Sheaths and Double Layers with Instabilities

  • R. Stenzel UCLA
  • J. Grünwald
  • C. Ionita
  • R. Schrittwieser
  • M. Urrutia


The properties of sheaths and associated potential structures and instabilities cover a broad field which even a review cannot cover everything. Thus, the focus will be on about a dozen examples, describe their observations and focus on the basic physical explanations for the effects, while further details are found in the references. Due to familiarity the review focuses mainly on the authors work but compared and referenced related work. The topics start with a high frequency oscillations near the electron plasma frequency. Low frequency instabilities also occur at the ion plasma frequency.
The injection of ions into an electron-rich sheath widens the sheath and forms a double layer. Likewise, the injection of electrons into an ion rich sheath widens and establishes a double layer which occurs in free plasma injection into vacuum. The sheath widens and forms a double layer by ionization in an electron rich sheath. When particle fluxes in "fireballs" gets out of balance the double layer performs relaxation instabilities which has been studied extensively. Fireballs inside spherical electrodes create a new instability due to the transit time of trapped electrons. On cylindrical and spherical electrodes the electron rich sheath rotates in magnetized plasmas. Electrons rotate due to $\mathbf E \times \mathbf B_0$ which excites electron drift waves with azimuthal eigenmodes. Conversely a permanent magnetic dipole has been used as a negative electrode. The impact of energetic ions produces secondary electron emission, forming a ring of plasma around the magnetic equator. Such "magnetrons" are subject to various instabilities. Finally, the current to a positively biased electrode in a uniformly magnetized plasma is unstable to relaxation oscillations, which shows an example of global effects. The sheath at the electrode raises the potential in the flux tube of the electrode thereby creating a radial sheath which moves unmagnetized ions radially. The ion motion creates a density perturbation which affects the electrode current. If the electrode draws large currents the current disruptions create large inductive voltages on the electrode, which again produce double layers. This phenomenon has been seen in reconnection currents. Many examples of sheath properties will be explained. Although the focus is on the physics some examples of applications will be suggested such as neutral gas heating and accelerating, sputtering of plasma magnetrons and rf oscillators.