Magnetrons - Online Article


The magnetron is called a "crossed-field" device in the industry because both magnetic and electric fields are employed in its operation, and they are produced in perpendicular directions so that they cross. The applied magnetic field is constant and applied along the axis of the circular device illustrated. The power to the device is applied to the center cathode which is heated to supply energetic electrons which would, in the absence of the magnetic field, tend to move radially outward to the ring anode which surrounds it.Electrons are released at the center hot cathode by the process of thermionic emission and have an accelerating field which moves them outward toward the anode. The axial magnetic field exerts a magnetic force on these charges which is perpendicular to their initially radial motion, and they tend to be swept around the circle. In this way, work is done on the charges and therefore energy from the power supply is given to them. As these electrons sweep toward a point where there is excess negative charge, that charge tends to be pushed back around the cavity, imparting energy to the oscillation at the natural frequency of the cavity. This driven oscillation of the charges around the cavities leads to radiation of electromagnetic waves, the output of the magnetron.

Basic Magnetron Structure

The nucleus of the high-voltage system is the magnetron tube . The magnetron is a diode-type electron tube which is used to produce the required 2450 MHz of microwave energy. It is classed as a diode because it has no grid as does an ordinary electron tube. A magnetic field imposed on the space between the anode (plate) and the cathode serves as the grid. While the external configurations of different magnetrons will vary, the basic internal structures are the same. These include the anode, the filament/cathode, the antenna, and the magnets.

The ANODE (or plate) is a hollow cylinder of iron from which an even number of anode vanes extend inward (see Fig. 2). The open trapezoidal shaped areas between each of the vanes are resonant cavities that serve as tuned circuits and determine the output frequency of the tube. The anode operates in such a way that alternate segments must be connected, or strapped, so that each segment is opposite in polarity to the segment on either side. In effect, the cavities are connected in parallel with regard to the output. This will become easier to understand as the description of operation is considered.

The FILAMENT (also called heater), which also serves as the cathode of the tube, is located in the center of the magnetron, and is supported by the large and rigid filament leads, which are carefully sealed into the tube and shielded.

The ANTENNA is a probe or loop that is connected to the anode and extends into one of the tuned cavities. The antenna is coupled to the waveguide , a hollow metal enclosure, into which the antenna transmits the RF energy.

The MAGNETIC FIELD is provided by strong permanent magnets, which are mounted around the magnetron so that the magnetic field is parallel with the axis of the cathode.

Basic Magnetron Operation

The theory of magnetron operation is based on the motion of electrons under the combined influence of electric and magnetic fields. For the tube to operate, electrons must flow from the cathode to the anode. There are two fundamental laws that govern their trajectory:

  • The force exerted by an electric field on an electron is proportional to the strength of the field. Electrons tend to move from a point of negative potential toward a positive potential. Figure 3-A shows the uniform and direct movement of the electrons in an electric field with no magnetic field present, from the negative cathode to the positive anode.
  • The force exerted on an electron in a magnetic field is at right angles to both the field itself, and to the path of the electron. The direction of the force is such that the electron proceeds to the anode in a curve rather than a direct path.

Effect of the Magnetic Field

In Figure 3-B two permanent magnets are added above and below the tube structure. In Figure 3-C, assume the upper magnet is a north pole and you are viewing from that position. The lower, south pole magnet, is located underneath the page, so that the magnetic field appears to be coming right through the page. Just as electrons flowing through a conductor cause a magnetic field to build up around that conductor, so an electron moving through space tends to build up a magnetic field around itself. On one side (left) of the electron's path, this self induced magnetic field adds to the permanent magnetic field surrounding it. On the other side (right) of its path, it has the opposite effect of subtracting from the permanent magnetic field. The magnetic field on the right side is therefore weakened, and the electron's trajectory bends in that direction, resulting in a circular motion of travel to the anode.

The process begins with a low voltage being applied to the filament, which causes it to heat up (filament voltage is usually 3 to 4 VAC, depending on the make and model). Remember, in a magnetron tube, the filament is also the cathode. The temperature rise causes increased molecular activity within the cathode, to the extent that it begins to "boil off" or emit electrons. Electrons leaving the surface of a heated filament wire might be compared to molecules that leave the surface of boiling water in the form of steam. Unlike steam, though, the electrons do not evaporate. They float, or hover, just off the surface of the cathode, waiting for some momentum.


The microwave radiation of microwave ovens and some radar applications is produced by a device called a magnetron. The heart of every microwave oven is the high voltage system . Its purpose is to generate microwave energy. The high-voltage components accomplish this by stepping up AC line voltage to high voltage, which is then changed to an even higher DC voltage. This DC power is then converted to the RF energy that cooks the food.

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