Photomultiplier Tube Destroying Amplifiers - Suggestions?

In summary: You want a signal tracer type voltmeter (VTVM) that will present a very high impedance (and is shielded). A VTVM uses a vacuum tube or FET input stage, and does not load down the PMT's output divider circuit.In summary, a new poster on Physics Forums, C.Law, is seeking advice on a problem with their experimental setup involving a photomultiplier tube (PMT) detector and amplifiers. The setup has worked fine for years, but recently the amplifiers have been burning out frequently. C.Law suspects that the old PMT may be breaking down and causing high voltage to arc to the signal output,
  • #1
C. Law
2
0
Hi everyone, new poster here. I'm a chemist who's in a little over my head with an electrical engineering problem, and I'm hoping someone here might have some advice.

The short version (details to follow) is that my experimental setup has a photomultiplier tube (PMT) detector whose output has to be amplified, and our amplifiers keep burning out. We think we know what the problem is, and we think replacing the (very old) PMT will solve the problem, but that will take a couple months, and I'd love some ideas for temporary fixes that could help extend the life of the amplifiers and let me continue taking data.

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So, here's the setup. The detector is a microchannel plate PMT with a -3kV DC power supply (the PMT's channel plates need to be held at large negative voltages to function), but its normal output is pretty weak; pulses of ~ -5mV amplitude, produced at random intervals of ~100us, with each pulse having a width on the order of tens of picoseconds. (Strictly speaking it's an electron source and not just a voltage source, but we have an in-line attenuator on the output to deal with that). This goes into a commercial inverting amplifier (20dB gain, 13dBm max input power) that boosts it to the level we need in order to trigger some timing electronics.

This setup worked fine for years (maybe decades? Since before I joined the project, anyway). Then one day an amplifier burned out. Okay, no big deal. Then they started burning out more frequently. Now we're lucky to get more than a day of use out of an amplifier before it dies, and the instrument that uses this setup is out of operation.

We think that the PMT, which is very old, is breaking down and allowing high voltage to intermittently arc to the signal output, dumping a huge voltage into the amplifier and killing it (if we're right about this, it isn't something we can repair, and long-term it means replacing the PMT, which unfortunately has a multi-month lead time from the manufacturer). We think this is the problem in part because it has gotten progressively worse over the course of a year, suggesting something is progressively deteriorating. We also think this because one of our attempts at protecting the amplifier involving attaching a splitter to the output, and after a couple days we discovered that two of the 50Ω resistors in the splitter had been burned out. It seems to us (and again, we're chemists and not electrical engineers) that if something as simple and robust as a 50Ω resistor is getting burned, the high voltage must be involved.

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Does anyone have any insight into this problem? First of all, does our conclusion that this has to be crossover from the high voltage seem reasonable, or could something else cause this kind of damage? And secondly, does anyone know of anything that could be used to protect the amplifiers while still letting the small, short pulses that we want to detect through unperturbed? Some sort of protection circuit, or a really fast fuse, maybe?

We really only need a temporary fix, something that would allow us to use the instrument for the next couple months without spending thousands of dollars on amplifiers. I haven't been able to find a commercial component that seems like it would help, and none of the homemade protection circuits I've tried to kludge together with diodes have worked, but maybe someone here has experience with something similar?

If anyone can help, my praise will be unreserved and effusive. Embarrassing, even. :smile: Thanks!
 
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  • #2
C.Law, Welcome to Physics Forums!

In the Hammatsu PMT-MCP technical manual, on page 229, Section 8. 9. 3 Reliability, Part (1) Failure mode, there is this:

“Failure mode for photomultiplier tubes is roughly classified into gradual failure and breakdown failure. The main failure mode is gradual failure, which includes cathode sensitivity degradation, a loss of gain, an increase in dark current and a decrease in dielectric resistance. Breakdown failure includes cracks in the
faceplate, bulb envelope and stem portion, and also air leakage through microscopic cracks. Breakdown failure fatally damages the photomultiplier tube, making it permanently unusable.”

Also, on page 106, Section 4. 1. 3, Voltage -divider circuit, there is a schematic diagram of a typical MCP circuit. Shows 3 high voltage capacitors, anyone that has deteriorated over time may intermittently short and send a high voltage spike into the MCP, and then to the output, which may cause your amplifiers to fail.
http://www.coseti.org/www.boseti.org/pdf/hamamatsu pmt handbook ver2.pdf

One suggestion: you might open up the HV section and perform a complete visual inspection. Look for cracks in HV wire insulation, and for any deformed or discolored components. A simple remove/replace maintenance effort in this area may stop the damage to the output amplifiers.

