist. printed circuit boards in space or near-space conditions. A log/log graph of the breakdown voltage of nitrogen against pd. pd < 10-3 bar. α/p = f(E/p) = K/pd Vbdn = F(pd) … or Paschen's Law. For power engineering it is seldom of direct interest. The so-called Paschen minimum can be of importance for electrical circuits on. This is because the number of mean free paths in the distance from cathode to anode becomes too low for it to be possible for avalanches to develop. SF6 is normally used at a pressure of 4 to 5 bar and dimensions in the region of 10’s of mm.cm = 1. for a ‘near vacuum’.mm The graph shown is for nitrogen. page 49 Note: 1 atm. and dust particles.cm in the figure) Paschen’s Law fails. This is because of the field distortions around small imperfections. overhead lines). Note that for pd > 100 bar..7 – . page 49 – 1. This will be covered in Unit 2 on breakdown in compressed gases. Similarly.013 bar.mm (= 10 atm. This will also be covered in Unit 2.mm (= 10-4 atm.g. It may be derived as follows: breakdown occurs when exp(αd) = 108. The breakdown voltages at the ‘Paschen minima’ for various gases Gallagher & Piermain. Paschen’s Law also fails.mm = 1013 kPa. on the electrode surface. F. Do the calculations yourself.

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