The Cavity Magnetron

The operation of a cavity magnetron is comparable to a vacuum tube: a nonlinear device that was mostly replaced by the transistor. The vacuum tube operated using thermionic emission, when a material with a high melting point is heated and expels electrons. When the work function of a material is overcome through thermal energy transfer to electrons, these particles can escape the material.

Magnetrons are comprised of two main elements: the cathode and anode. The cathode is at the center and contains the filament which is heated to create the thermionic emission effect. The outside part of the anode acts as a one-turn inductor to provide a magnetic field to bend the movement of the electrons in a circular manner. If not for the magnetic field, the electrons would simple be expelled outward. The magnetic field sweeps the electrons around, exciting the resonant cavities of the anode block.

The resonant cavities behave much like a passive LC filter circuit which resonate a certain frequency. In fact, the tipped end of each resonant cavity looks much like a capacitor storing charge between two plates, and the back wall acts an inductor. It is well known that a parallel resonant circuit has a high voltage output at one particular frequency (the resonant frequency) depending on the reactance of the capacitor and inductor. This can be contrasted with a series resonant circuit, which has a current peak at the resonant frequency where the two devices act as a low impedance short circuit. The resonant cavities in question are parallel resonant.

Just like the soundhole of a guitar, the resonant cavity of the magnetron’s resonance frequency is determined by the size of the cavity. Therefore, the magnetron should be designed to have a resonant frequency that makes sense for the application. For a microwaves oven, the frequency should be around 2.4GHz for optimum cooking. For an X-band RADAR, this should be closer to 10GHz or around this level. An interesting aspect of the magnetron is when a cavity is excited, another sequential cavity is also excited out of phase by 180 degrees.

The magnetron generally produces wavelength around several centimeters (roughly 10 cm in a microwave oven). It is known as a “crossed field” device, because the electrons are under the influence of both electric and magnetic fields, which are in orthogonal directions. An antenna is attached to the dipole for the radiation to be expelled. In a microwaves oven, the microwaves are guided using a metallic waveguide into the cooking chamber.

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