We report on the existence of a smooth transition from field emission to a self-sustained plasma in microscale electrode geometries at atmospheric pressure. This behavior, which is not found at macroscopic scales or low pressures, arises from the unique combination of large electric fields that are created in microscale dimensions to produce field-emitted electrons and the high pressures that lead to collisional ionization of the gas. Using a tip-to-plane electrode geometry, currents less than 10 μA are measured at onset voltages of ∼200 V for gaps less than 5 μm, and analysis of the current-voltage (I-V) relationship is found to follow Fowler-Nordheim behavior, confirming field emission. As the applied voltage is increased, gas breakdown occurs smoothly, initially resulting in the formation of a weak, partial-like glow and then a self-sustained glow discharge. Remarkably, this transition is essentially reversible, as no significant hysteresis is observed during forward and reverse voltage sweeps. In contrast, at larger electrode gaps, no field emission current is measured and gas breakdown occurs abruptly at higher voltages of ∼400 V, absent of any smooth transition from the pre-breakdown condition and is characterized only by glow discharge formation.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Physics and Astronomy(all)