A dusty-plasma apparatus is being investigated as means of accelerating nanometer- and micrometer-sized particles. Applications for the dusty-plasma particle accelerators fall into two classes:

In a Dusty-Plasma Particle Accelerator, microparticles or nanoparticles in a cup exposed to a plasma become electrically charged and are then accelerated by applying a pulsed electric field.
  • Simulation of a variety of rapidly moving dust particles and micrometeoroids in outer-space environments that include micrometeoroid streams, comet tails, planetary rings, and nebulae and
  • Deposition or implantation of nanoparticles on substrates for diverse industrial purposes that could include hardening, increasing thermal insulation, altering optical properties, and/or increasing permittivities of substrate materials.

Relative to prior apparatuses used for similar applications, dusty-plasma particle accelerators offer such potential advantages as smaller size, lower cost, less complexity, and increased particle flux densities.

A dusty-plasma particle accelerator exploits the fact that an isolated particle immersed in plasma acquires a net electric charge that depends on the relative mobilities of electrons and ions. Typically, a particle that is immersed in a low-temperature, partially ionized gas, wherein the average kinetic energy of electrons exceeds that of ions, causes the particle to become negatively charged.

The particle can then be accelerated by applying an appropriate electric field. A dusty-plasma particle accelerator (see figure) includes a plasma source such as a radio-frequency induction discharge apparatus containing (1) a shallow cup with a biasable electrode to hold the particles to be accelerated and (2) a holder for the substrate on which the particles are to impinge. Depending on the specific design, a pair of electrostatic-acceleration grids between the substrate and discharge plasma can be used to both collimate and further accelerate particles exiting the particle holder. Once exposed to the discharge plasma, the particles in the cup quickly acquire a negative charge. Application of a negative voltage pulse to the biasable electrode results in the initiation of a low-current, high-voltage cathode spot.

Plasma pressure associated with the cathode spot as well as the large voltage drop at the cathode spot accelerates the charged particles toward the substrate. The ultimate kinetic energy attained by particles exiting the particle holder depends in part on the magnitude of the cathode spot sheath potential difference, which is proportional to the magnitude of the voltage pulse, and the on the electric charge on the dust. The magnitude of the voltage pulse can be controlled directly, whereas the particle’s electric charge can be controlled indirectly by controlling the operating parameters of the plasma apparatus.

This work was done by John E. Foster of Glenn Research Center. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category.

Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to

NASA Glenn Research Center
Innovative Partnerships Office
Attn: Steve Fedor
Mail Stop 4-8
21000 Brookpark Road
Ohio 44135.

Refer to LEW-17438.