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The Tony Davies High Voltage Laboratory

Plasma and Space Science

Plasma and Space Science

Low temperature plasmas have a large range of applications including medical, energy/environment, materials processing and space. Both high and low pressure types exist and many methods can be used for their creation, including DC discharges,microwaves, RF, lasers, etc. In addition to their applications, they play a fundamental role in electrical breakdown in gases and vacuum and probably also in solids and liquids. Our research focuses on two aspects of these types of plasmas, fundamental and applied. In the former, we are interested in how these plasma interact with surfaces and how to create a plasmas with specific properties tailored to the needs of a particular application, including control, while in the latter, our current research interests are primarily in electric propulsion for space technology and the use of plasmas for waste and biofuel processing along with exploring in the future the role of plasmas in high voltage breakdown.

In the field of electric propulsion we collaborate closely with both the QinetiQ gridded ion engine group and Mars Space Ltd, a recent university spin-off company; Two vacuum facilities for electric propulsion thruster testing can produce the necessary high vacuum present in space. In addition, there is a thrust balance for measuring the impulse bit of pulsed thrusters and a sensitive mass balance which can be used to measure the mass bit; with these two instruments, pulsed plasma thruster(PPT) performance can be evaluated and currently our research is focussed on two sizes of PPTs, one for cubesats and the other for nanosats. For the cubesat PPT research is being conducted on how to optimise performance while still achieving the long lifetimes needed( > one million pulses) with particular emphasis on the spark plugs needed for the discharge initiation.

Another type of thruster being developed under ESA funding is the hollow cathode thruster(HCT) for application to large communications satellites for E/W station keeping and attitude control ( the so called all-electric spacecraft). A model capable of predicting thrust from first principles is being developed in order to optimise the design and meet a specific set of requirements in terms of power, thrust and specific impulse. An optimised thruster will be designed, manufactured and tested. To measure the thrust directly, a new thrust balance is being designed and built. Research on the fundamental aspects of hollow cathodes and HCTs has been ongoing for some 20 years and is internationally recognised.


  • Development of a Hollow Cathode Thruster
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