How might an ion engine work? — DAA, San Diego, CA
One possible ion engine uses mercury as a propellant. The mercury starts as a liquid in a small tank, but its atoms slowly evaporate to form a low-density gas. An electric discharge through this gas, such as occurs inside a fluorescent lamp, knocks electrons off some of the mercury atoms. When a mercury atom loses an electron, it becomes a positively charged mercury ion and can be accelerated from the discharge by electric fields. In the ion propulsion engine, an electric field extracts and accelerates the mercury ions toward a hole in the side of a spaceship. The mercury ions are ejected into space at enormous speeds. As they accelerate, the mercury ions exert reaction forces on the engine and these forces are what propel the spaceship forward. Overall, the mercury ions accelerate in one direction while the spaceship accelerates in the other direction. To keep the spaceship electrically neutral, the engine also ejects electrons into space. However, mercury ions provide most of the engine’s thrust.