Characterization of a 50kW Inductively Coupled Plasma Torch for Testing of Ablative Thermal Protection Materials Using Non-Air Gases

Cha, Han All
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Thermal protection systems have been a major area of study since the advent of space flight, but recent efforts towards crewed spaceflight missions have placed a new importance on the development of such systems. The 50 kW Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) Torch Facility at The University of Texas at Austin allows for rapid testing of high-temperature aerospace materials essential to the development of thermal protection systems in planetary re-entry applications. This ICP Torch Facility has been previously characterized using air as the test gas. However, planets of interest for future exploration have atmospheric compositions that differ from air, so testing heat shield materials in the presence of other gases is critical. To address this disparity between tested and actual environment, the current work characterizes the torch using various combinations of argon, CO2, and N2 by determining its operational range at various power settings, mass flow rates, and mixtures these gases. At each setting, the cold-wall heat flux is also measured to determine the range the torch is able to provide. Measurements indicate that using pure Ar gives the torch the largest operating range with regard to power setting and gas injection mass flow rate, and mixing argon into other gases drastically increases the stable operating range compared to the pure gas. Pure CO2 does not form a stable plasma discharge, but a mixture of 50% argon and 50% CO2 (by mass) provides stable operation up to 40 slpm total gas flow rate with a maximum heat flux of 98 W/cm2. Smaller percentages of CO2 allow the cold-wall heat flux to be increased to 110 W/cm2. Pure N2 forms a stable plasma discharge, but the operating range is very limited, providing stable operation up to 20 slpm total gas flow rate with a maximum heat flux of 110 W/cm2.