The neutral hydrogen (HI) column density distribution function of quasistellar object (QSO) absorption line systems has been investigated using recent high spectral resolution data and extensive surveys of the Lyman limit systems and damped Lyman alpha systems. The hypothesis that the differential distribution function is fitted by a single power law was rejected at the 99% confidence level. A double power law, with a break at number density of hydrogen atoms, N(HI), equal to 1e16 per square centimetre also provided a poor fit over the range in which the sample was complete. Whilst there were no discontinuities in the observed distribution, there was a clear flattening at N(HI) approximately equal to 1e16 per square centimetre, compared to lower column densities. These observed features have been explained using models of photoionized clouds, confined by an external pressure with a density profile governed by gravity. The models have been constructed both in the presence or absence of dark matter and with or without metal included and constrained to reproduce the known characteristics of the absorption systems. The flattening of the distribution function at N(HI) of about 1e16 per square centimetre can be explained in terms of a transition between the 2 classes of absorbers, the metal poor and metal rich systems.
The recent detections of oxygen(5+) (OVI) in several absorption systems have raised the question of the relative importance of photoionization and collisional ionization processes. The latter would imply high temperatures (about 1e5 K to 1e6 K) and thus the presence of a pervasive low density high temperature medium probably confining clouds at lower temperature and higher density. This question has been addressed by modelling the detailed observations of the absolute redshift Z(abs) = 0.790 systems in Q2145+067 obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope. It has been shown that photoionization can indeed explain these absorptions provided the ionizing flux at 54.4 eV is larger than 2e-23 ergs per square centimetre per second per Hertz per steradian.
Three main studies on absorption line systems have been carried out. They have brought new insights on the HI column density distribution and its interpretation in the framework of photoionized cloud models. Promising high signal to noise (S/N) ratio observations have been obtained and the code appropriate to their interpretation has been developed.