The simplest type of glow discharge is a direct-current glow discharge. In its simplest form, it consists of two electrodes in a cell held at low pressure (0.1–10 torr; about 1/10000th to 1/100th of atmospheric pressure). The cell is typically filled with argon, but other gases can also be used. An electric potential of several hundred volts is applied between the two electrodes. A small population of atoms within the cell is initially ionized through random processes (collisions between atoms or with alpha particles, for example). The ions (which are positively charged) are driven towards the cathode by the electric potential, and the electrons are driven towards the anode by the same potential. The initial population of ions and electrons collides with other atoms, ionizing them. As long as the potential is maintained, a population of ions and electrons remains.
Some of the ions' kinetic energy is transferred to the cathode. This happens partially through the ions striking the cathode directly. The primary mechanism, however, is less direct. Ions strike the more numerous neutral gas atoms, transferring a portion of their energy to them. These neutral atoms then strike the cathode. Whichever species (ions or atoms) strike the cathode, collisions within the cathode redistribute this energy until a portion of the cathode is ejected, typically in the form of free atoms. This process is known as sputtering. Once free of the cathode, atoms move into the bulk of the glow discharge through drift and due to the energy they gained from sputtering. The atoms can then be collisionally excited. These collisions may be with ions, electrons, or other atoms that have been previously excited by collisions with ions, electrons, or atoms. Once excited, atoms will lose their energy fairly quickly. Of the various ways that this energy can be lost, the most important is radiatively, meaning that a photon is released to carry the energy away. In optical atomic spectroscopy, the wavelength of this photon can be used to determine the identity of the atom (that is, which chemical element it is) and the number of photons is directly proportional to the concentration of that element in the sample. Some collisions (those of high enough energy) will cause ionization. In atomic mass spectrometry, these ions are detected. Their mass identifies the type of atoms and their quantity reveals the amount of that element in the sample.
The figure above shows the main regions that may be present in a glow discharge. Regions described as "glows" emit significant light; regions labeled as "dark spaces" do not. As the discharge becomes more extended (i.e., stretched horizontally in the geometry of the figure), the positive column may become striated. That is, alternating dark and bright regions may form. Relatedly, compressing the discharge horizontally will result in fewer regions. The positive column will be compressed while the negative glow will remain the same size, and, with small enough gaps, the positive column will disappear altogether. In an analytical glow discharge, the discharge is primarily a negative glow with dark region above and below it.
Below the ionization voltage or breakdown voltage there is no glow, but as the voltage increases to the ionization point the Townsend discharge happens just as Glow Discharge becomes visible, this is the start of the normal glow range. As the voltage is increased above the Normal Glow range, Abnormal Glow begins. If the Voltage is increased to the point the cathode glow covers the entire cathode Arc Discharge begins.
Glow discharges can be used to analyze the elemental, and sometimes molecular, composition of solids, liquids, and gases, but elemental analysis of solids is by far the most common. In this arrangement, the sample is used as the cathode. As mentioned earlier, gas ions and atoms striking the sample surface knock atoms off of it (a process known as sputtering). The sputtered atoms, now in the gas phase, can be detected by atomic absorption, but this is a comparatively rare strategy. Instead, atomic emission and mass spectrometry are usually used. Collisions between the gas-phase sample atoms and the plasma gas pass energy to the sample atoms. This energy can excite the atoms, after which they can lose their energy through atomic emission. By observing the wavelength of the emitted light, the atom's identity can be determined. By observing the intensity of the emission, the concentration of atoms of that type can be determined. Energy gained through collisions can also ionize the sample atoms. The ions can then be detected by mass spectrometry. In this case, it is the mass of the ions that identified the element and the number of ions that reflects the concentration
Both bulk and depth analysis of solids may be performed with glow discharge. Bulk analysis assumes that the sample is fairly homogeneous and averages the emission or mass spectrometric signal over time. Depth analysis relies on the fact that the depth increases as time goes by. Tracking the signal in time, therefore, is the same as tracking the elemental composition in depth. Depth analysis requires greater control over operational parameters. For example, conditions (current, potential, pressure) need to be adjusted so that the crater produced by sputtering is flat bottom (that is, so that the depth analyzed over the crater area is uniform). In bulk measurement, a rough or rounded crater bottom would not adversely impact analysis. Under the best conditions, depth resolution in the single nanometer range has been achieved (in fact, within-molecule resolution has been demonstrated).
The chemistry of ions and neutrals in vacuum is called gas phase ion chemistry and is part of the analytical study that includes Electric glow discharge.
In analytical chemistry, glow discharges are most often operated in direct-current mode. For this mode, the cathode (which is the sample in solids analysis) must be conductive. The potential, pressure, and current are interrelated. Only two can be directly controlled at once, while the third must be allowed to vary. The pressure is most typically held constant, but other schemes may be used. The pressure and current may be held constant, while potential is allowed to vary. The pressure and voltage may be held constant while the current is allowed to vary. The power (product of voltage and current) may be held constant while the pressure is allowed to vary.
Glow discharges may also be operated in radio-frequency mode. In this mode, a sine wave current of radio-frequency is applied to the cathode. Because alternating currents can pass through non-conductive materials, this allows sampling of such materials, greatly expanding the applicability of the technique.
Both radio-frequency and direct-current glow discharges can be operated in pulsed mode, where the potential is turned on and off. This allows higher instantaneous powers to be applied without excessively heating the cathode. These higher instantaneous powers produce higher instantaneous signals, aiding detection. Combining time-resolved detection with pulsed powering results in additional benefits. In atomic emission, analyte atoms emit during different portions of the pulse than background atoms, allowing the two to be discriminated. Analogously, in mass spectrometry, sample and background ions are created at different times.