Richardson's law


Thermionic emission is the thermally induced flow of charge carriers from a surface or over a potential-energy barrier. This occurs because the thermal energy given to the carrier overcomes the work function of the material. The charge carriers can be electrons or ions, and in older literature are sometimes referred to as thermions. After emission, a charge that is equal in magnitude and opposite in sign to the total charge emitted is initially left behind in the emitting region. But if the emitter is connected to a battery, the charge left behind is neutralized by charge supplied by the battery as the emitted charge carriers move away from the emitter, and finally the emitter will be in the same state as it was before emission.

The classical example of thermionic emission is that of electrons from a hot cathode into a vacuum (also known as thermal electron emission or the Edison effect) in a vacuum tube. The hot cathode can be a metal filament, a coated metal filament, or a separate structure of metal or carbides or borides of transition metals. Vacuum emission from metals tends to become significant only for temperatures over 1,000 K (730 °C; 1,340 °F).

The term “thermionic emission” is now also used to refer to any thermally-excited charge emission process, even when the charge is emitted from one solid-state region into another. This process is crucially important in the operation of a variety of electronic devices and can be used for electricity generation (such as thermionic converters and electrodynamic tethers) or cooling. The magnitude of the charge flow increases dramatically with increasing temperature.

From band theory, there are one or two electrons per atom in a solid that are free to move from atom to atom. This is sometimes collectively referred to as a “sea of electrons”. Their velocities follow a statistical distribution, rather than being uniform, and occasionally an electron will have enough velocity to exit the metal without being pulled back in. The minimum amount of energy needed for an electron to leave a surface is called the work function. The work function is characteristic of the material and for most metals is on the order of several electronvolts. Thermionic currents can be increased by decreasing the work function. This often-desired goal can be achieved by applying various oxide coatings to the wire.

In 1901 Richardson published the results of his experiments: the current from a heated wire seemed to depend exponentially on the temperature of the wire with a mathematical form similar to the Arrhenius equation. Later, he proposed that the emission law should have this mathematical form.

Related formulas


Jemission current density (A/m2)
AGproduct of a universal constant A0 multiplied by a material-specific correction factor λR (A/m2*K2)
Ttemprature of metal (K)
Wwork function (J)
kBoltzmann constant