It is usually a large steel container with a pool of mercury in the bottom that acts as a cathode during operation. A large graphite or refractory metal cylinder, held above the pool by an insulated electrical connection, serves as the anode. An igniting electrode (called the "ignitor") is briefly pulsed with a high current to create a puff of electrically conductive mercury plasma. The plasma rapidly bridges the space between the mercury pool and the anode, permitting heavy conduction between the main electrodes. At the surface of the mercury, heating by the resulting arc liberates large numbers of electrons which help to maintain the mercury arc. The mercury surface thus serves as the cathode, and current is normally only in one direction. Once ignited, an ignitron will continue to pass current until either the current is externally interrupted or the voltage applied between cathode and anode is reversed.
Ignitrons were long used as high-current rectifiers in major industrial and utility installations where thousands of amperes of AC current must be converted to DC, such as aluminum smelters. Large electric motors were also controlled by ignitrons used in gated fashion, in a manner similar to modern semiconductor devices such as silicon controlled rectifiers and triacs. Many electric locomotives used them in conjunction with transformers to convert high voltage AC from the catenary to relatively low voltage DC for the traction motors. For most of these applications, ignitrons have been replaced by solid state alternatives.
Because they are far more resistant to damage due to overcurrent or back-voltage, ignitrons are still manufactured and used in preference to semiconductors in some installations. For example, specially constructed "pulse rated" ignitrons are still used in certain pulsed power applications. These devices can switch hundreds of kiloamperes and hold off as much as 50,000 volts. The anodes in these devices are often fabricated from a refractory metal, usually molybdenum, to handle reverse current during ringing (or oscillatory) discharges without damage. Pulse rated ignitrons usually operate at very low duty cycles. They are often used to switch high energy capacitor banks during electromagnetic forming, electrohydraulic forming, or for emergency short-circuiting of high voltage power sources ("crowbar" switching).