Date of Award


Degree Name

MS in Aerospace Engineering


Aerospace Engineering


Amelia Greig


Colloid thrusters, and electrospray thrusters as a whole, have been around since the 1960s. When they were first developed, the high efficiency and fine thrust control was overshadowed by the high power requirement for such a low thrust that the system provides. This caused the technology to be put on hold for aerospace applications. Now, as small satellites are becoming more prevalent, there has been a resurgence in interest in electrospray thruster technology. The recent advancements in tech- nology allow electrospray thrusters to use significantly less power and occupy less volume than their predecessors. As electrospray technology continues to advance, these thrusters are meeting the demands of small satellite propulsion. As such, in an effort to keep the spacecraft propulsion curriculum current with today’s technology, a colloid thruster is designed, built, tested, and implemented as a laboratory activity at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Electrospray thrusters work by placing a voltage on an ionic liquid and extracting either beads of propellant or ions to generate thrust. By definition, colloid thrusters are a specific class of electrospray thrusters that use solvents, such as glycerol or formamide, to emit droplets or, in special cases, ions to generate thrust. To keep with the University’s “Learn by Doing” pedagogical philosophy, the thruster for this activity is designed to have a tactile and experiential impact on the students. The final design is a scaled up configuration of an existing electrospray design so that the students can easily see each component with the naked eye and can be correlated to a real world thruster that they might see in industry.

As a laboratory experiment, the thruster needs to be able to utilize current equip- ment in the Space Environments and Testing Laboratory. One of the Student Vacuum Chambers (SVC) is utilized as well as two 1 kV power supplies and a 100V power supply. An indirect method of measuring performance metrics needs to be developed as there are no thrust balances sensitive enough in the lab designated for undergrad- uate use. As such, the students will be using the mass of the propellant, the time of operation, and knowledge of the propellant’s properties to estimate the performance of the thruster.

To prove success of the thruster, a performance profile of the thruster is produced using an indirect method of measurement as well as visual observations of the thruster moving propellant byway of the electrospray theory. The tests show thrusts produced between 96-311 μN with an Isp ranging from 1270-1684 seconds. The visual evidence demonstrates propellant being collected as well as the operation of the thruster under the electrospray theory. The visual evidence also sheds light on which emission mode the thruster is operating at as well as a self-correcting failure mode that was occurring. The thruster is implemented as a lab for Cal Poly’s AERO 402 Spacecraft Propulsion Lab in Fall 2018, and it receives positive feedback from the students through an anonymous survey.

While the colloid thruster demonstrates success in meeting performance and pedagog- ical goals, future work should be continued to improve the thruster. Further design and manufacturing work can be undertaken to improve the efficiency and decrease failure due to propellant impingement. Additionally, the procurement of power sup- plies capable of applying higher voltages can provide a greater range of operation which can enable a more dynamic student discovery of electrospray thrusters.