CODE 6750

The Charged Particle Physics Branch performs basic and applied research on topics relevant to Navy and DoD missions with potential spin-offs to the private sector. The Branch is comprised of 10 PhD physicists, two engineers, two technicians, and several part time undergraduate research assistants. The physicists have an average of nearly 15 years of experience in plasma physics, diagnostics, beam physics, high power microwaves, and related areas. Experimental research is performed in labs at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC as well as occasionally at other facilities around the US. Research is centered in two primary areas: applications oriented plasma programs, and studies of the near earth space environment. Current applications programs include the investigation of a new technique to make large area plasmas for materials processing, the study of electrodeless discharge lamps for efficient white light production, and the investigation of the effects of plasma discharges on airplane drag. Space research includes investigations of the coupling of solar energy into the ionosphere and magnetosphere, the generation of dusty plasmas and their effects on the ionosphere, and the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the ionosphere. Additional work in broad instantaneous-bandwidth radar beam steering, the origin and characterization of lightning discharges, spacecraft and aircraft electrostatic charging effects, beam propagation in the atmosphere, applications of hyperspectral imagery to surface analysis, and the development of high velocity electric launchers is performed. The common thread of plasma generation and detailed diagnostics couples the different fields studied within the Branch. Members of the Branch work closely with other groups within the Plasma Physics Division, other Divisions with the NRL and with many other laboratories and universities.



Click on the Research Program list for further information:

Plasma Processing

E-Beam Source Development

Electrodeless Discharge Lamps

Aero-Plasma Drag Reduction

Laboratory Space Physics

Recent Publications





Plasma Processing, or Dry Etching as it is sometimes called, is a technique whereby a partially ionized gas, located near a surface, is used to modify the surface. The low density plasma replaces the chemicals once used to etch or modify surfaces for a variety of applications in the semi-conductor and materials processing industries. Plasmas are now used in many semi-conductor manufacturing steps as well as for applying coatings or modifying surfaces. The plasma interacts with the surface by bombarding it with energetic particles. These particle can be free radicals, such as atomic oxygen (rather than O2 molecules) which chemically interact with the surface material, energetic ions or neutrals, which bombard the surfaces and knock off pieces or coat the surfaces, or combinations of them all. Conventional means to produce processing plasmas include heating a gas to extremely high temperatures, injecting beams of microwaves, or introducing oscillating magnetic or electric fields into a low pressure gas. Each technique has its own advantages and disadvantages for a particular type of processing. Ideally the industry would like as much control the plasma as possible in order to optimize the material process being employed.

The Charged Particle Physics Branch has been investigating a new techique to make a plasma suitable for materials processing. This technique involves injecting a low current (10's milliamp/sq. cm.), moderate energy (several kilovolts) beam of electrons into a gas filled chamber. The beam electrons are confined with a magnetic field produced by a series of coils surrounding the chamber. The technique is unique in that it can produce a very large area (square meters), thin (centimeters), cold (sub-electron volt electron temperature) plasma layer which can be located close to a surface. The plasma generation technique is almost completely decoupled from the surface allowing one to adjust the parameters (e.g., plasma temperature, density) or the composition (e.g., relative concentration of different atomic or molecular species) of the plasma in order to optimize the desired materials effect.


The figure to the left shows a schematic representation of the beam-generated plasma technique. A sheet beam of electrons is injected into a gas chamber and is reabsorbed at the opposite side. The electrons pass through the gas, ionizing the background to form a sheet of plasma. Ions, neutrals, free radicals, or other products generated in the plasma then strike the surface located near the plasma. The energy of ions extracted from the plasma can be regulated using a RF bias network on the material processing stage.

The picture at the far left shows a the e-beam source chamber. The rectangular coils are capable of generating up to 300 gauss magnetic fields in the source region. A 1 meter x 1 cm beam source is located inside of the chamber. The second picture shows the main processing chamber. The source chamber replaces the end flange. The field coils can produce up to 300 Gauss field with a few percent uniformity over the entire 1 meter x 1 meter processing area. The chamber contains diagnostic ports on all surfaces to allow access to the plasma.

 The photo at left shows an early example of etching of a photoresist using a beam produced plasma. The aluminum mask was placed over a 0.5 micron thick layer of photoresist on top of a piece of silicon. The chemical action of oxygen free radicals produced by the beam etched the photoresist wherever it was not covered by the aluminum mask. No bias voltage was used in this case making the etch isotropic and producing the hollowed out region under the edge of the mask.


