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Feathers and whiskers help prevent short circuits in plasma devices

Physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) have found a way to prevent plasma — the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei — from causing short circuits in machines such as spacecraft thrusters, radar amplifiers, and particle accelerators. In findings published online in the Journal of Applied Physics, Charles Swanson and Igor Kaganovich report that applying microscopic structures that resemble feathers and whiskers to the surfaces inside these machines keeps them operating at peak performance.

The physicists calculated that tiny fibers called “fractals,” because they look the same when viewed at different scales, can trap electrons dislodged from the interior surfaces by other electrons zooming in from the plasma. Researchers refer to the dislodged surface electrons as “secondary electron emissions” (SEE); trapping them prevents such particles from causing electric current that interferes with the functions of machines.   

This work builds on previous experiments at PPPL involving plasma thrusters, showing that surfaces with fibered textures can reduce the amount of secondary electron emission. Past research has indicated that surfaces with plain fibers called “velvet” that lack feather-like branches can prevent about 65 percent of the secondary electrons from escaping into the plasma. The velvet only traps half of such electrons, since if the electrons from the plasma strike the fibers at a shallow angle the secondary electrons can bounce away without obstruction.

“When we looked at velvet, we observed that it didn’t suppress SEE from shallowly incident electrons well,” Swanson said. “So we added another set of fibers to suppress the remaining secondary electrons and the fractal approach does appear to work nicely.”

The new research shows that feathered fibers can capture secondary electrons produced by the electrons that approach from a shallow angle. As a result, the fractal fibers can reduce secondary electron emission by up to 80 percent.

Swanson and Kaganovich verified the findings by performing computer calculations that compared velvet and fractal feathered textures. “We numerically simulated the emission of secondary electrons, initializing many particles and allowing them to follow ballistic, straight-line trajectories until they interacted with the surface,” Swanson said. “It was apparent that adding whiskers to the sides of the primary whiskers reduced the secondary electron yield dramatically.”

The two scientists now have a provisional patent on the feathered-texture technique. This research was funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and follows experimental work on plasma-wall interactions and wall materials effects in plasma thrusters done at PPPL by physicists Yevgeny Raitses, Nathaniel Fisch, Alexander Dunaevsky, Artem Smirnov, and David Staack. This research also builds on more recent work supported by the DOE and conducted by PPPL visiting students Marlene Patino, Chenggang Jin, and Angela Ottaviano, who in the past year have published experimental findings on how secondary electron emission is affected by different materials with differen surface structures, based on research they did with Raitses at PPPL.

PPPL, on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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