Ion acceleration mechanisms of helicon thrusters
Williams, Logan Todd
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A helicon plasma source is a device that can efficiently ionize a gas to create high density, low temperature plasma. There is growing interest in utilizing a helicon plasma source in propulsive applications, but it is not yet known if the helicon plasma source is able to function as both an ion source and ion accelerator, or whether an additional ion acceleration stage is required. In order to evaluate the capability of the helicon source to accelerate ions, the acceleration and ionization processes must be decoupled and examined individually. To accomplish this, a case study of two helicon thruster configurations is conducted. The first is an electrodeless design that consists of the helicon plasma source alone, and the second is a helicon ion engine that combines the helicon plasma source with electrostatic grids used in ion engines. The gridded configuration separates the ionization and ion acceleration mechanisms and allows for individual evaluation not only of ion acceleration, but also of the components of total power expenditure and the ion production cost. In this study, both thruster configurations are fabricated and experimentally characterized. The metrics used to evaluate ion acceleration are ion energy, ion beam current, and the plume divergence half-angle, as these capture the magnitude of ion acceleration and the bulk trajectory of the accelerated ions. The electrode-less thruster is further studied by measuring the plasma potential, ion number density, and electron temperature inside the discharge chamber and in the plume up to 60 cm downstream and 45 cm radially outward. The two configurations are tested across several operating parameter ranges: 343-600 W RF power, 50-450 G magnetic field strength, 1.0-4.5 mg/s argon flow rate, and the gridded configuration is tested over a 100-600 V discharge voltage range. Both configurations have thrust and efficiency below that of contemporary thrusters of similar power, but are distinct in terms of ion acceleration capability. The gridded configuration produces a 65-120 mA ion beam with energies in the hundreds of volts that is relatively collimated. The operating conditions also demonstrate clear control over the performance metrics. In contrast, the electrodeless configuration generally produces a beam current less than 20 mA at energies between 20-40 V in a very divergent plume. The ion energy is set by the change in plasma potential from inside the device to the plume. The divergence ion trajectories are caused by regions of high plasma potential that create radial electric fields.. Furthermore, the operating conditions have limited control of the resulting performance metrics. The estimated ion production cost of the helicon ranged between 132-212 eV/ion for argon, the lower bound of which is comparable to the 157 eV/ion in contemporary DC discharges. The primary power expenditures are due to ion loss to the walls and high electron temperature leading to energy loss at the plasma sheaths. The conclusion from this work is that the helicon plasma source is unsuitable as a single-stage thruster system. However, it is an efficient ion source and, if paired with an additional ion acceleration stage, can be integrated into an effective propulsion system.