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In physics, a vacuum means the absence of matter in a volume of space. If gas is present, sometimes one speaks of a partial vacuum in units of pressure. A complete characterization of the physical state would require further parameters, such as temperature, but these may be understood within the given situation.

The SI unit of pressure is the pascal (abbreviation Pa). It can also be expressed using the torr, using the barometer scale, or as a percentage of atmospheric pressure using the bar.

A perfect vacuum is not in the least obtainable in the laboratory.


Degrees of vacuum

Creating a vacuum

The simplest way to create an artificial vacuum is to expand the volume of a container. For example, your muscles expand your lungs to create a partial vacuum inside them, and air rushes in to fill the vacuum. By repeatedly closing off a compartment of the vacuum and exhausting it, it is possible pump air out of a chamber of fixed size in a manner analogous to pumping a milkshake out of a glass. This is the principle behind most mechanical vacuum pumps. Inside the pump, a mechanism expands a small sealed cavity to create a deep vacuum. Because of the pressure differential, some air from the chamber is pushed into the pump's small cavity. The pump's cavity is then sealed from the chamber, opened to the atmosphere, and squeezed back to a minute size.

A mechanical vacuum pump moves the same volume of gas with each cycle, but as the chamber's pressure drops, this volume contains less and less mass. So although the pumping speed remains constant when measured in litres/second, it drops exponentially when measured in kilograms/second. Meanwhile, the leakage rates, evaporation rates, and sublimation rates produce a constant mass flow into the system. When the pump's mass flow drops to the same level as the mass flows into the chamber, the system asymptotically approaches a constant pressure called the "base pressure." Evaporation and sublimation into a vacuum is called outgassing, and the most common source is water absorbed by materials in the chamber. Outgassing can be reduced by desiccation prior to vacuum pumping. The base pressure of a rubber- and plastic-sealed piston pump system is typically 1 to 50 kPa, while a scroll pump might reach 10 Pa and a rotary vane oil pump with a clean and empty metallic chamber can easily achieve 0.1 Pa

If the dominant mass flow into the vacuum system is chamber leakage or outgassing of materials under vacuum, then the vacuum can be improved simply by installing bigger pumps. However, there is a point where backstream leakage through the pump and outgassing of the pump oils become the dominant mass flows into the chamber. In this situation, the vacuum will approach the pump's "ultimate pressure" - the best vacuum that this type of pump can achieve under ideal conditions. Adding more or bigger pumps of the same type will not improve the vacuum, and better pumping technologies must be used.

High vacuum

Fortunately, once the pressure has dropped below 1 kPa or so, another vacuum pumping technique becomes possible. Matter flows differently at different pressures based on the laws of fluid dynamics. At atmospheric pressure and mild vacuums, molecules interact with each other and push on their neighboring molecules in what is known as viscous flow. When the distance between the molecules increases, the molecules interact with the walls of the chamber more often than the other molecules, and molecular pumping becomes more effective than compression pumping. This regime is generally called "high vacuum."

The two main types of molecular pumps are the diffusion pump and the turbomolecular pump. Both types of pumps blow out gas molecules that diffuse into the pump. Diffusion pumps blow out molecules with jets of oil, while turbomolecular pumps use high speed fans. Both of these pumps will stall and fail to pump if exhausted directly to atmospheric pressure, so they must be exhausted to a lower grade vacuum created by a mechanical pump.

As with mechanical pumps, the base pressure will be reached when leakage, outgassing, and backstreaming equal the pump speed, but now minimizing leakage and outgassing to a level comparable to backstreaming becomes much more difficult. High vacuum systems generally require metal chambers with O-ring seals such as Klein flanges or ISO flanges. The system must be clean and free of organic matter to minimize outgassing. All materials, solid or liquid, have a set vapour pressure, and their outgassing becomes important when the vacuum pressure falls below this vapour pressure. As a result, many materials that work well in low vacuums, such as epoxy, will become a problematic source of outgassing when attempting to achieve high vacuums.

With these standard precautions, vacuums of 1 mPa are easily achieved with off-the-shelf molecular pumps. With careful design and operation, 1μPa is possible.

Ultra-high vacuum

Even higher vacuums are possible, but they generally require custom-built equipment, strict operational procedures, and a fair amount of trial-and-error. Yet more specialized pumps become useful:

  1. Converting the molecules of gas to their solid phase by freezing them, called cryopumping or cryotrapping
  2. Converting them to solids by electrically combining them with other materials, called ion pumping

Ultra-high vacuum systems are usually made of stainless steel with metal-gasketed conflat flanges. The system is usually baked, preferably under vacuum, to temporarily raise the vapour pressure of all outgassing materials in the system and boil them off. If neccessary, this outgassing of the system can also be performed at room temperature, but this takes much more time. Once the bulk of the outgassing materials are boiled off and evacuated, the system may be cooled to lower vapour pressures and minimize residual outgassing during actual operation. Some systems are cooled well below room temperature by liquid nitrogen to shut down residual outgassing and simultanously cryopump the system.

