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Microwave tubes

For extremely high-frequency applications (above 1 GHz), the interelectrode capacitances and transit-time delays of standard electron tube construction become prohibitive. However, there seems to be no end to the creative ways in which tubes may be constructed, and several high-frequency electron tube designs have been made to overcome these challenges.

It was discovered in 1939 that a toroidal cavity made of conductive material called a cavity resonator surrounding an electron beam of oscillating intensity could extract power from the beam without actually intercepting the beam itself. The oscillating electric and magnetic fields associated with the beam "echoed" inside the cavity, in a manner similar to the sounds of traveling automobiles echoing in a roadside canyon, allowing radio-frequency energy to be transferred from the beam to a waveguide or coaxial cable connected to the resonator with a coupling loop. The tube was called an inductive output tube, or IOT:

Two of the researchers instrumental in the initial development of the IOT, a pair of brothers named Sigurd and Russell Varian, added a second cavity resonator for signal input to the inductive output tube. This input resonator acted as a pair of inductive grids to alternately "bunch" and release packets of electrons down the drift space of the tube, so the electron beam would be composed of electrons traveling at different velocities. This "velocity modulation" of the beam translated into the same sort of amplitude variation at the output resonator, where energy was extracted from the beam. The Varian brothers called their invention a klystron.

Another invention of the Varian brothers was the reflex klystron tube. In this tube, electrons emitted from the heated cathode travel through the cavity grids toward the repeller plate, then are repelled and returned back the way they came (hence the name reflex) through the cavity grids. Self-sustaining oscillations would develop in this tube, the frequency of which could be changed by adjusting the repeller voltage. Hence, this tube operated as a voltage-controlled oscillator.

As a voltage-controlled oscillator, reflex klystron tubes served commonly as "local oscillators" for radar equipment and microwave receivers:

Initially developed as low-power devices whose output required further amplification for radio transmitter use, reflex klystron design was refined to the point where the tubes could serve as power devices in their own right. Reflex klystrons have since been superseded by semiconductor devices in the application of local oscillators, but amplification klystrons continue to find use in high-power, high-frequency radio transmitters and in scientific research applications.

One microwave tube performs its task so well and so cost-effectively that it continues to reign supreme in the competitive realm of consumer electronics: the magnetron tube. This device forms the heart of every microwave oven, generating several hundred watts of microwave RF energy used to heat food and beverages, and doing so under the most grueling conditions for a tube: powered on and off at random times and for random durations.

Magnetron tubes are representative of an entirely different kind of tube than the IOT and klystron. Whereas the latter tubes use a linear electron beam, the magnetron directs its electron beam in a circular pattern by means of a strong magnetic field:

Once again, cavity resonators are used as microwave-frequency "tank circuits," extracting energy from the passing electron beam inductively. Like all microwave-frequency devices using a cavity resonator, at least one of the resonator cavities is tapped with a coupling loop: a loop of wire magnetically coupling the coaxial cable to the resonant structure of the cavity, allowing RF power to be directed out of the tube to a load. In the case of the microwave oven, the output power is directed through a waveguide to the food or drink to be heated, the water molecules within acting as tiny load resistors, dissipating the electrical energy in the form of heat.

The magnet required for magnetron operation is not shown in the diagram. Magnetic flux runs perpendicular to the plane of the circular electron path. In other words, from the view of the tube shown in the diagram, you are looking straight at one of the magnetic poles.


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