Focusing on improved cathodes for devices known as Hall effect thrusters, the research would reduce propellant consumption in commercial, government and military satellites, allowing them to remain in orbit longer, be launched on smaller or cheaper rockets, or carry larger payloads. Sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Defense Sciences Office (DARPA-DSO), the 18-month project seeks to demonstrate the use of propellant-less cathodes with Hall effect thrusters.
“About 10 percent of the propellant carried into space on satellites that use an electric propulsion system is essentially wasted in the hollow cathode that is part of the system,” said Mitchell Walker, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Aerospace Engineering and the project’s principal investigator. “Using field emission rather than a hollow cathode, we are able to pull electrons from cathode arrays made from carbon nanotubes without wasting propellant. That will extend the life of the vehicle by more efficiently using the limited on-board propellant for its intended purpose of propulsion.”
To maintain their positions in space or to reorient themselves, satellites must use small thrusters that are either chemically or electrically powered. Electrically-powered thrusters use electrons to ionize an inert gas such as xenon. The resulting ions are then ejected from the device to generate thrust.
In existing Hall effect thrusters, a single high-temperature cathode generates the electrons. A portion of the propellant – typically about 10 percent of the limited supply carried by the satellite – is used as a working fluid in the traditional hollow cathode. The DARPA-funded research would replace the hollow cathode with an array of field-effect cathodes fabricated from bundles of multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Powered by on-board batteries and photovoltaic systems on the satellite, the arrays would operate at low power to produce electrons without consuming propellant.
Walker and collaborators at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) have already demonstrated field-effect cathodes based on carbon nanotubes. This work was presented at the 2009 AIAA Joint Propulsion Conference held in Denver, Colo. The additional funding will support improvements in the devices, known as carbon nanotube cold cathodes, and lead to space testing as early as 2015.
“This work depends on our ability to grow aligned carbon nanotubes precisely where we want them to be and to exacting dimensions,” said Jud Ready, a GTRI senior research engineer and Walker’s collaborator on the project. “This project leverages our ability to grow well-aligned arrays of nanotubes and to coat them to enhance their field emission performance.”
In addition to reducing propellant consumption, use of carbon nanotube cathode arrays could improve reliability by replacing the single cathode now used in the thrusters.
“Existing cathodes are sensitive to contamination, damaged by the ionized exhaust of the thruster, and have limited life due to their high-temperature operation,” Ready noted. “The carbon nanotube cathode arrays would provide a distributed cathode around the Hall effect thruster so that if one of them is damaged, we will have redundancy.”
Before the carbon nanotube cathodes developed by Georgia Tech can be used on satellites, however, their lifetime will have to be increased to match that of a satellite thruster, which is typically 2,000 hours or more.
The devices will also have to withstand the mechanical stresses of space launches, turn on and off rapidly, operate consistently and survive the aggressive space environment.
Part of the effort will focus on special coating materials used to protect the carbon nanotubes from the space environment. For that part of the project, Walker and Ready are collaborating with Lisa Pfefferle in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Yale University.
The researchers are testing their cathodes with the same Busek Hall effect thruster that flew on the U.S. Air Force’s TacSat-2 satellite. In addition, the cathodes will be operated with Hall effect thrusters developed by Pratt & Whitney and donated to Georgia Tech. The researchers are also collaborating with L-3 ETI on the electrical power system and with American Pacific In-Space Propulsion on flight qualification of the hardware.
The ability to control individual cathodes on the array could provide a new capability to vector the thrust, potentially replacing the mechanical gimbals now used.
The use of carbon nanotubes to generate electrons through the field-effect process was reported in 1995 by a research team headed by Walt de Heer, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Physics. Field emission is the extraction of electrons from a conductive material through quantum tunneling that occurs when an external electric field is applied.
The improved carbon nanotube cathodes should advance the goals of reducing the cost of launching and maintaining satellites.
“Thrust with less propellant has been one of the major goals driving research into satellite propulsion,” said Walker, who is director of Georgia Tech’s High-Power Electric Propulsion Laboratory. “Electric propulsion is becoming more popular and will benefit from our innovation. Ultimately, we will help improve the performance of in-space propulsion devices.”
John Toon | Newswise Science News
Waste from paper and pulp industry supplies raw material for development of new redox flow batteries
12.10.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Low-cost battery from waste graphite
11.10.2017 | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy