Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Mechanical Engineering–Engineering Mechanics (PhD)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics


Lyon Bradley King


Hall thrusters have been under active development around the world since the 1960’s. Thrusters using traditional propellants such as xenon have been flown on a variety of satellite orbit raising and maintenance missions with an excellent record. To expand the mission envelope, it is necessary to lower the specific impulse of the thrusters but xenon and krypton are poor performers at specific impulses below 1,200 seconds.

To enhance low specific impulse performance, this dissertation examines the development of a Hall-effect thruster which uses bismuth as a propellant. Bismuth, the heaviest non-radioactive element, holds many advantages over noble gas propellants from an energetics as well as a practical economic standpoint. Low ionization energy, large electron-impact crosssection and high atomic mass make bismuth ideal for low-specific impulse applications. The primary disadvantage lies in the high temperatures which are required to generate the bismuth vapors. Previous efforts carried out in the Soviet Union relied upon the complete bismuth vaporization and gas phase delivery to the anode. While this proved successful, the power required to vaporize and maintain gas phase throughout the mass flow system quickly removed many of the efficiency gains expected from using bismuth.

To solve these problems, a unique method of delivering liquid bismuth to the anode has been developed. Bismuth is contained within a hollow anode reservoir that is capped by a porous metallic disc. By utilizing the inherent waste heat generated in a Hall thruster, liquid bismuth is evaporated and the vapors pass through the porous disc into the discharge chamber. Due to the high temperatures and material compatibility requirements, the anode was fabricated out of pure molybdenum. The porous vaporizer was not available commercially so a method of creating a refractory porous plate with 40-50% open porosity was developed. Molybdenum also does not respond well to most forms of welding so a diffusion bonding process was also developed to join the molybdenum porous disc to the molybdenum anode.

Operation of the direct evaporation bismuth Hall thruster revealed interesting phenomenon. By utilizing constant current mode on a discharge power supply, the discharge voltage settles out to a stable operating point which is a function of discharge current, anode face area and average pore size on the vaporizer. Oscillations with a 40 second period were also observed.

Preliminary performance data suggests that the direct evaporation bismuth Hall thruster performs similar to xenon and krypton Hall thrusters. Plume interrogation with a Retarding Potential Analyzer confirmed that bismuth ions were being efficiently accelerated while Faraday probe data gave a view of the ion density in the exhausted plume.