What Is a Vacuum?
A vacuum, in theory, is a space entirely devoid of matter. But no method has been devised for producing one. In practice, therefore, a vacuum is an enclosed space from which air or other gases have been expelled to such an extent that the pressure inside is below that of the atmosphere. There are partial vacuums and high vacuums, according to the proportion of air pumped out of the container.
Vacuums can be put to a wide variety of uses, thanks largely to the truth of the old saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum”. The tendency of air to rush into empty spaces under pressure from the atmosphere provides vacuums with suction power. This can be used to operate vacuum cleaners, pumps, milking machines and powerful brakes for heavy vehicles. Vacuums speed up evaporation and are, therefore, used in refrigeration and the dehydration of drugs and food.
High-vacuum processes are used to provide extra-hard steel, blend new materials and make components for radio and television sets. Perhaps the best-known use is in the electric light lamp where to protect the filament from chemical degradation the glowing wires are deprived of the oxygen which would cause them to burn up almost immediately.
The chemical inertness produced by a vacuum is also useful for electron beam welding, cold welding, vacuum packing and vacuum frying. Ultra-high vacuum is used in the study of atomically clean substrates, as only a very good vacuum preserves atomic-scale clean surfaces for a reasonably long time (on the order of minutes to days). High to ultra-high vacuum removes the obstruction of air, allowing particle beams to deposit or remove materials without contamination.
This is the principle behind chemical vapor deposition, physical vapor deposition, and dry etching which are essential to the fabrication of semiconductors and optical coatings, and to surface science. The reduction of convection provides the thermal insulation of thermos bottles. Deep vacuum lowers the boiling point of liquids and promotes low temperature outgassing which is used in freeze drying, adhesive preparation, distillation, metallurgy, and process purging.
The electrical properties of vacuum make electron microscopes and vacuum tubes possible, including cathode ray tubes. Vacuum interrupters are used in electrical switchgear. Vacuum arc processes are industrially important for production of certain grades of steel or high purity materials. The elimination of air friction is useful for flywheel energy storage and ultracentrifuges.
Physicists often discuss ideal test results that would occur in a perfect vacuum, which they sometimes simply call “vacuum” or free space, and use the term partial vacuum to refer to an actual imperfect vacuum as one might have in a laboratory or in space. In engineering and applied physics on the other hand, vacuum refers to any space in which the pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure. The Latin term in vacuo is used to describe an object that is surrounded by a vacuum.
The quality of a partial vacuum refers to how closely it approaches a perfect vacuum. Other things equal, lower gas pressure means higher-quality vacuum. For example, a typical vacuum cleaner produces enough suction to reduce air pressure by around 20%. Much higher-quality vacuums are possible. Ultra-high vacuum chambers, common in chemistry, physics, and engineering, operate below one trillionth (10−12) of atmospheric pressure (100 nPa), and can reach around 100 particles/cm3.
Outer space is an even higher-quality vacuum, with the equivalent of just a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter on average. According to modern understanding, even if all matter could be removed from a volume, it would still not be “empty” due to vacuum fluctuations, dark energy, transiting gamma rays, cosmic rays, neutrinos, and other phenomena in quantum physics. In the study of electromagnetism in the 19th century, vacuum was thought to be filled with a medium called aether. In modern particle physics, the vacuum state is considered the ground state of a field.
Vacuum has been a frequent topic of philosophical debate since ancient Greek times, but was not studied empirically until the 17th century. Evangelista Torricelli produced the first laboratory vacuum in 1643, and other experimental techniques were developed as a result of his theories of atmospheric pressure. A torricellian vacuum is created by filling a tall glass container closed at one end with mercury, and then inverting the container into a bowl to contain the mercury.
Vacuum became a valuable industrial tool in the 20th century with the introduction of incandescent light bulbs and vacuum tubes, and a wide array of vacuum technology has since become available. The recent development of human spaceflight has raised interest in the impact of vacuum on human health, and on life forms in general.