A cold cathode is a cathode that is not electrically heated by a filament. A cathode may be considered "cold" if it emits more electrons than can be supplied by thermionic emission alone. It is used in gas-discharge lamps, such as neon lamps, discharge tubes, and some types of vacuum tube. The other type of cathode is a hot cathode, which is heated by electric current passing through a filament. A cold cathode does not necessarily operate at a low temperature: it is often heated to its operating temperature by other methods, such as the current passing from the cathode into the gas.
Cold-cathode lamps include cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) and neon lamps. Neon lamps primarily rely on excitation of gas molecules to emit light; CCFLs use a discharge in mercury vapor to develop ultraviolet light, which in turn causes a fluorescent coating on the inside of the lamp to emit visible light.
Cold-cathode fluorescent lamps are used for backlighting of LCDs, for example computer monitors and television screens.
In the lighting industry, “cold cathode” historically refers to luminous tubing larger than 20 mm in diameter and operating on a current of 120 to 240 milliamperes. This larger-diameter tubing is often used for interior alcove and general lighting. The term "neon lamp" refers to tubing that is smaller than 15 mm in diameter and typically operates at approximately 40 milliamperes. These lamps are commonly used for neon signs.