Molecular propellants for ion thrusters
Plasma Sources Science & Technology
There is no ideal atomic propellant for ion thrusters. Xenon commonly used as propellant becomes resource-critical in light of electric propulsion commercialization. Combining these considerations leads to seeking alternatives to xenon as propellant. In this review, we summarize the current literature on molecular propellants. We define two classes of molecules, group I and II, comprising diatomic molecules and more complex molecules, respectively. We identify basic properties which a candidate
... molecule belonging to either group, I or II, should possess in order to be suitable as molecular propellant. We discuss the pits and traps in testing such candidate molecules inside a thruster on the basis of our experiences with iodine (a member of group I) and adamantane (a member of group II). The thruster system needs to be individually adopted for each propellant candidate in order to enable a thorough testing inside the thruster. The same holds for optimizing the thruster's performance when fed with a new propellant because the microscopic processes occurring inside the plasma will differ from molecule to molecule. These circumstances make such testing time-consuming and costly. To accelerate systematic screening of the vast number of molecular species in terms of suitability as propellant, we propose a screening and evolution procedure based on combining chemical engineering and fundamental physical measurements.