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Photomultipliers, or photomultiplier tubes (PMT) are extremely sensitive detectors of light in the ultraviolet, visible and near infrared. These detectors multiply the signal produced from the incident light from which single photons are detectable.

Schematic of a photomultiplier tube coupled to a scintillator.

Photomultipliers are constructed from a glass vacuum tube which houses a dynode and an anode. Incident photons strike the photocathode material which is present as a thin deposit on the entry window of the device, with electrons being produced as a consequence of the photoelectric effect. These electrons are directed by the focusing electrode towards the electron multiplier, where electrons are multiplied by the process of secondary emission.

The electron multiplier consists of a number of electrodes, called dynodes. Each dynode is held at a more positive voltage than the previous one. The electrons leave the photocathode, having the energy of the incoming photon. As they move towards the first dynode they are accelerated by the electric field and arrive with much greater energy. On striking the first dynode, more low energy electrons are emitted and these, in turn, are accelerated toward the second dynode. The geometry of the dynode chain is such that a cascade occurs with an ever-increasing number of electrons being produced at each stage. Finally the anode is reached where the accumulation of charge results in a sharp voltage pulse indicating the detection of a photon at the photocathode


Amplification can be as much as 108 meaning that measurable pulses can be obtained from single photons. The combination of high gain, low noise, high frequency response and large area of collection have meant that these devices still find applications in particle physics, astronomy and medical imaging. Their replacement by semiconductor devices has long been predicted but has never been achieved.

See also


  • Engstrom, Ralph W., Photomultiplier Handbook, RCA (1980).
  • anon, Photomultiplier Tubes: Principles and Applications, Philips Photonics, Brive, France, (1994).
  • anon, Photomultiplier Tubes: Basics and Applications (Second Edition), Hamamatsu Photonics, Hamamatsu City, Japan, (1999).
  • Flyckt, S.O. and Marmonier, C., Photomultiplier Tubes: Principles and Applications, Photonis, Brive, France, (2003).

External links

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