Indexed on: 01 Nov '99Published on: 01 Nov '99Published in: Technical Physics
The form of the electron distribution function in the positive column of low-pressure discharges is examined under conditions such that the electron mean free path exceeds the vessel radius. Its formation is analyzed taking all major factors into account, including elastic and inelastic collisions, radial and axial electric fields, and the loss of fast electrons to the wall. It is shown that the main mechanism controlling the fast part of the distribution function is the loss of electrons to the wall, which is determined by the scattering of electrons into a comparatively small loss cone that depends on the relationship between the axial and radial components of the velocity. Since the elastic collision rate for all elements has a weak dependence on the energy beyond the ionization threshold, ultimately the high-energy part of the electron energy distribution function in the positive column of low-pressure discharges is nearly Maxwellian. The subthreshold portion of the distribution function, in turn, is determined by the energy diffusion, in a comparatively strong field, of Maxwellian electrons which arrive after inelastic collisions. The final electron distribution function is well approximated by an exponential with a single slope over the entire energy range. Only within a narrow range of scattering angles is the electron distribution function strongly depleted by the loss of electrons to the vessel walls. In the end, it is concluded that this phenomenon, like the Langmuir paradox, may be related to aspects of the physics of the formation of the electron distribution function owing to a combination of already known mechanisms, rather than to a hypothetical mechanism for thermalization of the electrons, as assumed up to now in the literature. A comparison of solutions of the model kinetic equation given here with published Monte Carlo calculations and experimental data shows that they are in good agreement.