Next generation plasma propulsion is the thrust of Dr. Richard Branam’s research

Richard Branam
FTPP support has been crucial to plasma propulsion research, says Dr. Richard Branam. Photo courtesy Dr. Branam

Helping develop next generation plasma propulsion for spacecraft that could see extensive use in interplanetary travel engages the research teams led by Dr. Richard Branam, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama (UA) and a Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) lead researcher.

Exploring alternative plasma fuels for use in space propulsion and determining how engine materials interact with plasma propellants in electric and ion plasma engines have been major thrusts of the research, which is backed by FTPP funding.

“The alternative propellant work has been fruitful,” says Dr. Branam, whose research areas include combustion, laser diagnostics, plasma, rocket propulsion and space propulsion. “We have been using iodine as a replacement for xenon in the ion thrusters we have been testing.”

Originally from Pemberton, Ohio, Dr. Branam became interested in plasma science and engineering while working at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in 1998-1999 and then later working with the AFRL while teaching at the Air Force Institute of Technology from 2005-2010.

Testing engine hardware

In recent research, UA aerospace engineering and mechanics doctoral student James Rogers explored how engine hardware is affected by different plasma propellants. After graduating in May 2023, Dr. Rogers joined Busek Space Propulsion and Systems as a space propulsion research and development engineer.

“Jim built and tested how the various spacecraft materials will be affected by using iodine, which is very reactive, instead of xenon (noble gas),” Dr. Branam says. “His work shows even materials considered resistant to oxidation cannot be used in an iodine or iodine plasma environment inside the thruster and cathode of an ion thruster.”

The UA scientists found tantalum was the material with the most dramatic erosion.

“The iodine reacted with the tantalum, and the iodine plasma was even more pronounced,” Dr. Branam says. “It bored holes through cathode tubes on the thruster.”

thrust creation

Other UA research by now-graduated doctoral student Kirk Boehm, who is currently at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), explored the thrust-creating processes inside the cathode of plasma engines.

“Kirk’s work in the cathode has been able to measure the electron energy inside the plasma,” says Dr. Branam. “His results can distinctly identify separate electron populations and identify whether the electrons produced are surface generated, reflected or impact generated.”

Research support from FTPP was vital, Dr. Branam says. FTPP is an Alabama coalition of nine universities and a research corporation managed at UAH and supported by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

“Without FTPP support, this work would have been stalled,” he says. “I was able to add a couple masters students and some undergrads to Jim’s project to help him get more done in areas such as metal sample cutting, preparation and scanning electron microscope imaging.”

workforce development

FTPP works to create a highly skilled state plasma workforce to establish Alabama as a Southeastern regional hub for plasma science expertise and create thousands of high-paying technical careers in the state and region.

So far, Dr. Branam’s low temperature plasma work at UA has added to the workforce three doctoral graduates, 10 master of science (MS) graduates and eight Research Experiences for Undergraduates students working in the lab who have graduated.

In 2023, three doctoral candidates and three MS students graduated. One of his MS students is working for Plasma Processes LLC in Huntsville. One doctoral graduate is at UAH and one is at Auburn University.

Dr. Branam says FTPP’s support has been very impactful for the state.

“The work being done in Alabama seems to be increasing exponentially.”