A travelling wave tube amplifies a RF signal through interaction with a stream of high-velocity electrons, which 'bunch up' to match the driver signal and subsequently transfer their energy to the RF signal, making it more powerful.

I can understand a conservation-of-energy explanation of what's going on: the electron beam slows down, and part of that kinetic energy (going as v^2 -- so a small delta on a big velocity is still a big energy!) gets dumped into the RF beam.

What I'm struggling with is an intuitive explanation, or a simple equation that makes it obvious that things would happen this way.

e.g. some things I'm having trouble with:

  1. If the electron cloud 'bunches up', it's going to repel itself and try to smooth itself back out -- why is it obvious that the small field of the driver signal can overcome this repulsion?

  2. Why is it obvious that the energy of the electrons 'bunching up' will get transferred into the original beam, and that it'll boost the signal by a significant amount?

Thank you!

  • $\begingroup$ This might help - Accelerator Science: Why RF?. $\endgroup$
    – mmesser314
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ It's not helpful, it's just describing the process, I still don't understand it intuitively. e.g. I don't understand the coupling between electrons and RF -- what's the simplest symbolic explanation? Why is it obvious that the electrons are going to dump their energy into the beam from just a small driver signal? @wbeaty $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ tentative: there are far fewer electrons inside the tube that intuition tells us, and mutual repulsion is a center-of-mass-frame effect i.e. doesnt scale with velocity. The induction is a mutual velocity effect and so does scale with velocity, so you can ramp up velocity until the repulsion gets overcome... or something? but the electrons are accelerated by E fields so velocity shouldn't matter..... $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ Analogy: steady stream of fast bowling balls, apply a small accoustic wave to them, let them drift into bunches, then collect an incredibly powerful wave at the end by impacting them into a wall. $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ Probably makes sense to first understand a Klystron, then a magnetron, then a multiple-collector klystron, then finally the TWT $\endgroup$
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 22, 2021 at 16:45

2 Answers 2


In an accelerator, the bunch of electrons passes through just ahead of the peak of the sinusoidal wave. (See Accelerator Science: Why RF?.) The tail of the bunch is at the peak, and the rest of the bunch is ahead. Use a coordinate system where the peak is at $x = 0$.

$$E = E_0 cos(\omega x)$$

$$\frac{dE}{dx} = -E_0\omega sin(\omega x)$$

Assume small x so $sin(\omega x) \approx \omega x$. (I am not really sure if it is justified, but the idea would be the same if not.)

$$F(x) \approx F_0 + \frac{dF}{dx}x = q\bigl(E_0+ \frac{dE}{dx} x\bigr) \approx -qE_0\omega (1 - \omega x^2)$$

So the total force has two components. A uniform force accelerates the whole bunch. And a force toward the tail of the bunch grows stronger the farther from the tail a particle is. This force compresses the bunch. It counteracts the mutual repulsion of the bunch. It scales as $E_0$, the peak field value. Also as $\omega^2$.


@memesser314 provides a intuitive explanation for why the electron bunch becomes concentrated in the positive region of the RF field, though the most difficult part to understand for me was how this actually resulted in amplification of the RF wave.

I found this (Archived Version) paper, which offers an intuitive explanation for why this TWT behavior makes sense - While the electrons may locally reduce the electric field magnitude as they try to cancel the charge, the key for me was recognizing that the electrons in the beam will induce a greater positive charge in the helix by repelling electrons from this region of the wire. Thus, the magnitude of the RF wave in the helix will increase, which amplifies the wave.


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