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Ion Thrusters and Microplasmas

Image of ion thruster using argon gas and ICP source

Ion thruster using argon gas and ICP source

Ion thrusters are in space electric propulsion systems used for deep space missions and for satellite station keeping. Our research involves miniature (3 cm) electrostatic ion thrusters which use an Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) source to generate plasma in a body, formed of a Low Temperature Co-fired Ceramic (LTCC). The spiral ICP antenna is fabricated in the LTCC. Two electrostatic grids are used to accelerate ions from the plasma out of the thruster body. The research includes experimental work on the ion thruster design, fabrication, and testing. Simulation work includes modeling of the antenna and ICP plasma using the software package COMSOL.

Microplasmas are small plasmas (<1 mm) which can be used for high temperature (>150 C) and high radiation environments. In particular, our research is looking at microplasma transistors comprising a gate structure and a DC discharge between two exposed electrodes. The gate is used to turn on and off the DC discharge which normally operates below the Paschen breakdown voltage. Research includes experimental and simulation efforts.

Funding for this research is provided by NASA, the Idaho Space Grant Consortium, and the ECE Department.

Image of DC microplasma discharge

DC microplasma discharge with spacing of 1 mm

Relevant Publications

J. Browning, C. lee, D. Plumlee, S. Shawver, S. M. Loo, M. Yates, M. McCrink and J. Taff, “A miniature inductively coupled plasma source for ion thrusters,” IEEE Trans. on Plasma Science, pp. 3187-3195, Vol. 31, 2011.

Jesse Taff, Mallory Yates, Carl Lee, Sonya Shawver, Jim Browning, and Don Plumlee, “Fabrication of an Inductively Coupled Plasma Antenna in LTCC,” International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, Feb. 2012.

Find out more about the research and interests of Jim Browning, Don Plumlee, and Vishal Saxena.