Tech Briefs

Improved Rare-Earth Emitter Hollow Cathode

These cathodes have applications in electric thrusters and in industry for plasma processing of optical coatings.

An improvement has been made to the design of the hollow cathode geometry that was created for the rare-earth electron emitter described in “Compact Rare Earth Emitter Hollow Cathode” (NPO-44923), NASA Tech Briefs, Vol. 34, No. 3 (March 2010), p. 52. The original interior assembly was made entirely of graphite in order to be compatible with the LaB6 material, which cannot be touched by metals during operation due to boron diffusion causing embrittlement issues in high-temperature refractory materials. Also, the graphite tube was difficult to machine and was subject to vibration-induced fracturing.

This innovation replaces the graphite tube with one made out of refractory metal that is relatively easy to manufacture. The cathode support tube is made of molybdenum or molybdenum-rhenium. This material is easily gun-bored to near the tolerances required, and finish machined with steps at each end that capture the orifice plate and the mounting flange. This provides the manufacturability and robustness needed for flight applications, and eliminates the need for expensive e-beam welding used in prior cathodes. The LaB6 insert is protected from direct contact with the refractory metal tube by thin, graphite sleeves in a cup-arrangement around the ends of the insert. The sleeves, insert, and orifice plate are held in place by a ceramic spacer and tungsten spring inserted inside the tube.

To heat the cathode, an insulating tube is slipped around the refractory metal hollow tube, which can be made of high-temperature materials like boron nitride or aluminum nitride. A screw-shaped slot, or series of slots, is machined in the outside of the ceramic tube to constrain a refractory metal wire wound inside the slot that is used as the heater. The screw slot can hold a single heater wire that is then connected to the front of the cathode tube by tackwelding to complete the electrical circuit, or it can be a double slot that takes a bifilar wound heater with both leads coming out the back. This configuration replaces theprevioussheathedheaterdesignthat limited the cycling-life of the cathode.

This work was done by Dan M. Goebel of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Mechanics/Machinery category. NPO-46782

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).

Improved Rare-Earth Emitter Hollow Cathode (reference NPO-46782) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

Please Login at the top of the page to download.