Film evaporation MEMS thruster array for micropropulsion

Anthony G Cofer, Purdue University


Current small sat propulsion systems require a substantial mass fraction of the vehicle involving tradeoffs between useful payload mass and maneuverability. This is also an issue with available attitude control systems which are either quickly saturated reaction wheels or movable high drag surfaces with long response times. What is needed is a low mass low power self-contained propulsion unit that can be easily installed and modeled. The proposed Film-Evaporation MEMS Tunable Array (FEMTA), exploits the small scale surface tension effect in conjunction with temperature dependent vapor pressure to realize a thermal valving system. The local vapor pressure is increased by resistive film heating until it exceeds meniscus strength in the nozzle inducing vacuum boiling which provides a stagnation pressure equal to vapor pressure at that point which is used for propulsion. The heat of vaporization is drawn from the bulk fluid and is replaced by either an integrated heater or waste heat from the vehicle. Proof of concept was initially achieved with a macroscale device made possible by using ethylene glycol, which has a low vapor pressure and high surface tension, as the working fluid. Both the thermal valving effect and cooling feature were demonstrated though at reduced performance than would be expected for water. Three generations of prototype FEMTA devices have been fabricated at Birck Nanotechnology Center on 200 and 500 micrometer thick silicon wafers. Preliminary testing on first generation models had tenuously demonstrated behavior consistent with the macroscale tests but there was not enough data for solid confirmation. Some reliability issues had arisen with the integrated heaters which were only partially alleviated in the second generation of FEMTAs. This led to a third generation and two changes in heater material until a chemically resilient material was found. The third generation of microthrusters were tested on the microNewton thrust stand at Purdue’s High Vacuum Lab and confirmed the thermal valving concept. The microthrusters will also undergo thermal testing at the Goddard Space Flight Centers’ ThermalVac environmental testing facility whenever device lifetime can be extended to the several week time frame needed to provide reliable data.




Heister, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Aerospace engineering

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