Self-heating thermionic hollow cathodes are essential components in modern plasma thrusters. To fully understand their operation, three interdependent physical domains must be considered: plasma discharge physics, thermal response of the cathode structure, and chemical evolution of plasma exposed surfaces. In this work, we develop the first self-consistently coupled plasma–thermal–chemical simulation platform for hollow cathode operation using lanthanum hexaboride (LaB6) and Xe and study its performance against our experimentally determined temperature measurements. Results show that the customary assumptions of single-step resonant neutralization and full energy accommodation in ion-surface collisions fail to reproduce our empirical observations. We propose a two-step neutralization mechanism that consists of resonant neutralization to the first excited state of xenon followed by Auger de-excitation to the ground state, along with system specific accommodation factors. In this way, the agreement between the results of the simulations and experiments was achieved. These fundamental processes could govern neutralization in other cathode technologies where low work function emitters are employed and should therefore be accounted for in physical models. In addition, the new simulation platform allows us to better estimate the equilibrium work function of LaB6 hollow cathode emitters. In the cathode studied here, we found that the effective work function is 2.25 eV, which is significantly lower than previous estimates, and leads to better than expected cathode material performance with important implications for space missions.

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