Breakdown in a discharge tube is investigated by means of a fluid model. The discharge tube is similar to a compact fluorescent lamp tube, containing argon at 3 Torr and mercury at a few millitorr. It was found that the minimum breakdown voltage is decreased substantially compared with a tube containing pure argon. Penning ionization of mercury via an argon metastable state plays an important role in this effect. This is illustrated for a lamp operated on a DC voltage, where significant Penning ionization takes place in the wake of the ionization front. Furthermore, contrary to what is suggested in earlier literature, the development of the surface potential of the lamp is shown to be not only determined by surface charges, but also by volume charges.

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