vacuum

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

vacuum

vacuum, theoretically, space without matter in it. A perfect vacuum has never been obtained; the best human-generated vacuums contain less than 100,000 gas molecules per cc, compared to about 30 billion billion (30×1018) molecules for air at sea level. The most nearly perfect vacuum exists in intergalactic space, where it is estimated that on the average there is less than one molecule per cubic meter. In ancient times the belief that "nature abhors a vacuum" was held widely and persisted without serious question until the late 16th and early 17th cent., when the experimental observations of Galileo and the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli demonstrated its essential fallacy. Torricelli obtained a nearly perfect vacuum (Torricellian vacuum) in his mercury barometer. A common but incorrect belief is that a vacuum causes "suction." Actually the apparent suction caused by a vacuum is the pressure of the atmosphere tending to rush in and fill the unoccupied space. There are various methods for producing a vacuum, and several different kinds of vacuum pumps have been devised for removing the molecules of gas or vapor from a confined space. In the rotary oil-sealed pump a rotor turning in a cylinder allows gas to enter through an inlet valve from a space to be evacuated and then pushes it through an outlet valve into the atmosphere. In the oil or mercury diffusion pump, gas enters the pump through an inlet and is then swept toward an outlet by heavy, fast-moving oil or mercury vapor molecules. The outlet is connected to a rotary pump that expels the gas into the atmosphere. A cryogenic pump removes gas from a container by condensing the gas molecules on an extremely cold surface in the container. An ion pump consists of a chamber containing a source of electrons that are used to bombard gas molecules from a container to be evacuated. Collisions between the electrons and gas molecules ionize the molecules, causing them to be drawn to, and held by, a collector in the pump. The first vacuum pump was invented by the German physicist Otto von Guerricke in 1650. There are many practical applications of vacuums in industry and scientific research, e.g., in vacuum distillation, vacuum processing of food, in devices such as the vacuum tube, vacuum bottle, and barometer, and in research machines.

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