Bobbywhy
 
  • #3
Thanks so much for the link, Bobbywhy, I hadn't seen that document before; it's very useful! Figure 7-28 on page 183 even has a diagram for a protection circuit to deal with exactly the problem I described.

What I've discovered, though, is that putting the MCP-PMT's output pulse through a resistor is killing the output. I can see pulses from photon events on a scope when the signal just goes through a BNC cable, but once I solder a resistor into the middle of the cable (even just 50 ohms) I don't see anything. Does this make sense to anyone? Is there some reason a fast electron pulse should be getting wiped out just by going through a resistor? It seems like this shouldn't be happening, since even aforementioned Figure 7-28 in the Hamamatsu calls for putting a PMT output through a resistor, but for some reason it's not working for me.

Thoughts?
 
  • #4
I recall PMTs being (1) very picky about supply voltage, and (2) very sensitive to the voltage divider accuracy.

The key testing with confidence is a high impedance voltmeter. Common volt-ohm meters load the readings, and can result in your power supply voltage being adjusted too high.

Check for too high a supply voltage, and test the divider taps to be sure their divided equally. It's not uncommon for the resistors to increase in value or open over time. Don't flex or prod the resistors during test, or you may cover up the problem temporarily.

Cleanliness is essential in high voltage circuits. If your machine has been sitting downstream of acid vapors, you make have a built up contaminates that will throw off the divider voltage when the room is more humid. I've had great luck with breathing onto the suspect board with a drinking straw to prompt failure.

Best Luck,

Mike
 
  • #5


As a fellow scientist, I can understand the frustration and challenges you are facing with this issue. It seems like you have already done a thorough analysis of the problem and have come to a reasonable conclusion that the high voltage from the PMT is causing the amplifiers to burn out. This is a common issue with high voltage equipment and it is important to find a solution to protect your amplifiers while still allowing the desired pulses to pass through.

One suggestion would be to use a voltage divider circuit, which would reduce the voltage from the PMT before it reaches the amplifier. This would require some careful calculation and experimentation to find the right resistance values for the divider, but it could potentially protect your amplifiers from the high voltage spikes. Another option would be to use a fast-acting fuse in line with the amplifier, which would blow and protect the amplifier in case of a high voltage surge.

I would also recommend reaching out to electrical engineers or other experts in the field who may have experience with similar setups. They may have some additional insights or suggestions that could help solve the issue.

In the meantime, it may be worth considering investing in some backup amplifiers or finding a temporary solution while you wait for the replacement PMT. I understand that it is not ideal to spend more money, but it may be necessary in order to continue your research and data collection.

I wish you all the best in finding a solution and getting your instrument back up and running. Science can be challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Thank you for your dedication and perseverance in finding a solution to this problem. Best of luck!
 

Related to Photomultiplier Tube Destroying Amplifiers - Suggestions?

1. What is a photomultiplier tube (PMT) destroying amplifier?

A photomultiplier tube destroying amplifier is a specialized electronic circuit designed to protect photomultiplier tubes from damage caused by high voltage surges or overcurrent conditions.

2. Why do photomultiplier tubes need specialized amplifiers for protection?

Photomultiplier tubes are sensitive and expensive optical sensors that require high voltage to operate. Without proper protection, voltage surges or overcurrent can permanently damage the tube, leading to inaccurate measurements or complete failure.

3. How does a photomultiplier tube destroying amplifier work?

The amplifier senses the current and voltage levels in the PMT circuit and quickly shuts off the high voltage supply if it detects any abnormalities. This prevents excessive current or voltage from reaching the PMT, protecting it from damage.

4. What are some suggestions for choosing a photomultiplier tube destroying amplifier?

When selecting a PMT destroying amplifier, consider the maximum voltage and current ratings of your photomultiplier tube and choose an amplifier with appropriate protection thresholds. Also, make sure the amplifier has fast response times and is compatible with your PMT circuit's voltage and current levels.

5. Are there any alternatives to using a photomultiplier tube destroying amplifier?

Yes, some PMT circuits may have built-in protection or use external voltage regulators to prevent damage. Additionally, you can use fuses or other circuit protection devices, but these may not respond as quickly as a specialized PMT destroying amplifier.

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