Photomultiplier Tubes

In optical emission spectrometry, photomultipliers are commonly used as detectors. They are photocell detectors. The incident photons coming from the exit slit liberate electrons from the photocathode and the electron flow is then amplified by a set of dynodes. The final anode current is proportional to the incident photon signal received by the photocathode.


The measurement dynamic range is very broad, i.e. 1015, and sensitivity is high, as the dark current is low. These detectors allow the detection of low intensities emitted by trace elements, as well as strong signals from major elements. They have very fast response times, typically 1-2 ns for a 10%-90% change in signal. The main inconvenience of photomultipliers is their cost.

There are several types of photomultipliers, which differ in the nature of the entrance window, either crystal or fluoride, and in the nature of the sensitive layer on the photocathode. Some are only sensitive in the far ultraviolet while others are more sensitive in the visible. The type of photomultiplier to be used is selected according to the wavelength of the line to be detected.

A fatigue lamp (a small incandescent light source) is often used with photomultipliers to keep the temperature of the tube and its associated electronics constant. The fatigue lamp is switched on when the emission source is off and switched off when the emission source is on.

Authors: Jean Charles Lefebvre and Geoff Tyler, Jobin-Yvon Emission, France

First published on the web: 15 January 2000.