Exploring the Basic Physical Mechanisms of Cathode- and Anode-Initiated High-Voltage Surface Flashover

William Brooks, Raimi Clark, Jacob Young, Matthew Hopkins, James Dickens, Jacob Stephens, Andreas Neuber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Surface flashover in vacuum imposes a substantial physical limit on modern, large-scale pulsed power. One of the ramifications is a minimum size requirement for new machines, which in itself becomes a hard barrier to the modernization and improvement of existing infrastructure. Pulsed power topologies require the physical mechanisms of both anode- and cathode-initiated flashover to be considered. Originally, the geometrical implications of field emission at the cathode triple junction (CTJ) motivated the usage of configurations that avoid electrons impinging on the insulating material. This will largely suppress the cathode-initiated flashover, which is best described by the secondary electron avalanche mechanism, gas desorption, and final breakdown in the desorbed gas. It depends on the cascade growth of a conducting plasma along the length of the insulator from the cathode. Mitigating the cathode-initiated flashover typically comes at the cost of a significant field enhancement at the anode triple junction (ATJ). In a typical implementation, the anode field may be three times higher than the cathode field for a given voltage, making the corresponding anode-initiated flashover much more common than otherwise. In the case of pulsed, anode-initiated flashover, experimental evidence suggests that charge is directly extracted from the insulator resulting in the insulator taking on a net positive charge advancing the anode potential. Along with accompanying gas desorption from the surface, the potential will then propagate from the anode toward the cathode until the effective length of the gap is sufficiently reduced to support flashover. The underlying physical mechanisms of cathode- and anode-directed flashover are discussed in light of previously gathered experimental data and recent experiments with pulsed, high-gradient, anode-initiated flashover.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalIEEE Transactions on Plasma Science
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Anodes
  • Cathodes
  • Electric breakdown
  • Electric potential
  • Flashover
  • Insulators
  • Surface impedance
  • Surface treatment
  • vacuum breakdown.


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