Explosive field emission cathodes have been a subject of research for a number of years. These cathodes offer high current densities and total current without requiring a heater for the production of electrons. Generally these cathodes consist of some structure with a series of tips or metal–dielectric regions in which a large electric field enhancement can occur. A cathode plasma is then formed from these discharge points that then supplies the electrons necessary for space charge limited emission. This article reports on a series of optical measurements in which the cathode and anode plasmas of explosive field emission cathodes are observed. Three types of cathodes are investigated. These types are a polymer velvet cathode, a metal–dielectric cathode, and a tufted carbon fiber cathode in which the fibers have been coated with a cesium iodide salt. Cesium iodide coated carbon fiber cathodes have shown a great deal of promise for various field emitter applications. From these high speed photos, the evolution of the plasmas on both cathode and anode can be qualitatively ascertained. Experimentally we find that not only does cathode plasma behavior depend on the type of cathode, but the anode plasma behavior does also. Further, we find that the best performing cathode shows the most rapid plasma formation on both anode and cathode, yet without a rapid plasma expansion across the anode–cathode gap.

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