One of the critical elements in building a viable beam-generated plasma processing reactor is the beam source. Until recently the program has relied on a pulsed cathode electron source. This device consisted of a rectangular cross section "U" channel 1-cm wide by 1-cm deap by 15-60 cm long. When pulsed to several kilovolts in a low pressure (10-200 mTorr) background gas the cathode generated a very uniform beam of some 10's of miliamperes/sq. cm over its entire length. While this cathode was suitable for producing 100 microsecond to several milisecond duration plasma layers it was relatively inefficient as well as generated too much metallic debris from the cathode surface for some processing applications. For the last year a new electron source based on an externally energized hollow cathode has been under development. This cathode can operate continuously (cw) or in a pulsed mode and can produce extremely uniform sheet electron beams.

The schematic at left shows the concept behind the new electron beam source. A rectangular cross section volume (hollow cathode) with a slot on one surface is filled with a low pressure gas (50-150 mTorr). An electrode with a similar slot is placed approximately 1 cm downstream from the hollow cathode. This slot is covered by a fine stainless steel mesh. A 50-300 Gauss magnetic field is superimposed on the source. 300-400 V placed across the two electrodes drives a cw discharge between the hollow cathode and the screen. Depending on the gas pressure, voltage, and geometry the discharge can produce10's of milliamperes/sq. cm current densities at the screen. Another electrode located approximately 1 cm downstream from the screen can extract electrons from the holes in the wire mesh. These electrons gain the voltage imposed on the gap. The extraction gap can pull up to 90% of the discharge current out of the plasma and can be run cw or in a pulsed mode.

The pictures at left show an edge-on view of a beam and a top view with a probe stuck into the beam. The light comes from a nitrogen background gas fill. The beam can be run continuously producing a well defined plasma sheet.


One of the largest uses of electrical energy in both the DoD and civilian sectors is for area lighting. Code 6750 began a small program in FY97 under ONR 6.1 sponsorship to investigate the used of electrodeless discharges for lighting. The advantage of electrodeless lamps is the elimination of physical electrodes inside of the discharge region. Erosion of the cathode material and the associated poisoning of the discharge gas are the main reasons for lamp failure. By using an electromagnetically coupled discharge the electrodes are removed and the lifetime of the lamp can be extremely long.  Presently the group is studying an RF coupled electrodeless lamp where an RF exciter coil surrounds the discharge region filled with different mixtures of gas and metal oxides. The light produced by the discharge is extremely bright in the optical portion of the spectrum. The key to producing a useful white light lamp is efficiency. Much of the work involves detailed diagnostics of the plasma discharge and the emissions coming from the lamp.




A new area of research in the Branch deals with the effects of plasmas on the air drag. Any body moving through the air experiences a drag (Fd) due to the resistance of the air flowing around the structure. To push a body through the air sufficient thrust (T) must be supplied to overcome the air drag. With sufficient thrust the air flowing around the body can also produce lift which keeps the structure like the wing shown above up in the air. Some number of years ago experiments demonstrated that if a plasma discharge were driven in front of the wing that the drag force, under certain conditions, actually decreased. This was particularly evident in the trans-sonic (near the speed of sound) and super-sonic regime. The reason for this reduction in drag is as yet unknown. We are using our expertise in both analytical theory and in discharge plasma production to investigate and quantify the effect.


The NRL Space Physics Simulation Chamber (SPSC) is a large-scale laboratory device designed for experiments on the basic plasma processes at work in the Earth's ionosphere and magnetosphere. Steady-state geospace-like plasmas with conditions variable over wide ranges are created within this unique large-scale experimental device, allowing for the simulation of many relevant near-Earth space phenomena. The Space Chamber is a 1.8-m-diameter by 5-m-long cylindrical vacuum vessel. Two cryogenic pumps maintain a base pressure of approximately 1x10-6 torr within the stainless steel chamber. Field coils are capable of maintaining constant axial magnetic field strengths up to 50 Gauss or pulsed fields up to 1 kGauss. Microwave and hot filament plasma sources have been used to create plasmas with densities ranging from 1x107/cm3 to 1x1012 /cm3. Experiments performed in the SPSC include studies of waves driven by sheared plasma flows and the use of neutral gas discharges to dissipate spacecraft charging. The SPSC is also regularly used to test spacecraft diagnostics. For more information on the facility, publications, and current projects, click on Space Chamber Experiments.