Simulation studies of direct-current microdischarges for electric propulsion



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The structure of direct-current microdischarges is investigated using a detailed two-dimensional multi-species continuum model. Microdischarges are directcurrent discharges that operate at a relatively high pressure of about 100 Torr and geometric dimensions in the 10-100 micrometer range. Our motivation for the study of microdischarges comes from a potential application of these devices in microthrusters for small satellite propulsion. The Micro Plasma Thruster (MPT) concept consists of a direct-current microdischarge in a geometry comprising a constant area flow section followed by a diverging exit nozzle. A detailed description of the plasma dynamics inside the MPT including power deposition, ionization, coupling of the plasma phenomena with high-speed flow, and propulsion system performance is reported in this study. A two-dimensional model is developed as part of this study. The model consists of a plasma module coupled to a flow module and is solved on a hybrid unstructured mesh framework. The plasma module provides a self-consistent, multispecies, multi-temperature description of the microdischarge phenomena while the flow module provides a description of the low Reynolds number compressible flow through the system. The plasma module solves conservation equations for plasma species continuity and electron energy, and Poisson’s equation for the self-consistent electric field. The flow module solves mass, bulk gas momentum and energy equations. The coupling of energy from the electrostatic field to the plasma species is modeled by the Joule heating term which appears in the electron and heavy species energy equations. Discretization of the Joule heating term on unstructured meshes requires special attention. We propose a new robust method for the numerical discretization of the Joule heating term on such meshes using a cell-centered, finite volume approach. A prototypical microhollow cathode discharge (MHCD) is studied to guide and validate the modeling effort for theMPT. Computational results for the impedance characteristics as well as electrodynamic and chemical features of the discharge are reported and compared to experimental results. At low current (< 0.1 mA), the plasma activity is localized inside the cylindrical hollow region of the discharge operating in the so-called “abnormal regime”. For larger currents, the discharge expands over the outer flat surface of the cathode and operates in the “normal regime”. Transient relaxation oscillations are predicted in the plasma properties for intermediate discharge currents ranging from 0.1 mA to 0.3 mA; a phenomenon that is reported in experiments. The MPT, in its present configuration, is found to operate as an electrothermal, rather than as an electrostatic thruster. A significant increase in specific impulse, compared to the cold gas micronozzle, is obtained from the power deposition into the expanding gas. For a discharge voltage of 750 V, a power input of 650 mW, and an argon mass flow rate of 5 sccm, the specific impulse of the device is increased by a factor of 1.5 to a value of 74 s. The microdischarge remains mostly confined inside the micronozzle and operates in an abnormal regime. Gas heating, primarily due to ion Joule heating, is found to have a strong influence on the overall discharge behavior. The study provides crucial understanding to aid in the design of direct-current microdischarge based thrusters.