In ultra-high vacuum systems, some very odd leakage paths and outgassing sources must be considered. The water absorption of aluminum and palladium becomes an unacceptable source of outgassing, and even the absorptivity of hard metals such as stainless steel or titanium must be considered. Some oils and greases will boil off in extreme vacuums. The porosity of the metallic chamber walls may have to be considered, and the grain direction of the metallic flanges should be parallel to the flange face.

The impact of molecular size must be considered. Smaller molecules can leak in more easily and are more easily absorbed by certain materials, and molecular pumps are less effective at pumping gases with lower molecular weights. Your system may be able to evacuate nitrogen, (the main component of air,) to the desired vacuum, but your chamber could still be full of residual atmospheric hydrogen and helium. Vessels lined with a highly gas-permeable material such as palladium (which is a high-capacity hydrogen sponge) create special outgassing problems.

The lowest pressures currently achievable in laboratory are about 10-13 Pa.

Vacuum in space

Much of outer space is for all practical purposes an almost perfect vacuum, with only a small number of atoms per cubic metre, such as hydrogen (H) or helium (He). This could make it an attractive environment for certain processes, for instance those that require ultraclean surfaces.

On the other hand, all of the observable universe is filled with large numbers of photons, the so-called cosmic background radiation, and quite likely a correspondingly large number of neutrinos. The current temperature is about 3 K, being merely 3 degrees above the absolute zero of temperature. Neither these photons, nor the neutrinos interact with other kinds of matter, to any noticeable degree (except that the photons can be detected). Although space is therefore not exactly empty, stars, planets, and spacecraft move freely in this partial vacuum.

The quantum-mechanical vacuum

Even an ideal vacuum, thought of as the complete absence of anything, will not in practice remain empty. One reason is that the walls of a vacuum chamber emit light in the form of black-body radiation: visible light if they are at a temperature of thousands of degrees, infrared light if they are cooler. If this soup of photons is in thermodynamic equilibrium with the walls, it can be said to have a particular temperature, as well as a pressure.

More fundamentally, there are quantum-mechanical fluctuations in the ideal vacuum. While most agree that this represents a significant part of particle physics, it is a concept that would benefit from a deeper understanding than currently available. Vacuum fluctuations may also be related to the so-called cosmological constant in the theory of gravitation, if indeed this entity were to be observed in nature.

Historical interpretation

Historically, there has been much dispute over whether such a thing as a vacuum can exist. Ancient Greek philosophers did not like to admit the existence of a vacuum, asking themselves "how can 'nothing' be something?". Plato found the idea of a vacuum inconceivable. He believed that all physical things were instantiations of an abstract Platonic ideal, and could not imagine an "ideal" form of a vacuum. Similarly, Aristotle considered the creation of a vacuum impossible—nothing could not be something. Later Greek philosophers thought that a vacuum could exist outside the cosmos, but not inside it.

In the Middle Ages, the idea of a vacuum was thought to be immoral or even heretical. The absence of anything implied the absence of God, and hearkened back to the void prior to the story of creation in the book of Genesis. Medieval thought experiments into the idea of a vacuum considered whether a vacuum was present, if only for an instant, between two flat plates when they were rapidly separated. There was much discussion of whether the air moved in quickly enough as the plates were separated, or, following William Burley whether a 'celestial agent' prevented the vacuum arising—that is, whether nature abhorred a vacuum. This speculation became irrelevant after the Paris condemnations of Bishop Tempier , which required there to be no restrictions on the powers of God, which led to the conclusion that God could create a vacuum if he so wished.

Following work by Galileo, Torricelli argued in 1643 that there was a vacuum at the top of a mercury barometer, and Robert Boyle later conducted experiments on the effects of a vacuum. For example, a canary exposed to vacuum would become unconscious, but would revive when air was reintroduced. In 1654, Otto von Guericke conducted his famous Magdeburg hemispheres experiment, showing that teams of horses could not separate two hemispheres from which the air had been evacuated.

Concurrently, theories of the nature of light had concentrated on the idea of a luminiferous aether which would be the medium to convey waves of light (Newton's corpuscular theory having fallen out of favour). In 1887 the Michelson-Morley experiment, using an interferometer to attempt to detect the change in the speed of light caused by the Earth moving with respect to the aether, was a famous null result, showing that there really was no pervasive medium throughout space.

See also

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