Alpha radiation visualizer

alpha visualizer

[Jared Bouck] certainly has a unique project on his hands this time. He started out wanting to build a somewhat complex system for visualizing Cherenkov radiation. With a little investigation he found some new ideas and decided to build a really compact apparatus. Cherenkov radiation is seen as a blue flash when a particle passes through a medium at a speed greater than the speed of light in the medium. Jared used a webcam CCD as the medium and a small piece of radioactive americium sourced from a smoke detector. The camera housing is sealed from any light leaks and is shielded to block EMI. Watching the camera output you can see flashes of white and blue streaks.  It’s a neat home built demo and I bet it could be used as a random number generator as well. In the real world, scientists use Cherenkov radiation detection to determine fission reaction intensity, measure radioactivity in spent fuel rods, and detect the origin of cosmic rays. Similar techniques are used in neutrino detectors like the massive IceCube project.


  1. craig says:

    An interesting hack. You’d get strange looks though walking down the street with this…

  2. PWNA says:

    wow dude, i didnt know that smoke detectors had nucler bombs in them, damn i shouldnt have eaten that smoke detector that day.
    really nice thou, i dont know what you use em for but hey, its a hack, who cares.

  3. Daniel says:

    Americium will not reach critical mass so no nuclear bombs for hackaday! Nice hack I may try this.

  4. andrew says:

    wow #2’s post is so wrong I won’t even bother. a friend and i are working on a high altitude cosmic radiation experiment and seeing how a simple webcam can detect (at least) alpha particles is sweet — i’ll have to keep this hack in mind :)

  5. TJ says:

    This is really very brilliant. Definitely the definition of a hack in my book.

    I am really interested in this as a RNG, I wonder what it would take to right some software to convert the random appearance of those white dots to data that could seed /dev/random?

  6. its-a-me_dewd says:

    Wow, this it really cool. Is there any way to make actual measurements with this tool, or is it just to visualise it? doesn’t look very spectacular though if you don’t know what’s going on.

  7. Colin mckay says:

    Some notes on Americium and smoke detectors:

  8. infl00p says:

    to TJ
    There is already a video4linux daemon which feeds video data to the entropy of the random kernel dev.

    I think there is one more sw project doing this.

  9. ed3 says:

    This is a very cool hack, if for no other reason than it involves radioactive materials. The USB-card-turned-detector makes for a very clean package, and is dual purpose!!

    TJ: Can’t get much more random than the P3 and later CPUs. They use a thermal resistor as their “chaotic” source.

    Now if that isn’t quite enough go to Wal-Mart and pick up the cheapest digital camera you can find ($15 at my local store), place a piece of black electrical tape over the lens (or point it at something that is constantly changing… Like the trees in the front yard), connect it to your PC, and use the software infl00p mentions… Or other projects like: (previously listed on hackaday)

    The cheaper the camera, the more “noise” they pick up on their image sensor. The el-cheapo cams at Wal-mart are about as low as they get.

    Practically anything could act as a “chaotic source”… A combination of temperature, barometric pressure, and humidty, untuned (or tuned) FM radio or TV, a microphone stuck to the inside of the PC case… Possibilities are endless.

  10. TJ says:

    True, the world is full of entropy in some form or another.

    But I think we would all like to boast that our SSH keys were generated with a nuclear RNG.

  11. jaded says:


    “Cheaply made” cameras are technically no better or worse for the task than any other kind of camera, because their errors are typically either repeatable or cyclical. When you’re looking for ‘randomness’ or ‘entropy’, whether the image is in- or out-of-focus doesn’t change the outcome.

    It does, however, change the price, and for that reason alone you are better off using a cheap camera.

  12. Nardo says:

    for readers out there that want to try this at home:
    If you’re going to play with americium wear gloves, the alpha particles won

  13. trebuchet03 says:

    #12 – Nardo…

    While I completely agree… its really not super important for this project as you never need to remove the shielding around the Americium. But, being cautious does not hurt :P

  14. John says:

    A smashing hack! If you were to place a thin layer of zinc sulfide on the CCD you might make a more sensitive ‘scope. The ZnS will glow (release a photon) when an alpha particle strikes it.

  15. LWATCDR says:

    For a simple random number generator wouldn’t an AM radio tuned to an empty channel work just as well?
    Just take the audio and feed it into a sound card.
    I call it the cheap Tom Clancey random number generator.

  16. andre says:

    hi.. i did something similar to this a while back, in my case the aim was to build a cheap tubeless Geiger counter.

    It did work but the main problem was the chip’s light sensitivity, never did find a way to fix that properly.

    I had to replace the front of the sensor (used a cheap B&Q junk camera as it had a bare chip with no glass) with mica washer to get any decent sort of count though,painted with silver to get the required light blocking.

    hope this helps, btw email me for the “hard to get” parts if you know what i mean :)

  17. Nardo says:

    You could also work at a nuclear plant and have a peek at the irradiated fuel bays.
    I always walk down there to have a look at the spent fuel glow :)

  18. wichmania says:

    it’s a hightech spinthariscope! i got one of these for my wife. cherenkov radiation = fun time in the closet. (needs to be very very dark to be able to see it.)

  19. beezle says:

    er.. no control? I would think you
    should at least baseline any detector
    noise first.

  20. Kevin says:

    One idea for the random number genorator would be mplayer with the md5 video out device… Just a few changed pixels will totally throw off your md5 sums. Just a thought.

  21. Geminus says:

    Gratuitous comment about The Radioactive Boy Scout. Don’t make these en’ masse. Or the EPA will shut you down.

  22. ncrypt says:

    I tried this same experiment with great success. Tore apart a GE webcam, carefully removed the glass from the CCD chip, and placed the americium sample in front of the CCD. I found I could perfectly place the americium sample inbetween the lens housing and CCD face then secure it by screwing in the lens. This cut out all external light and held the sample steady.
    Here is an animated GIF of my results. I also noticed the CCD was picking up dots as well as an intermittent energy bursts (gamma?). I read that CCDs can detect gamma rays and americium has some low energy gamma emmissions. It shows up on the upper area as a pulsating glow. I’ve seen a few times where the whole screen flashes as a possible gamma ray hit the CCD directly. The static red/green/blue smaller dots are my CCD chip having a nuclear meltdown. The CCD pixel capacitors are being slowly fried with every alpha particle detection.

    CCD alpha particle emission detection GIF:

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