An important source of X rays is synchrotron radiation. X rays are also produced in a highly evacuated glass bulb, called an X-ray tube, that contains essentially two electrodes—an anode made of platinum, tungsten, or another heavy metal of high melting point, and a cathode. When a high voltage is applied between the electrodes, streams of electrons (cathode rays) are accelerated from the cathode to the anode and produce X rays as they strike the anode.
Two different processes give rise to radiation of X-ray frequency. In one process radiation is emitted by the high-speed electrons themselves as they are slowed or even stopped in passing near the positively charged nuclei of the anode material. This radiation is often called brehmsstrahlung [Ger., = braking radiation]. In a second process radiation is emitted by the electrons of the anode atoms when incoming electrons from the cathode knock electrons near the nuclei out of orbit and they are replaced by other electrons from outer orbits. The spectrum of frequencies given off with any particular anode material thus consists of a continuous range of frequencies emitted in the first process, and superimposed on it a number of sharp peaks of intensity corresponding to discrete frequencies at which X rays are emitted in the second process. The sharp peaks constitute the X-ray line spectrum for the anode material and will differ for different materials.