A study of cathode erosion in high power arcjets



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Texas Tech University


Cathode erosion continues to be one of the predominant technology concerns for high power arcjets. This study will show that cathode erosion in these devices is significantly affected by several mitigating factors, including propellant composition, propellant flowrate, current level, cathode material, and power supply current ripple. In a series of 50-hour and 100-hour long duration experiments, using a water-cooled 30-kilowatt laboratory arcjet, variations in the steady-state cathode erosion rate were characterized for each of these factors using nitrogen propellant at a fixed arc current of 250 Amperes. A complementary series of measurements was made using hydrogen propellant at an arc current of 100 Amperes. The cold cathode erosion rate was also differentiated from the steady-state cathode erosion rate in a series of multi-start cathode erosion experiments. Results of these measurements are presented, along with an analysis of the significant effects of current ripple on arcjet cathode erosion.

As part of this study, over a dozen refractory cathode materials were evaluated to measure their resistance to arcjet cathode erosion. Among the materials tested were W-ThO2 (1%, 2%, 4%), poly and mono-crystalline w, W-LaB6 , W-La2O3 , W-Ba02, W-BaCaAl204 , W-Y2O3 , and ZrB2. Based on these measurements, several critical material properties were identified, such work function, density, porosity, melting point, and evaporation rate. While the majority of the materials failed to outperform traditional W-ThO2, these experimental results are used to develop a parametric model of the arcjet cathode physics. The results of this model, and the results of a finite-element thermal analysis of the arcjet cathode, are presented to better explain the relative performance of the materials tested.



Electrodes -- Erosion, Electric spark gaps, Arcjet rocket engines, Space vehicles -- Electric propulsion systems